Gedeon, O'Neill gave their lives during Second World War
Harry O’Neill’s Major League Baseball career lasted all of two innings as a defensive replacement for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1939. One game. Zero at-bats.
Elmer Gedeon’s stat line wasn’t much fuller. The one-time Washington Senators center fielder did get some swings in, delivering three hits and one RBI in 15 at-bats before his big-league ledger was complete that same summer.
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Although their brief careers would be described as “cups of coffee,” O’Neill and Gedeon would earn places in baseball history after they left the diamond. They would become tragic figures forever linked. Their sacrifices would be ultimate – far more significant than ones listed in a box score.
Of the roughly 500 major-leaguers who fought in World War II, O’Neill and Gedeon would be the only two killed in combat. The deadliest conflict in human history also would claim at least 138 minor leaguers, including Billy Southworth, Jr., a promising prospect and son of Hall of Fame manager Billy Southworth Sr., and two men who would posthumously be awarded Congressional Medals of Honor: Joe Pinder and Jack Lummus.
The Senators, though, remained high on him, and invited him to big league camp the following spring, where he was photographed by the Associated Press hurdling over Senators first baseman Jimmy Wasdell. Gedeon spent the 1940 season with the Charlotte Hornets of the Class B Piedmont League, batting .271 with 11 home runs, 20 doubles and nine triples in 131 games. He received a late-season call-up to the Senators, but did not see any action this time around.
That fall, Gedeon returned to Michigan to coach the Wolverines receivers. In January 1941, nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, he was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to the cavalry, but wound up transferring to the pilot training program.
During a training mission near Raleigh, N.C., on Aug. 9, 1942, the B-25 bomber he was navigating, clipped some pine trees and crashed into a swamp shortly after take-off. He suffered three broken ribs but managed to escape. When he realized one of his crewmates was missing, he crawled back into the fiery wreckage and dragged him out. Gedeon suffered severe burns to his face, back, hands and legs – some of which required skin grafts – and lost 50 pounds during his 12 weeks in the hospital. The Army awarded him the Soldier’s Medal for heroism and bravery. Despite his harrowing experience, Gedeon was eager to return to action.
Before departing for England in July 1943, he stopped in Cleveland to visit relatives. “I had my accident; my bad luck’s behind me,’’ he told his cousin. “It’s going to be good flying from now on.” In a wire service story published around that time, Gedeon said he planned to resume his professional baseball career “if the war doesn’t last too long.”
Ten months later, he would fly his last mission. Gedeon took off from Boreham, an airfield in Chesterfield, England, along with 35 other B-26 bombers, on April 20, 1944. According to Robert Weintraub, author of “The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Era,” they were headed to Esquerdes, France, a launch site for the V-1 buzz bombs Adolf Hitler used to terrorize England. After Gedeon’s plane dropped its bombs, antiaircraft fire ripped through its undercarriage. The plane burst into flames. Gedeon and five of his crewmates died.
Gedeon initially was reported as “missing in action,” and it wasn’t until a year later his family received word his grave had been located in a small British Army cemetery in France. His remains were returned and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Scott Pitoniak is a freelance writer from Penfield, N.Y.