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Island profile: William Dickerson, The tales he can tell

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO William G. Dickerson, in the kitchen of his home on Menantic Creek, where he has lived since 1950.
William G. Dickerson, in the kitchen of his home on Menantic Creek, where he has lived since 1950.

William Dickerson, at 92, is the oldest male harelegger on Shelter Island, and a veteran of World War II. He served in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, receiving a Purple Heart. The State of New York, France and the United States Congress have recognized his valor.

After the war, he returned to Shelter Island, worked for Dickerson Electric, the business his father had started in 1930, took over the business in 1965 and passed it to his sons 25 years ago.

Not since the 1970s have young Americans been drafted to serve in a shooting war. To be compelled, as a teenager, to travel far from home in extreme danger and often brutal conditions is outside the experience of most Americans.

In Bill’s time, it wasn’t extraordinary. His father served in World War I, as did two of his uncles. Many of his Shelter Island School classmates and three of his cousins served in World War II. Most made it back; some, like Bill, were wounded and seven lost their lives. What makes Bill extraordinary is the clarity of his memory and the practical and straightforward way he relates events that traumatized and scarred so many who served.

Bill was born on Shelter Island in 1923 to William E. and Frances Dickerson. His sister, Dorothy Clark, also a Harelegger and still living on the Island, is a year younger than Bill. She celebrated her birthday last week.

He grew up in a house on Stear­ns Point Road. Like many boys then, when he wasn’t in school, he roamed the Island in a posse of cousins and schoolmates, largely free of adult supervision. One day he was walking across the Shelter Island Country Club golf course with friends, including his 12-year-old cousin, George.

The boys spotted a box under some bushes that proved to be full of unopened liquor bottles. The boys heard someone approach and scattered, but Bill and George hid nearby and got a good look at the man who took the box and bottles away.

Bill ran home to tell his father who, knowing that the liquor store had just been robbed, immediately called the police. Bill and George became known as Shelter Island’s “Junior Detectives” and Bill had to go to Riverhead and testify when they caught the thief.

When he was 16, the kids in his grade at the Shelter Island School saved money to take a class trip to Washington, D.C. But instead of going on the trip, Bill used his savings to buy a shotgun. Although he still hasn’t visited D.C., “Buying that shotgun made my life. I spent hours and hours hunting, going through the woods, watching the dogs work, not necessarily shooting something,” he said.

Bill entered the Army in 1943 at the age of 19. He had worked at Bohak’s general store on the Island, slinging 100-pound bags of chicken feed, and decided that in the Army, “I would make sure no one in my unit could do anything I couldn’t do.”

Initially he was assigned to battalion headquarters, but somewhere deep in France, he found himself in charge of shooting a 155-millimeter gun, a 15-ton behemoth that was invented for use in World War I. The gun had a range of about 12 miles, each shell weighed about 96 pounds and “we could wipe out Riverhead from Shelter Island.”

Bill was operating the gun at what would later become known as the Battle of the Bulge when it malfunctioned and he was struck in the head. He remembers nothing between the word “Fire!” and waking up in a hospital in England. Amazingly lucky, six months of recovery from brain and skull injuries left him with no hearing in one ear and some dents on one side of his head.

The most extraordinary aspect of Bill’s war experiences is the fact that he is still able to describe them, and to do so clearly and cogently seven decades later. A story he said he hasn’t told until recently, concerns the strange and terrifying first night he spent in Normandy, after his unit landed about a month after D-Day.

While crossing the English Channel Bill recalled, his captain told him they would switch vehicles to go ashore, the commander in a jeep with Bill’s driver and Bill in the “command car” with the captain’s driver. Much later, Bill realized that with 100 men to deploy in a war zone, the captain needed to shed his VIP vehicle in favor of the more maneuverable jeep.

But at the time, Bill was unnerved — a command car was known to be a juicy target for German bombs and snipers.

They landed after dark and Bill and the driver of the command car were lost in the French countryside until they saw an American GI on the road who said, “You people are in the wrong place.”

The GI pointed in the direction of headquarters. But when they reached the spot with a small American truck next to a foxhole, beside an enormous hedgerow, there was no one else in sight. The driver turned to Bill and said, “OK, we’re at headquarters now. Get out. I’ve got to go find the captain.”

“It was the middle of the night,” Bill recalled. “I didn’t want to wander around because I didn’t know the password and I didn’t want someone to ask me what I’m doing and shoot me.”

He watched from the foxhole as a plane flew overhead just at the treetops, returned with parachute flares that lit the entire area like daylight, and returned once more, “with all his machine guns firing full blast, right through the passenger side of that truck, out through the windshield, this far above where I was hunkered down.”

As planes returned and began dropping bombs on the other side of the hedgerow, Bill realized that headquarters was closer than he thought.
“I didn’t know [headquarters] was there,” he said. “They hadn’t made any noise. I figured I was in a heck of a fix there, middle of the night in Normandy. You know who was on the other side of that hedgerow? Ben Byington, another Shelter Island guy. He was over where the bombs were dropping and I was over where they were strafing.”

Both men survived.

Out of the Army and successfully recovered from his head injury, Bill decided to go to trade school and learn to be an electrician.

In 1965, Bill and his father were playing golf. After sinking a long putt on the 17th to win the match, his father, getting ready to tee up on the 18th, collapsed and died. Bill described it as the greatest shock of his life.

Suddenly, he had to take over the family business, while mourning his father.

His fears about taking over his father’s business faded as the business flourished. “At one time, I was working on 40 jobs going at the same time,” he said. “Counting myself, I had six people working for me.” He retired in 1990.

Bill was married twice and each marriage lasted 30 years. His first wife was Geraldine Shine, a friend of his cousin, Olive. They raised three children, Glen, Steven and Lauren before divorcing in the 1970s. Bill then married Beatrice McGayhey, who was his wife for three decades, until she passed away in 2009.

An excellent athlete, Bill won seven golf championships at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, the first in 1952 at 29 as well as seven senior championships.

He was recently inducted into the Shelter Island Athletic Hall of Fame in recognition of his outstanding high school performance on varsity basketball and baseball teams. In baseball, he played shortstop, was leadoff hitter with a .375 average and a stolen base specialist.

In the days before World War II, Bill recalled, there was a ball field off New York Avenue on what is now an open space adjacent to Chase Creek. Six or seven softball teams competed in an Island league that included “The Feather Merchants,” “The Royal Scarlet” and “Mert’s,” the gas station team. The steep banks of the field filled with spectators every night.

Bill said, “If someone hit a ball out into the creek, Ed Conrad would send his brown and white Springer spaniel out to get the balls.”

Ed died in the Pacific in World War II.

“I’m a real Shelter Islander. I know that.” Bill said.

Things are different now, but he still loves this place where he hunted, back before there were roads. “A sack of decoys, a gun, a dog and a shovel,” he said. “Dig a hole and wait for the ducks to come. You used to be able to walk through anybody’s yard and they’d wave and say hi.”