Canton at War: ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’

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Editor’s note: The following is the final installment of a three-part series that looks into what life was like for Canton residents during World War II. The first part ran in the 12/3 issue and dealt with the home front. Part two ran last week and dealt with Canton’s contributions on the frontlines in both the European and the Pacific Theaters of war. Part three deals with the aftermath of WWII.

***

Robert Gelpke died on Thanksgiving Day 1945, just three days shy of his 21st birthday, becoming the last man from Canton to die in WWII.

Towards the end of World War II, Arline Love’s brother, Robert Love, joined the Navy in his senior year of high school. Still in his teenage years, he had no combat experience, but late in the summer of 1945 he was preparing to take part in a land invasion of Japan where it was projected that hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died.

The war in the European Theater had come to an end after Germany announced its unconditional surrender in May of 1945, but Japan continued to fight in the Pacific Theater.

As a result, 30 divisions that had fought in the European Theater were sent to join the American forces already stationed in the Pacific. President Harry S. Truman had authorized more than one million troops for the potential invasion of Japan, according to historian David McCullough’s biography of the president.

But, fortunately for Love’s brother (and thousands more like him), he never had to invade the Japanese mainland — President Truman had opted for a more expedient end to the war.

Forgoing an invasion, American forces instead dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Despite its catastrophic result, Japanese officials remained silent — there was “no appeal for mercy or sign of surrender,” McCullough writes.

So, on August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on the Japanese seaport city of Nagasaki. The result this time was different; on August 14, the Japanese had surrendered and on September 2 it was made official after Japan signed the surrender documents.

The war was over.

***

Frederick Powers left behind his 7-year-old son, Jack.

At the announcement of Japan’s surrender, American troops stationed in Okinawa “fired every available weapon skyward” as part of a jubilant celebration, while American troops in France, waiting to be deployed to the Pacific as part of the no-longer necessary invasion of Japan “wept with joy,” historian David M. Kennedy wrote in Freedom from Fear.

In Canton, Ed Piana, who was 15 years old at the end of WWII, remembers fire whistles sounding, fire alarms being set off and church bells ringing. Arline Love, who was at a local beach with her family, remembers the children “banging pails” and marching around the neighborhood.

“It was a feeling of great relief,” Love, who was a teenager when the war ended, recalls.

Even with the sacrifices American families were asked to make on the home front — sacrifices that Americans are not asked to make today while the country is at war — and even with the sacrifices young American men and women were asked to make on the front lines in Europe and in the Pacific, patriotism remained high throughout the course of WWII.

During this era in American history, politics, as the saying goes, ended at the water’s edge. The same cannot be said in 2009.

“We began to realize that it was going to take a lot of sacrifice on the part of the whole nation,” Love said. “But the thing is that the whole nation did respond.”

“The country came together,” Edward Estey, now 84, added. “It isn’t like it is now — some are for the war and others are against it — everybody pulled together … people went along with [the war effort]. They didn’t fight it. It was a different outlook in those days.”

Eight-hundred-fifty-three men and women from Canton, representing almost 14 percent of the town’s 6,314 residents, had served in the armed forces in some capacity during the Second World War.

The town was represented all over the globe — from Tientsin, China to Okinawa in the Pacific and from the beaches of Normandy to the Rhineland and everywhere in between in Europe.

Sadly, of the 853 who served, there were 25 casualties, marking Canton’s highest loss of life in any war since the American Civil War, when 30 of Canton’s men were killed in action.

“The celebration upon the end of the war was sort of short-lived and the reality of those 25 deaths came back very quickly,” Piana said. “It was a sad reminder of what had happened.”

Some of the bodies were returned to Canton in flag-draped caskets that arrived at Canton Junction; some were buried in military cemeteries overseas; others were never identified or returned. Most of those who died were only in their early or mid 20s.

Albert Callahan left behind his wife, Beatrice, and son, David, who had just celebrated his first birthday.

Among the war dead, Albert Callahan left behind his wife, Beatrice, and son, David, who had just celebrated his first birthday a few days before his father’s death on September 6, 1943. Frederick Powers left behind his young son, Jack, who was only 7 years old when his father’s body was returned to Canton in July of 1948. Arthur Smith, who died August 12, 1944 on a battlefield in France, left behind his wife Irene, who never remarried.

Arthur W. Thomas, named for his Canton uncle who was a casualty in World War I, died while serving in Germany on August 16, 1945. Of the 23 young men in the Canton High School class of 1935, three died in WWII: Walter Berteletti, John Gately and Andrew Wood (the first Canton man to die in the war). Robert Gelpke died on Thanksgiving Day 1945, just three days shy of his 21st birthday, becoming the last man from Canton to die in WWII.

Estey, who himself participated in the D-Day plus 3 invasion on June 9, 1944, remembers hearing about the deaths of his cousin Robert Gelpke and neighbor Arthur Smith.

“Those are things that really brought the war home,” Estey said.

Those fortunate enough to return had to readjust to life in the civilian ranks seemingly on the fly. Many dealt with the repercussions of injuries sustained during the war. Others dealt with flashbacks or nightmares that haunted them while they slept.

“There’s always an adjustment period after any war,” said Robert DeYeso, who served in the Army in the European Theater. “You come out of a rigid disciplined life and you have to try to tone that down. You can’t order your wife around, tell other people what to do in the sense that you can’t bark orders like you’re in the service. You have to understand that even if you’re in a management position you have to speak to people in a proper manner.”

“I was no longer a kid when I came back,” Estey added. “You grow up; you lose all those years.”

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avatar Posted by on Dec 17 2009. Filed under Canton History.
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