On Memorial Day, remembering MLB’s fallen WWII Heroes

Published 6:14 pm Friday, May 24, 2019

By Joe Guzzardi

During World War II, of the 500-plus MLB players who served, only two young Americans were killed.

Captain Elmer Gedeon, with the USAAF’s 86th Bomb Squadron, was shot down on April 20, 1944, over Saint-Pol, France. U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill lost his life on March 6, 1945, after being hit by Japanese sniper fire on Iwo Jima. O’Neill was one of 92 4th Marine Division officers that died on Iwo Jima. The invaluable website Baseballinwartime.com has more than 500 stories about baseball players from all levels who participated in the nation’s great wars.

Gedeon and O’Neill were outstanding young men, their parents’ pride and joy, admired in their communities and beloved by all. Graduates of the University of Michigan and Gettysburg College, respectively, Gedeon and O’Neill had wonderful futures — although perhaps not in the major leagues. Their experiences in the bigs were limited. In 1939, Gedeon played outfield during five games for the Washington Senators, and came to bat five times with one hit. O’Neill, a catcher, appeared in one game for the 1939 Philadelphia Athletics, but had no plate appearances.

During their college years, Gedeon and O’Neill were superstar athletes who dominated in multiple sports. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Gedeon excelled at baseball and track for the Wolverines. But ultimately, Gedeon cast his lot with baseball, and signed a contract with the Senators.

Gedeon’s minor league performances impressed Senators’ manager Bucky Harris, but he received his military summons in January 1941. Navigating a B-52 in 1942 on a North Carolina training flight, Gedeon’s plane crashed and burst into flames, killing two. Gedeon freed himself from the wreckage, and badly injured he returned to save his fellow pilots still trapped inside. While on his last leave, Gedeon promised his cousin that he would “be back in baseball” when the war ended. But on Gedeon’s 13th B-26 European bombing mission, five days after his 27th birthday, anti-aircraft fire hit his plane, killing him and five others.

At Gettysburg, O’Neill starred on the gridiron, the hardcourt and the baseball diamond. Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s signed O’Neill, a 6-foot-3 catcher, and he spent the 1939 season as the team’s third string-catcher. During the ninth inning of a July 23, 16-3 drubbing at the Detroit Tigers’ hands, Mack inserted O’Neill into the lineup as a defensive replacement, but he never got a turn at bat. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, O’Neill’s life changed forever. O’Neill enlisted in the Marines, and graduated from Quantico as a second lieutenant. His next stop was Camp Pendleton, California, and, now a first lieutenant in the Fourth Marine Division, he was shipped out to the Pacific Theater on Jan. 13, 1944. After landing on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, and moving slowly inward, the Marines were under intense, nonstop fire. By day’s end, March 6, 28-year-old O’Neill was dead.

In her letter, O’Neill’s mother Susanna wrote that upon learning of Harry’s heroic death the sadness in her heart grew deeper as each day passed: “Harry was always so full of life, that it seems hard to think that he’s gone.” O’Neill was buried at the Iwo Jima cemetery where 7,000 Marines were also laid to rest. In July 1947, O’Neill’s remains were returned to the United States and buried at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.

For their valor and selfless dedication to their fellow soldiers, Gedeon was awarded the Soldier’s Medal and the Purple Heart; O’Neill, the Purple Heart. On Memorial Day, as America honors Gedeon, O’Neill and other fallen heroes, remember these words from Ecclesiasticus 44:14: “Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.”

JOE GUZZARDI is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.