Tim Stevens

A veteran’s Memorial Day story of survival and death

Washington Senators Bobby Estalella, Alex Carrasquel, and Elmer Gedeon at Fenway Park in 1939.
Washington Senators Bobby Estalella, Alex Carrasquel, and Elmer Gedeon at Fenway Park in 1939. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection

On the eve of Memorial Day, I found old pictures on the Internet of Elmer Gedeon wearing different uniforms.

In one photo, a dark belt contrasts with baggy pants. His shirt is buttoned to the top. His cap, with a distinctive “W,” is pointed straight ahead as he stands in the dugout of the Washington Senators in 1939.

His shirt is buttoned to the top in the other picture, too. He is wearing a tie, neatly tucked into the shirt. The trousers are crisp. His cap is still straight ahead, but is adorned with a U.S. Army captain’s insignia.

His right arm rests on a B-26B Marauder bomber.

Gedeon played baseball and served in the military. He was one of two major league baseball players who were killed during War World II. He became a hero in Raleigh.

In his book, “Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice,” Gary Beddingfield fills in Gedeon’s biography. Gedeon had grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, and was a football, basketball, baseball and track star at East High. He set the state high school record in the 120-yard high hurdles.

Gedeon was 6-foot-4 and weighed 198 pounds when he enrolled at the University of Michigan. He played football and baseball and ran track. He tied the American record in the 70-yard hurdles and he was mentioned as a potential Olympic contender in the 1940 Games.

But he chose to play baseball. Gedeon signed with the Senators in 1939 and joined the big league team late in the season. He had three hits in his first start, a 10-9 win over the Cleveland Indians. He played in five games, but didn’t have another hit.

He spent much of the 1940 season playing with the Charlotte minor league team and joined the Army in March of 1941.

On Aug. 9, 1942, Gedeon was on a training flight from the Raleigh Airport, which was south of town near where a Golden Corral restaurant now sits.

He was the navigator on a B-25 Mitchell medium-size bomber. The plane clipped pine trees about 75 feet from the end of the runway on takeoff and crashed into a nearby swamp around 9:30 a.m.

Herbert O’Keef, later the editor of the Raleigh Times, wrote that the crash was similar to one near Smithfield the year before in which former News & Observer sports editor Sam R. McDonald was among the seven fatalities.

O’Keef reported Gedeon’s plane “ripped through the large trees of the swamp for about 100 yards, clearing a space that long and about 75 feet wide. Trees larger in girth than a grown man were broken off.”

The plane caught fire and a growing column of black smoke guided nearby golfers from the Raleigh Golf Association to the wreckage. Bill Horton, Bob Fitzhugh, Clinton Teague and H.G. Walker found one man with a broken leg. Another had his foot almost severed. All the airmen were burned.

Gedeon had broken ribs, but returned to the flames of the burning plane to rescue Cpl. John Rarrat, who had broken his legs and his back. The 50-caliber machine gun ammunition began going off.

Ambulances couldn’t get close to the crash site because of the terrain. The golfers, and others, had no stretchers, but carried the burned survivors to ambulances.

Gedeon had burns to his back, face, hands and legs. He needed skin grafts. He spent 12 weeks in the hospital.

“The ribs gave me the most trouble,” Gedeon told the Ann Arbor News. “I had to rest on my stomach because of the burns, so the ribs couldn’t be taped.”

Rarrat died from his wounds at Rex Hospital. He was one of two fatalities that day.

Gedeon later was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his actions in trying to save his comrade.

Gedeon lost 45 pounds in the hospital, but kept his sense of humor.

“I had my accident. It’s going to be good flying from now on,” he told his cousin. Gedeon said he had used up all of his bad luck. He planned to return to baseball.

“It’s a matter of time,” he told the Associated Press in February 1943. “If the war ends before I'm passed my playing age, I'll return to the game. If' I'm too old, I'll do something else."

He never had that chance.

He piloted a Marauder on a mission to bomb a German V-1 site in France in April 1944. The plane had dropped its bombs when it was hit beneath the cockpit by antiaircraft fire.

Co-pilot James Taffe told Beddingfield that Gedeon slumped at the controls and the cockpit filled with flames. Taffe parachuted and before he was captured he saw the plane crash. Gedeon, 27, and five other crewmen perished.

His parents didn’t know until after the war that their son’s remains were buried in St. Pol, France. He was listed officially as missing in action. His body was later returned to the United States and rests at Arlington National Cemetery.

On May 30, 1946, the Charlotte Hornets held a memorial service before a game to remember Gedeon and Forrest “Lefty” Brewer, both killed in World War II.

More than 500 men who had played in the Major Leagues served in the United States military during World War II. Gedeon and Philadelphia Athletic Harry Mink O’Neill, who was killed at Iwo Jima, were the only ones who died while in service.

Gedeon was inducted into the University of Michigan Hall of Fame in 1983.

He was among more than 400,000 U.S. military personnel killed in World War II.

He was a hero.

Stevens: 919-829-8910