Remembering the fallen

For Memorial Day this year, I wrote a series of articles about local servicemen and women who were killed during World War II.  At it’s center was a massive database, with information on each of the 1,300 sailors and soldiers who’d given their lives.  The response was overwhelming, and I recounted my experience in a column that ran a few weeks later.

There were so many great stories to tell, of heartbreak and heroism, and my only regret was that I couldn’t tell more of them.  Here are a handful…

‘Life’ magazine recorded soldier’s death

By the spring of 1945, there was a growing sense that the end of the war in Europe was near. Each day brought headlines of new Allied victories and updates of progress toward Berlin.

For families of local servicemen, that news brought relief and anticipation that their loved ones would come home safely. In late April and early May 1945, newspaper headlines announced the death of Adolf Hitler and showed pictures of the Russians flying their flag over Berlin. On the morning of May 6, the Democrat and Chronicle’s headline trumpeted the end in bold type: “War Halts For Millions of Yanks.”

So when the telegram arrived that day announcing that her son Raymond had been killed, Florence Bowman refused to believe it. How could he be dead if the war was over?

Kathleen Bowman, Raymond’s sister-in-law, says that when there was no follow-up visit by an Army representative — as was the practice — the family hoped that the news of his death had been a mistake.

Looking for some answers, Kathleen’s husband, Martin, wrote a letter to Ray’s commanding officer asking for some explanation. The reply advised the family to look at the May 14 issue of Life magazine.

Kathleen Bowman with issue of Life Magazine which featured her brother-in-law, Ray Bowman. Photo by Annette Lein.

There, in the middle of a 40-page special section called “The War Ends in Europe,” was a two-page photo essay by renowned photojournalist Robert Capa. It was called “Americans Still Died.”

The first photo shows Bowman and a fellow soldier setting up their machine gun on the balcony of a house in the city of Leipzig, about 100 miles southwest of Berlin. Their vantage point overlooked a key bridge, and the soldiers took turns firing the gun to provide cover for other American troops who were moving into the area.

Moments later, as Bowman paused to reload, a bullet from a German sniper pierced his forehead. He crumpled to the floor, dead. His buddy, Lehman Riggs, tried to help but found it was too late. He scrambled over Bowman’s body to man the machine gun while other members of the platoon filled the street below, searching for the enemy sniper who had fired the fatal bullet.

Capa’s pictures recorded the aftermath in graphic detail. Although Capa did not identify the soldiers by name, the family recognized Raymond right away. “He had a pin on his lapel with his initials that he had made in high school. There was no doubt it was him,” Kathleen said.

Seeing the pictures was difficult, but brought some closure. “To have it verified, it made you feel a little better knowing what had happened,” Kathleen said.

The photos got national notoriety, with many sources — including Capa — erroneously identifying Bowman as the “last man killed” during the war in Europe.

Capa, who was the only photographer to capture the Allied landing at Omaha Beach, called the Bowman image the most poignant photograph of his career. He knew that by the time his photos reached New York for publication the war would be over, and he wondered whether anybody would care about his images.

“So it made no sense whatsoever,” Capa recalled in a 1947 interview. “But he (Bowman) looked so clean cut, like it was the first day of the war and he was very earnest. So I said ‘All right, this will be my last picture of the war.’ And I put my camera up and took a portrait shot of him, and while I shot my portrait of him he was killed by a sniper. It was a very clean and somehow a very beautiful death.”

Brothers killed in infamous attack

Local brothers James, John, and Charles Kramb were all killed during the early days of the war.

 

The three Kramb brothers are memorialized by a set of stained glass windows at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Rochester. Theirs was not an easy life. The oldest, John, was just 13 years old when his mother died in 1930.

He and his younger brothers, Charles Jr. and James, bounced around for several years, living with an uncle in the 19th Ward and later relatives in California. They reunited with their father, Charles Sr., after he remarried, moving into a house on Fairholm Drive in Gates. It was the height of the Depression, and times were tough.

“They were like displaced persons,” recalled cousin Donald Kramb in a 1991 Democrat and Chronicle interview, weeks before he himself passed away.

One by one, the brothers escaped their circumstances by joining the Navy. James enlisted in November 1938, when he was just 16. John enlisted a few months later, and Charles Jr., the middle brother, soon followed.

Each was assigned to a different ship in the Pacific fleet, but at the end of September 1941 James and John made arrangements to serve together aboard the USS Arizona, based at Pearl Harbor. They were quartered together, next to the ammunition magazine at the front of the ship.

They were likely still asleep on the morning of Dec. 7, when a Japanese bomb penetrated the ship’s deck and struck that magazine, creating a massive explosion that ripped holes in the ship’s sides and caused the conning tower to collapse.

Within seconds, all five of the Arizona’s decks were burning, and those who weren’t killed by the force of the blast were trapped by the smoke and flames that followed. The Arizona sunk nine minutes after the attack on Pearl Harbor began. More than 1,100 sailors on board were killed.

News of the Arizona’s sinking wasn’t reported in the American press for weeks, and the elder Kramb wasn’t notified that James, 21, and John, 24, were dead until Jan. 29, 1942.

It’s likely that Charles Jr., 22, the middle brother, never heard the news. He was assigned to a submarine tender in the Philippines and was part of the ill-fated attempt to defend the Bataan peninsula.

On Feb. 8, 1942, he was serving as a gunner on the USS Canopus, firing at dive bombers that were trying to sink it. He was killed in the attack, just 10 days after his father had learned of his brothers’ fate. Charles Kramb Jr. was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism.”

A flag with three gold stars hung in the window of the Kramb home in Gates. Three sons. All dead.

“He never got over it,” Donald Kramb said of Charles Kramb Sr. “But I don’t think any of us ever did.”

Donald’s son Grant, who lives in Greece, says that his father worked hard to make sure the Kramb brothers’ story was told. “My father loved them like brothers. He was crushed when they died.”

Many futures lost to the violence of war

Mary Carey was ten years old when her brother James Murray was killed.  Photo by Annette Lein

“I’ve really never gotten over it,” Mary Carey says.

Her older brother, James Murray, was just 18 years old when he was killed March 3, 1945, at Iwo Jima. “He’s never out of my mind. I think about him every day,” she said.

More than 60 years after her brother died, Carey still regularly visits his grave at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Murray was originally buried overseas, but the family had his body returned to Rochester. “I’m glad they brought him home,” Carey said. “I have a place to go and visit him and honor him.”

Carey recalls her brother coming home after basic training to spend the holidays with the family. She was just 11 years old, “the caboose of the family,” she said. “We were quite close. My brother always let me hang out with him and his friends.” One of her prized memories is a photo of her and James taken just before he left for the Pacific.

Mary Carey and her brother James Murray.

She recalls hearing the news of her brother’s death, just a few months later. She was at a friend’s house across the street from her family’s Culver Road home. The friend’s mother told young Mary she needed to go home right away. “I didn’t want to,” Carey said. “I was having fun playing. But she insisted. When I got home, I saw my father crying. My mother was a mess. I didn’t understand what was happening. He just never came back.”

Carey recalls that her brother was one of a handful of boys from the Aquinas Institute class of 1944 who left school early to enlist. “He got restless and wanted to go into the service, too,” Carey said.

The 1946 Aquinas yearbook listed the names of alumni who had been killed in World War II, a list that includes 89 names. The yearbook for Edison listed 76 names of classmates killed in action. West High (now known as Wilson) listed 40 students, Brighton and Irondequoit each had nine names.

Carey says she can’t stop thinking about what might have been, about the life her brother James would have made if he had lived beyond the age of 18. “He would have been married and had a nice family. I think about all of the happy times we all would have had together over the last 60 years.”

Mario Pomponio’s yearbook picture.

That sentiment is familiar to Bruno Pomponio, whose brother Mario was killed in France in January 1945. Bruno, who now lives in Maryland, served in the Navy for 33 years and retired in July 1985 as a rear admiral.

At Fairport High School, Mario Pomponio was valedictorian, class president, general manager of the school paper, and a member of the basketball team. In his junior year he was awarded the Harvard Prize as the outstanding student in his class. His grade average for four years of school work was 95.

“My brother had so much going for him,” Pomponio said. “He would have been a leader in his community. He deserved more.”

Mario Pomponio was drafted right after graduation and joined the Army’s 7th Infantry in France in January 1945. The Germans had just launched a confrontation that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

He had only been with the unit for a few days when they found themselves under heavy attack. Some of his fellow soldiers didn’t know who he was, but reported that he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to help rescue fallen comrades.

The citation for his Distinguished Service Cross says: “Private Pomponio’s intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

Steven Momano, a retired U.S. Navy captain from Rochester, is leading an effort to have Mario Pomponio awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States.

“When they talk about the ‘Greatest Generation,’ this is who they were talking about,” Momano said. “People who served with him say they never saw anyone so brave.”

Momano is also working on a book about Rochester-area servicemen from World War II, hoping to preserve the memories of those who served and gave their lives.

“The worst thing in the world is to be forgotten, and I don’t want that to happen to them,” Momano said.

‘My first thought was for his family’

When Leo Hetzler enlisted in the Army in 1944, he knew he might not make it home safely. But he had a plan.

“I told myself that I’d put my service in, fight the war, and if I survived, I’d become a priest,” he said. He joined the Basilian Fathers when the war ended, was ordained in 1955 and has taught English literature at St. John Fisher College since 1959.

Hetzler was assigned to the 86th Infantry Division, which fought its way through France and into Germany. After the German surrender, the 86th was sent to the Philippines. His division was making preparations for invading Japan. “They didn’t say ‘you’re going to suffer heavy casualties,’” Hetzler said. “They said ‘we expect all of you to be killed,’ just outright like that.”

Death was a constant presence. “We knew why we were given dog tags to wear … for body identification.” Hetzler recalled. “Even the heedless optimism of 19-year-olds could not quiet the jangle of those tags.”

For young men like Leo Hetzler, the news of neighbors and classmates being killed or wounded didn’t discourage him from signing up. He was 17 when he joined the Army. “At that age, you just say ‘it won’t happen to me,’” he said.

It didn’t happen to Hetzler, but many of the friends he served with weren’t as fortunate. Those experiences helped convince Hetzler that the priesthood was the right path for him.

“When one of my buddies would be killed, sometimes right next to me, my first thought was for his family,” he recalled. “It’s a strange thing. Because you’d think that your thought would be you’re going to miss your buddy, your thought would be that he’s dead. What entered my mind would be the family getting the telegram. That would always immediately enter my mind. In almost all cases I had never met the family, but that soldier had talked about them. And I imagined their grief, because the kid was such a wonderful guy.”

Hetzler spoke at a memorial service last summer in Washington, D.C., and recalled the young men who did not make it home.

“We can never forget the friends who died by our side, struck down in the early springtime of their lives, comrades who had so much promise, who would have brought so much happiness and love to so many people — youths who were far better than we.”