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VE Day, locals lost in WWII remembered 75 years later

FILE - In this May 8, 1945 file photo Pfc. Clarence K. Ayers of Evansville, Ind., reads the news of VE Day as newly arrived German prisoners stand on a New York City pier. (AP Photo/John Rooney, File)

Originally projected to have only killed less than 300 local young men, later investigations show 420 residents paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War II, according to a local historian. They paid the ultimate price to ensure the freedoms we enjoy now, 75 years later.

The May 7, 1945, edition of the Williamsport Sun announced triumphantly, “Nazis surrender unconditionally to western Allies and Russia to end the worst war in World History.”

A rousing celebration was planned in Williamsport, the newspaper continued, “City ready for V-E Day… Long-awaited surrender of German troops finds Williamsport calm. Jubilant demonstrations deferred pending official announcement from President Truman expected sometime Tuesday.”

Later, the Williamsport Sun printed a special edition listing all those who perished under a headline which read “Lycoming County has shared victory cost.”

“The numbers that they have on that newspaper article are very underestimated,” said W. Michael McMunn, Lycoming County Veterans Affairs officer. “These were the numbers at the time the article was written, during the surrender.”

At a later memorial service on May 30, 1947, the number was raised to 341 casualties as counted by the Mountain Beach Veteran’s Association in South Williamsport, which printed the pictures and biographies of those soldiers in a pamphlet that was handed out.

“I think that it just had to do with the way records were kept,” said McMunn. People who were born and raised in Lycoming County, but drafted from Philadelphia, for instance, were counted as being from there.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the full number was realized, he said.

“The Lycoming County Veterans council undertook a research project to identify all the Lycoming County residents who were killed during the war,” for the memorial along Wahoo Drive, said McMunn.

Prior research “served as a starting point but, as the fellas doing the research got more and more into it, they came up with 420 casualties,” he said.

Although many soldiers were distributed among the several fronts of the war, the local National Guard was eventually called upon to serve.

“All these different communities like Williamsport and Wellsboro, they all had National Guard units and when the 28th Pennsylvania National Guard was called up, those residents probably did serve together for a period of time,” he said. “Almost everybody got called up, it was a massive, massive drive.”

Nicknamed “the Keystone Division,” they then went to England in 1943, and although they did not participate in D-day, they fought across France the next month and eventually found their battalion in the Battle of the Bulge, which Winston Churchill, then-prime minister of the United Kingdom, called, “the greatest American battle of the war.”

The battalion’s strife is recounted in the book “Follow Me and Die: The Destruction of an American Division in World War II,” by Cecil B. Currey.

“They took quite a beating,” said McMunn.

Led by overly optimistic commanders, who were convinced that the German Army had already had its last great offensive in the previous summer, the battalion was poorly supported and supplied as they conducted risky maneuvers in the Ardennes region of Belgium.

“They really took the brunt of it when the Germans attacked and pushed them back,” said McMunn,

Allied troops, along with some Lycoming County soldiers, did claim victory on Jan. 25, 1945, however, and the war would end less than five months later.

By May 7, the war machine of Williamsport was finally going to be put to rest as the Lycoming Division, Aviation Corporation announced that 150 workers would be released and the plant would return to 40-hour weeks.

“Following receipt of an official notification of a readjustment of war supply requirements from Wright Field, Headquarters of the Air Technical Service Command, an announcement was made today of revised schedule for production of aircraft engines,” said the formal statement.

The Williamsport Sun recounted several troops “whose exploits have brought fame to Williamsport,” including:

• Pearl Harbor Joe, or 1st Lt. Joseph L. Lockard, who detected the approach of Japanese planes to Pearl Harbor and “sounded an unheeded warning.” He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and after a promotion, served in the Aleutian islands.

• Lt. Col. Raymond D. Millener, who was killed Dec. 7, 1944, displayed “unusual gallantry and leadership, by jumping with the paratroopers of the famous 101st Airborne Division on D-Day behind enemy lines in Normandy,” and then consolidated his command “to work havoc upon the Germans.” He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross before his death.

• Capt. Guy H. Spotts, navigator of the “Rangoon Rambler,” who “carried out 41 bombing missions with 306 combat flying hours in India. After seven hours of being under fire on one mission, he successfully landed his flaming plane.” He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven other awards.

• Capt. Ned Elder, a tank company commander from South Williamsport, who “went ashore at Normandy with the first wave on D-Day.” He died while establishing the first beach exit.

Other stories of heroism from Lycoming County abounded as Williamsport celebrated a solemn victory with churches being opened for “prayers of thanksgiving and with supplication for those still fighting the Pacific war,” said an article on the matter.

The newspaper urged readers to “Remember sneak attack on Pear Harbor that brought war into many Williamsport homes,” said one headline.

Business took out ads, not to advertize themselves, but to send messages to readers.

“We thank thee our Heavenly Father; for the victory thou hast brought our cause. We thank thee that thou in thy wisdom hast permitted right and freedom to prevail,” said one message from Stroeman Brothers Bakery, illustrating the pious thoughts in the community.

Meanwhile, another by Wolf Furniture cast it’s thoughts to the far-east while hoping for a brighter future.

“The war with Germany has ended. This American soldier has upheld his right to live the democratic way of life. He has maintained the liberty to worship as he chooses, to voice his opinion as he sees fit. He has made more secure his right to happiness in his own American home,” the ad said. “These are the tings for which he has fought.. these are the things he has brought nearer to reality. Yes, these and the assurance that, when Japan is defeated, it won’t happen again. His mind has been seared with horror, hate, brutality. He wants us to see to it that his children do not have to go through the same terrifying experiences.”

“God willing, we will not let him down,” it added.

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