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Three airmen made ultimate sacrifice 76 years ago on D-Day

Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, on May 27,

Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, on May 27, 2018. Credit: Michael Owens

These three — two paratroopers and a flight engineer — were bound for the D-Day invasion of Normandy when German anti-aircraft guns shot them down.

They were not from Long Island, yet they rest here at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn.

They share their grave, just as they shared their last flight aboard a C-47, a military transport plane that also carried 16 paratroopers, all of whom also perished in what the U.S. Army Air Forces called the “high house area” of Picauville, a tiny French commune in Normandy.

France has not forgotten them. 

Next to the town church, “A mini-replica of a C-47 overlooks a stone wall with six black plaques with gold lettering commemorating the air crews of the C-47s that crashed in the area while dropping paratroopers on D-Day,” according to American War Memorials Overseas Inc. 

“A glassed-in container holds one of the C-47's engines,” the nonprofit’s website adds.

Only the air crews’ names are listed. One is Tech. Sgt. Walter F. Gendron of the 9th Air Force.

Saturday marks the 76th anniversary of D-Day, the start of the Allied invasion to begin the liberation of German-occupied France.

The C-47 left Upottery, Devon, an airfield in western England; there were broken clouds at 1,500 feet and visibility was five miles, the military report says.

At 1:14 a.m., “He was shot down during his attempt to enter the 506th Parachute Regiment’s Drop Zone-C area at Hiesville, France, after encountering very heavy and accurate flak from German anti-aircraft batteries,” the World War II Memorial Registry says. 

Gendron, a 24-year-old New Hampshire boot-maker who previously served in the National Guard, was awarded both a Purple Heart, which means he had been wounded in battle, and the Air Medal for “meritorious achievement."

He had married Mary Edith Sawyer on June 6, 1942 — precisely two years before Operation Overlord, the battle’s formal name. 

Gendron was buried on Feb 1, 1950, with Tech. Cpl. John L. Davis, born in 1923 in Trumbull, Ohio, and Pvt. Hugh F. Williams, 19, of Allegheny County, Maryland, according to military records.

Though they gave their country their all, few details about Davis and Williams could be unearthed — aside from casualty lists and the like.

That is partly because a 1973 fire destroyed so many military records in St. Louis, according to Bill Beigel, of Redondo Beach, California, who researches World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War records for individuals and institutions.

“After World War II, families of men who died overseas were given the option of returning that remains for burial at home — no other nation offered this,“ said John Long, director of education, National D-Day Memorial, a Bedford, Virginia, nonprofit. 

Possibly, the three were interred together as that is how they were found. 

Much more is known about another of the fallen — Maj. Winslow Michael Sobanski — a godson of Mrs. Harry A. Bruno, whom he visited in Montauk on the first weekend of August 1940, according to military records and The East Hampton Star.

Like Gendron, this son of a Polish colonel was awarded the Purple Star and the Air Medal, among other medals, the nonprofit HonorStates.org website says. 

After a series of calamities, he escaped Poland and made his way to New York, serving first with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and then the U.S. Army Air Forces. 

Sobanski, who was 24 when he was killed, shot down six enemy fighters before D-Day; over Normandy, he asked a lieutenant “to check his aircraft after hitting some wires after strafing a train,” the website said. “The last heard radio report was Lt. Steppe saying ‘Watch those behind you, White Leader.' ” 

Had Sobanski stuck with the much more heavily armored Thunderbolt instead of switching to the much more acrobatic Mustang, he might have survived, the curator said.

Sobanski’s sacrifice was memorialized at Ardennes American Cemetery and another site, Liege, Belgium, the website says. 

New York’s contributions on D-Day stand out, not just because so many fighters — including Thunderbolts and Mustangs — were manufactured on Long Island, but because it had the most casualties of any state, said Joshua Stoff, curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. 

On that brutal day, 310 New Yorkers were killed in action, Long said. 

Historians say it is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of that victory — achieved despite seemingly insurmountable odds and so dearly paid for in blood — that set the stage for Germany’s defeat.

“This could very easily have been one of the greatest defeats in American history,” Long said. Had the allies not prevailed, he said, the Soviet Union might have pressed for a negotiated peace, for example. 

“There are a lot of ‘What ifs,” he said.

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