James A. Gray, 89, of Garden City and a WW...

James A. Gray, 89, of Garden City and a WW II veteran and former prisoner of war, with a photo of his father Maxwell H. Gray who was awarded the silver star for his gallantry in action as a first lieutenant in World War One, on July 24, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

The tiny silver star that James Gray cradled in age-wrinkled hands last week spoke of the "Great War" in which his father had nearly perished.

The missing toes on the Garden City Army veteran's feet serve as a hard reminder that although World War I helped pull Long Island into the modern age, it failed the hopes that it would prove to be the war to end all wars.

"Unfortunately, not enough was learned from that war," said Gray, 89, whose father had served in World War I, and who himself fought in Europe a generation later during World War II. "The technology of World War II, that killed people faster and more thoroughly, still came along."

World War I, a first-ever global war that killed as many as 10.7 million combatants and 2.4 million civilians, began 100 years ago Monday, the date Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Brought on by hardened European alliances and sparked by the assassination of a largely unknown Austrian nobleman, the war eventually engulfed all of the world's great powers.

And at home, the war helped propel Long Island fully into the 20th century as fledgling companies, drawn by the region's broad, flat terrain, began building and testing aviation equipment. These aviation companies attracted some of the area's most skilled workers to fill their design studios and assembly lines, forever changing what was Long Island's largely rural character.

By the war's end in 1918, Glenn Curtiss, a disciple of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, was operating the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United States from a plant adjacent to what is now Roosevelt Field. Curtiss, who biked to work from his Garden City home, had 2,500 employees, making his Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. Long Island's largest employer.

LI aeronautics industry

Joshua Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, said that as war raged in Europe, Long Island found itself particularly suited to developing one of the world's newest war machines -- airplanes.

New York City provided a source of skilled immigrant workers, who settled on Long Island to work in fledgling aircraft manufacturers arrayed from Mineola to Southampton. Spurred by the promise of military contracts, the Ordinance Engineering Company, of Baldwin, designed the first fighter plane to be built on Long Island. The Continental Aircraft Company, which opened in 1915, produced a rear-propeller reconnaissance plane in Amityville.

Related industries also sprang up, drawing more skilled workers to Long Island and planting the seeds for a defense industry that would be the backbone of Long Island's economy for the next half-century.

Designers and engineers raced to be the first with innovations while working from shops built adjacent to the seven airfields paved onto Long Island during the war years. One shop was operated by the Sperry Gyroscope Co., which designed bomb sights and gunnery fire-control systems. The owner's son, Lawrence, spun off his own Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Co., at the edge of an airfield in Farmingdale and often flew there from his Garden City home, using Washington Avenue as a runway.

"When the war ended and defense contracts dried up, most of the companies were not successful," said Stoff, of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, which stands on what was Mitchel Field air base, established during WWI. "But it was the beginning of an industry that continued here for more than 50 years."

The war years also drew thousands of military recruits to training sites, including Camp Mills, next to Mitchel Field, and Camp Upton, at what is now Brookhaven National Laboratory.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, men who trained here left for the trenches of France.

Although other New York National Guard units trained on Long Island, including members of the "Fighting 69th," Gray's father, 1st Lt. Maxwell Gray, trained in South Carolina and arrived in France in early summer 1918.

Horrific casualties

His experience there reflected two of the war's most distinguishing characteristics -- the introduction of horrific new weaponry that killed on an industrial scale, and trench warfare that locked opposing armies in casualty-gobbling standoffs.

An accounting by a historical website said in the three months Gray's 27th Infantry Division was in France it "advanced eleven kilometers" or less than seven miles.

On Oct. 17-18, Gray commanded troops under heavy fire as they attempted to build a bridge under enemy fire near St. Souplet, France. He was awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest honor.

But his service came at great cost. Injured by mustard gas, a lung was removed before he came home to America, his son said.

A quarter century later, James Gray was also disfigured by war.

Sent to battle in Europe during World War II, James Gray was captured in Dec. 20, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge and lost two toes to frostbite in a German prisoner of war camp.

The "war to end all wars" that Maxwell Gray fought in did not spare his son from combat.

"If you think of why it started in the first place, it was weird," James Gray said. "You wonder why there was ever a World War I."

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