Canton man a big part of greatest untold story of WWII

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“You’re reading the book and you flip it open, and there he is,” said Ted, adding, “The thing that amazed me is that the story we grew up hearing is exactly the story in the book, exactly the story that each one of our parents told. That I found just to be absolutely fascinating.”

Ted has also learned a great deal about his father through his own research, including the fact that he actually survived three separate plane crashes, and in one of them, his quick thinking and bravery helped save the lives of multiple crew members.

Tom Connolly at Canton Airport

Tom Connolly (left), who was just 18 when this photo was taken, was an airplane mechanic at Wiggins Airways in Canton prior to joining the military.

“He was a very humble man,” Ted said. “My father never thought he was a hero — you know, you did what you did because you had to do it.”

In addition, he learned that his father, who was a flight engineer and the top turret gunner on his crew, saw action not only in the Balkans, but also in France, the Rhineland, and in various parts of Italy. And he was awarded numerous citations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster, and a Purple Heart, among others.

Interestingly, although Tom was not the pilot of his crew, the young man who was had actually worked under him at E.W. Wiggins Airways, which was located at the old Canton Airport. Tom had been an airplane mechanic there from the time he was in his mid teens. Ted said his father “absolutely loved airplanes” and used to fly regularly before joining the military, often taking part in local air shows with the likes of Bobby Draper from Draper Mills.

Ted has also since learned that his father was on board the very last rescue flight of Operation Halyard before the mission was finally abandoned a few days after Christmas in 1944. He even has the photos to prove it, including one where Tom and his crew are posing in front of a Christmas tree that their Serbian caretakers had decorated for them. Instead of tinsel they used “chaff” — the thin strips of aluminum that was thrown out of airplanes during the war in order to interfere with radar signals.

Meanwhile, as the American airmen boarded the C-47 bound for Italy, many of them took off their boots, and one by one, they tossed them down to the Serbian villagers as a final gesture of their gratitude. They did so, as Seery has since learned, because it was winter, and because most of the villagers did not have boots of their own.

It was exactly the kind of story that deserved to be told, and yet for years Operation Halyard was ignored, even as men like Connolly shared their amazing tales with work buddies and members of their own families.

Now Vujnovich finally has his Bronze Star, while Mihailovich, at least in the United States, has had his reputation restored. Still, there are many people, including Ted Connolly, who cannot help but wonder if these stories will be able to survive another generation, especially with World War II veterans now dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day.

“The stories are going away, and [these men] are passing, and it’s just a shame,” said Ted.

Seery was even more blunt about it, insisting that “somebody better write these stories down because people who know this stuff are going to be dead.”

Both said they would love to see more scholarship done on the rescue mission in the long term, although both have been actively doing their part by reaching out to others and sharing Tom’s story. And despite their very real concerns over losing the remnants of this “greatest generation,” they both continue to cling to the belief that most Americans, when it comes down to it, will not let their heroes die.

And today, perhaps more than any other day of the year, seems to offer proof of that fact.

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Short URL: http://www.thecantoncitizen.com/?p=1728

avatar Posted by on Nov 11 2010. Filed under Canton History, Citizen Classics, Features.
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