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World War II Shelter Island vets recall service: Vivid memories of combat

Shelter Island proudly honors its veterans on the day set aside for recognizing their service, this year on Saturday, Nov. 11, with ceremonies at the Community Center at 11 a.m.

The leadership of the American Legion Mitchell Unit 281 and the Auxiliary give expression to the Island’s respect and gratitude. Amid the formal recognition, it’s often easy to forget that young men who went off to fight a war 80 years ago have been living among us for decades, enriching the Island with their experience, character and patriotism. Some of those veterans of World War II shared their thoughts.

Robert Strugats

Robert Strugats was in Brooklyn College when World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific. Although underage, he joined the Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force, in 1942.

Robert Strugats as a young officer in the U.S. Army Air Force.

He recalled the summer he was 20 and a bombardier, alone in the nose of a B-29, located below and ahead of the pilot’s cockpit — “the best seat in the house,” he said with a touch of gallows humor — on bombing runs over Japan.

The B-29 was built as a long-range bomber that could fly at altitudes of over 31,000 feet, but on Mr. Strugats’ missions, the bomber went over Japan at about 7,000 feet.

Fifteen times that July and August, he flew missions from an American base in Guam. Some of the runs took 16 hours round-trip, where he’d be alone in the Plexiglas bubble of the bombardier’s station, looking through a Norden bombsight for targets.

Robert Strugats at the Air Power Museum. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Mr. Strugats described the night flights, with searchlights illuminating the sky, anti-aircraft fire coming up and Japanese fighters scrambling to attack, as a live-or-die exercise, night after night. “We’d see the searchlights ahead coming up from the ground,” he recalled. “We’d fly right into them.” That didn’t mean it became routine. “We were hit at times, but we made it back.”

He recalled how he and his comrades helped each other through the dangerous missions. “We felt safe,” Mr. Strugats said. “We were all friends. We were all working together.”

Speaking of this year’s ceremonies, Mr. Strugats said, “I love the veterans. I wish I could be there.” Right now, the former bombardier has his sights set on February 2024, when he’ll celebrate his 100th birthday .

Marshall Numark

Marshall Numark has shared  his wartime experiences with Islanders at the Library’s Friday Night Dialogues, along with his wife Mollie, who recently spoke with the Reporter about his service, starting when he volunteered right out of high school.

Marshall Numark. (Courtesy photo)

He landed in Normandy less than a month after D-Day and served in General George Patton’s legendary 3rd Army during its drive across Europe. “He was in the Battle of the Bulge,” Mollie Numark said. “Hitler’s last battle.”

Mollie Numark, who grew up in England, recalled the significance of Veterans Day’s origins, as Armistice Day marking the end of World War I. “My favorite uncle was injured in the war,” she said. “The trench warfare and the wounds they suffered were horrible.”

She said Marshall, who will turn 99 in January, won’t attend this year’s ceremonies, although in years past, he would participate in Veterans Day as well as Memorial Day observances, when he would march in the parade and ride in the antique cars provided for the event.

George C. Strom

Soon to turn 97, George C. Strom still has vivid memories of his World War II service in the Pacific. “I joined the Navy when I was 17,” he said. “I was in a battle within six months.”

George Strom with memorabilia of his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. (Courtesy photo)

Not just any battle, either. He was at Iwo Jima — one of the deadliest battles of the war. Of the approximately 21,000 Japanese soldiers stationed there, 19,000 were killed and 1,000 were taken prisoner. On the American side, 7,000 were killed and 10,000 were injured.

“At a young age, in dangerous battle conditions — I’ll never forget,” he said. “I can’t believe I was able to get through it without any injuries.

“I had a lot of people in my age group. All these years later, I still think of them. When you’re young, you put it aside. It doesn’t affect you like when you’re older.

“I will never forget the men I saw injured and killed; it was a horrible situation.”

He hopes to be at the Veterans Day ceremonies, appreciating the Island’s expression of gratitude to him and his fellow veterans for their service and sacrifices in World War II.

The American Legion and Auxiliary will play a vital role in the Veterans Day ceremony, and provide dedicated service throughout the year.

“We have two great women who exemplify the best of the best for our Legion,” said Janet Resnick, Public Relations Chairperson for the Island’s Auxiliary. “Rita Gates, our president, and Pam Jackson, our treasurer, both are the reason the Auxiliary has remained strong during the past difficult years. And a group of volunteers who get it done, whether making Poppies out of plastic soda bottles for Memorial Day, honoring our Flag, marching in Parades and supporting the American Legion, and so much more.”

Ms. Resnick herself traces her activism on behalf of the Legion and Auxiliary to her family’s involvement in the East Elmhurst/Jackson Heights Post 396 in Queens. “My father was Post Commander and my mother was president of the then Women’s Auxiliary,” she said. “My Dad, a World War II veteran, spent his seven last years in the Northport Veterans Hospital until he passed. It is my honor to work for such a necessary organization.”

Shelter Island Veterans Day Ceremonies

Date and Time: Saturday, Nov. 11., 11 a.m.

Place: American Legion Post 281/ Community Center

Mission: To honor the living and deceased veterans of Shelter Island