Editor’s note: I originally wrote this story as a Memorial Day piece for The Washington Times in 2014.
As flames filled his B-26 Marauder over northern France, 1st Lt. James Taaffe scrambled through the bailout checklist.The bomber had taken a direct hit from German flak under the pilot’s compartment, and flames enveloped the aircraft from that point back, rendering the bomb bay doors useless as an escape route.
Capt. Elmer Gedeon fought to keep the plane aloft. It had just dropped its payload on a German V-1 rocket site from about 12,000 feet but had not cleared the target area — and its accompanying anti-aircraft defenses — by the moment of impact. It was around 7:30 p.m. on April 20, 1944.
Taaffe reached to open the escape hatches above the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats. Below, he could see his bombardier, Pvt. Charles Atkinson, clawing toward the pilot’s compartment from his station in the nose of the plane. The navigator-bombardier, 2nd Lt. Jack Marsh, was close behind. Taaffe couldn’t see the other three members of the crew, whose stations were to the rear of the plane: Staff Sgt. Joseph Kobret, the tail gunner; Sgt. John Felker, the engineer and top turret gunner; and Sgt. Ira Thomas, the radio operator and waist gunner.
Watching from a neighboring plane, 2nd Lt. Herschel Lockett estimated that Gedeon’s Marauder managed to hold course for only five seconds or so after taking the hit before peeling toward the ground. It was time for the crew to escape.
Glancing to his left, Taaffe saw Gedeon still conscious and at the controls. The hatch above his head open, Taaffe jumped clear of the plane and blacked out. He came to several seconds later, suspended by parachute, floating through the air.
“I recovered consciousness about 7,000 feet later and before I landed, saw the plane spin by me and go in,” Taaffe said in an Army Air Forces report completed after the war. “Was engaged with small arms fire and wounds until captured and saw no other chutes.”
Back at home base
Sept. 19, 1939, was a beautiful day in the nation’s capital. Skies were clear and temperatures hovered in the mid-70s as the Washington Senators prepared to play the Cleveland Indians at Griffith Stadium.
As was customary, the Senators’ pennant hopes were long gone by that point, as they entered the game with a 62-81 record, sitting 37 games back of the first-place New York Yankees. It was as good a time as any for manager Bucky Harris to try out a rookie, so he penciled in Elmer Gedeon’s name on the lineup card. Batting sixth, playing center field.
Gedeon, 22, had made his major league debut the day before against the Detroit Tigers, coming in as a late-game replacement for Johnny Welaj in right field and striking out in his only trip to the plate. Now, the Cleveland native fresh out of the University of Michigan would get his first big-league start against his hometown team.
He took full advantage, producing three singles and a walk in his five trips to the plate as a crowd estimated at 500 bore witness.
Impressed by Gedeon’s performance in a 10-9 for the team better known as the Nats, Harris vowed to continue playing the “long-legged rookie” in center field, as the Washington Evening Star put it. That promise held up for all of three games, during which Gedeon went 0-for-10 with a walk in his 11 trips to the plate. It was back to the
bench for the lanky kid from Cleveland.
Gedeon would never play in another major league game, but those five times he appeared in the box scores in September 1939 would make him a compelling footnote in the global conflict that had begun some three weeks earlier with Germany’s invasion of Poland.
By the time World War II came to an end nearly six years later, Gedeon was one of only two men who had played in the majors to be killed in action. The other, Harry O’Neill, was killed at Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945; he had seen action in one game for the Philadelphia A’s, on July 23, 1939, and never even got a chance to bat.
Gedeon was a three-sport letterman at Michigan, playing first base for the baseball team and serving as an end on the football team, but he was at his best on the track.
He twice won conference championships in a pair of hurdling disciplines and in 1938 placed third in the 120-yard hurdles at the NCAA championships in Minneapolis. (The headliner at that NCAA meet was Louis Zamperini of USC, who set a record in winning the mile. He was given up for dead after a plane crash in the Pacific, but he managed to survive as a Japanese prisoner of war, a saga chronicled in the Laura Hillenbrand book “Unbroken.”)
But Gedeon had baseball in his bloodlines. His father’s cousin Joe Gedeon played in the big leagues with the Senators, Yankees and St. Louis Browns a generation earlier. His career came to an unseemly end after he found himself on the periphery of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal by placing bets on the Reds to beat Chicago in the World Series based on inside information that the fix was in.
Elmer Gedeon came to the Senators’ attention during a baseball series against Maryland in College Park in the spring of 1939. Nats owner Clark Griffith had a nephew named Sherrod Robertson playing for Maryland, Shirley Povich recounted in The Washington Post, and Gedeon’s performance caught the boss’s eye. An offer letter and a signing bonus followed, and just like that Gedeon had himself a baseball career. Such as it was.
He played in 67 games that summer for the Class D Orlando Senators before getting his shot with the big club toward the end of the season. Despite his benching by Harris after that hitless run, the organization maintained high hopes for Gedeon entering 1940. Asked by the Post during spring training about his willingness to move from first base to the outfield, Gedeon responded, “Why not? There’s only one first base job on a team. There are three outfield jobs.”
Still, Gedeon couldn’t crack the regular rotation in Washington. He was sent back to the farm, this time with Class B Charlotte, where he hit .271 with 11 home runs in 131 games. Gedeon returned to Michigan that fall, serving as an assistant football coach, but he was called to military service in January 1941, the Sporting News noted in a one-paragraph item.
Gedeon first trained with the cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, before transferring to the Air Corps and completing pilot training in May 1942.
That August, he was the navigator on a B-25 that crashed during a training mission in Raleigh, North Carolina. Gedeon suffered broken ribs in the crash but went back into the burning wreckage to pull out a crewmate, Cpl. John R. Barrat, who had a broken back and leg from the crash.
Gedeon spent 12 weeks in a hospital recovering from his burns and fractures. But his courage earned him the Soldier’s Medal, which was presented to him by Maj. Gen. St. Clair Streett of the 3rd Air Force in a February 1943 ceremony at MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida.
“I had my accident,” Gedeon later told his cousin Bob, as recounted by preeminent World War II baseball historian Gary Bedingfield. “It’s going to be good flying from now on.”
As something of a celebrity in the group thanks to his baseball and track exploits, Gedeon was commonly chronicled by the media. Typical of those pulled into a conflict whose scale could hardly be imagined by an individual soldier, sailor or airman, his attitude was matter-of-fact.
“If the war ends before I’m past the playing age, I’ll return to the game,” Gedeon told The Associated Press in early 1943. “If I’m too old, I’ll do something else.”
From air to ground
James Taaffe didn’t know Elmer Gedeon well. Both pilots were assigned to the 394th Bombardment Group, with Gedeon serving as operations officer for the 586th Bombardment Squadron.
Though Taaffe told Bedingfield in an interview that Gedeon “had a delightful sense of humor and was a super gentleman,” Taaffe’s daughter Tracey Manning said in a 2014 interview that the two men “weren’t buddies. They didn’t socialize.”
They had arrived at Boreham airfield in Essex, England, about 30 miles northeast of London, with the 394th in mid-March 1944. The group’s bombing raids focused mostly on German targets in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
On April 19, Gedeon piloted one of 38 B-26s from the 394th on a larger bombing mission that hit rail yards in Malines, Belgium, with “excellent to good” results, according to the group’s assessment.
The next day, Manning said, Taaffe had already taken his crew on a mission of its own when his plane was pressed into service for an early-evening sortie to the V-1 rocket sites near the French hamlets of Bonnieres and Beuvoir. Gedeon was to fly the plane with Taaffe’s regular crew, but Taaffe insisted on going along in the co-pilot’s seat.
“That’s why he flew [with them], because his crew was drafted to fly with Elmer,” Manning said. “Dad always said, ‘There’s no way I’m sending them without me.'”
After he watched his Marauder go down in flames in the French countryside that evening, Taaffe would be the lone survivor. He was picked up immediately upon landing by Frenchmen loyal to the Nazis and turned over to the Germans, who told him while he received treatment at a medical station that all of his crewmates had died.
Taaffe was sent to Stalag Luft III, the prisoner of war camp that a month earlier had been the site of “The Great Escape,” immortalized in the 1963 movie starring Steve McQueen. In the spring of 1945, as the Red Army closed in on Germany from the east, Taaffe and other prisoners were shuttled from camp to camp ahead of them, ending up at Stalag XIII-D in Nuremberg, which was liberated by U.S. troops in April 1945.
A 50-year silence
Gedeon and the rest of his crew were listed officially as missing in action since the crash more than a year earlier, but the likely reality had set in — the Sporting News ran an obituary for Gedeon in its Dec. 28, 1944, issue.
In May 1945, Gedeon’s father, Andrew, received a letter in Cleveland that said his son’s grave had been discovered in the English army cemetery in St. Pol, France. Four years later, as part of a massive effort to bring back the war dead from their resting places in overseas cemeteries, Gedeon came home.
On June 23, 1949, Gedeon was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery. He now rests in Section 34, Site 3047.
It took 2 1/2 years before the rest of the B-26’s crew followed him. On Jan. 9, 1952, the remains of Charles Atkinson, John Falker, Joseph Kobret, Jack March and Ira Thomas were placed under a headstone along with the remains of 13 other airmen at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis.
Taaffe was left to live on for the rest of them. A private pilot before joining the service, he never flew a plane again after that fateful evening. He would go on to spend decades at the Veterans Administration, eventually taking oversight of the G.I. Bill program during the Vietnam era, before retiring in 1975.
He and his wife, Margaret, raised seven children, most of whom still live in the Washington area, but Taaffe never talked about what happened during the war until the mid-1990s as the 50th anniversary approached. When his story finally was shared with his family, there was a new holiday on the Taaffe calendar, and it remains a day of celebration and remembrance.
“Even though my parents aren’t with us anymore,” Manning said, “my brothers and sisters and I all greet each other — these days it’s by email — on the 20th of April with ‘Happy Survival Day.'”
James T. Taaffe Jr. died in 2008 at age 91, and Margaret in 2012 a week shy of her 95th birthday. They are buried together at Arlington in Section 59, about a five-minute walk up Eisenhower Drive from the final resting place of Elmer Gedeon.