LOCKPORT, N.Y. — On Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, propelling the country into the second world war. As the "Greatest Generation" continues to age, it's important to keep their stories and heroism alive.
Over the course of several weeks this past November, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal staff photographer Joed Viera spoke with four World War II veterans living in Niagara County. Two of them, Edward Kolek and Stanley Maziarz, are recipients of the French Legion of Honor Chevalier for their bravery and prowess during the war.
After interviewing the veterans, Viera traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this year to research their stories at the National Archives. He used the information to supplement his audio-visual production, "A Call To Arms," which is online at lockportjournal.com
Here are condensed versions of those four veterans' war stories.
— Edward Kolek: Ploiesti was a close call
Retired Lt. Col. Edward Kolek, 92, piloted bombing missions over Europe during World War II. Kolek flew more than the required number of missions and said that he enjoyed his role in the war.
"I just loved combat," he said. "I was prepared both physically and psychologically. Prepared to be shot down every mission."
Kolek's most memorable mission was a bombing run over Ploiesti, Romania, meant to disrupt a major source of oil for Nazi Germany. While on the way to making the run, the B-24 that Kolek was flying was hit by German antiaircraft fire and lost an engine.
"I had to drop down and started losing a bit of altitude and had to drop the nose to maintain flying speed," he said.
Intent on making his bombing run despite the lost engine, Kolek circled around and flew over the targeted area.
"I had a good bombardier, sharp," he said. "I said, 'bombs away.' We hit the target, and just as I said bombs away we got hit and I lost another engine."
Now down two engines, and with the aircraft's controls damaged as well, Kolek had to make it to a friendly airfield. He dropped out of formation, since his plane was at risk of exploding mid-air and posed a danger to the other bombers. Once he finally made it to a friendly base, Kolek had to figure out how to land the plane with the right-side landing gear rendered inoperable by enemy fire.
"I knew on landing ... that the wing would begin to go around and cartwheel and burst into flames," he said. "I kept that wing up as long as I could without losing direction of the flight and we crashed."
Somehow, Kolek was able to keep the plane from cartwheeling and possibly exploding. He and the crew made it out alive.
— Joe Kedron: From Anzio to Normandy
Joe Kedron, 89, lived in Pendleton for 50 years and now lives in Lockport. He joined the Navy in June of 1942, at the age of 17, and needed both parents to sign off as he was too young to join on his own. Kedron served on a landing ship tank and was involved with the D-Day assault on June 6, 1944, as well as several other amphibious landings in Africa and Italy.
Part of Kedron's job in the assault fleet of the Naval Amphibious Forces was to transport troops to the beachheads of Normandy and take the wounded back to the ships.
"It's not like it is in the movies," he said. "We went from beach to beach. We hit Utah Beach. The beach was about 50 miles long. It wasn't short. We put the infantry in and took out the wounded and the prisoners. Things like that."
Kedron, who had three brothers in the war, was also involved in Operation Shingle, an amphibious landing against German troops in Anzio and Nettuno, Italy, starting on Jan. 22, 1944.
"That turned hot," he said. "Casualties were high. Very, very high. A lot of guys are buried there."
Kedron went straight from Anzio to Normandy.
"They pulled us to make the Normandy landings," he said. "It was supposed to be June 5, but there was a big storm. The following morning, we hit the beaches. We opened the beaches."
Part of the job at Normandy, Kedron said, was to go wherever they were told to go, despite the danger.
"We covered all of the beaches," he said. "We'd pick up stuff, the wounded, whatever they wanted us to pick up."
In two years overseas, Kedron saw a lot of combat action.
"Wherever we went, we blew it up," he said. "A lot of slaughter. A lot of guys got killed."
— Leo Weaver: Veteran of the Pacific theater
Lockport native Leo Weaver, 95, was drafted into the Navy in 1945, and served until 1947. He started on a brand new ship out of San Francisco, and spent time in Okinawa and the Philippines.
In the Philippines, he was part of a detail cleaning up after the bombings in the Philippines.
"It was a nice place," he said. "It was really messed up after the bombings. Really terrible."
Weaver was also involved with bringing troops to various islands in the Pacific, and returning them to the ship.
Two days after the war ended,the ship he was serving on was hit by a 500-pound Japanese bomb, killing 21 of his peers. At the time the bomb hit, Weaver was in the mess hall watching a John Wayne movie.
"I'm sitting in the mess hall and I have my legs crossed, a pack of cigarettes and my lighter," he said. "When the ship got hit, everyone ran for the ladder to go topside to see what happened. I went back down to get my cigarettes."
After he did so, Weaver went back up to help douse the fire. The sight was bad and the aftermath was horrific, he said. The dead were lined up on the deck, the bodies so mangled they could only be identified through dental records.
"You could pick up a shoe with a foot in it. It's a terrible sight. Terrible," he said.
Seventy years later, Weaver looks back on his war service and says it was "fun."
"The only reason I say that is because I'm here."
— Stanley Maziarz: A seasoned soldier knows 'war is hell'
Stanley Maziarz of North Tonawanda was drafted into the Army in 1942. Maziarz and his three brothers all served during the war. After training at various bases in the United States, he took a troop ship to the United Kingdom.
While in the UK, Maziarz had an opportunity to speak with General Dwight D. Eisenhower before D-Day during a regimental review.
"He says, 'How do I like the service?'" Maziarz said. "I says, 'I don't mind it.' I even forgot to say sir."
After D-Day, Maziarz made his way through France. Fighting in "hedgerow country" was difficult, he recalled. At Saint Lo, he was bombed by German bombers.
"I was fortunate," he said. "It was a lot of noise for me."
At Luxembourg, the division Maziarz was in had to cover a 25-mile stretch of the line, in what was supposed to be a rest after the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. They didn't realize at the time that the German army was on the move. It was the start of the Battle of the Bulge.
"To hold a 25-mile sector is impossible," Maziarz said. "We weren't aware that the enemy was that strong."
The U.S. division was attacked by seven German divisions and couldn't hold the line. The division pulled back to Diekirch, and Maziarz found a house to hole up in.
"I laid up against the wall and I heard bombing and shells going off, and then when I opened up my eyes, it was daylight. I couldn't even believe it," he said. "I must have been knocked out."
Maziarz left the house and met up with his unit.
"'Maziarz, where were you?' one of them says. "I says, 'Up in there,'" he said, pointing to the house. "He says, 'There was shelling.' I says, 'The building shook and I shook with it.' "
Maziarz also survived an ambush, in which he was nearly struck by a German 88 artillery shell, and several more battles before the war ended. He recalls his wartime service as rife with stress.
"War is hell," he said. "We were told to kill or be killed before we went into battle."
Joed Viera's audio-visual production, "A Call To Arms," features photographs and audio clips of four Niagara County veterans who were interviewed about their service in World War II. See and hear the show at http://photos.lockportjournal.com/Slideshows/i-88HmgdR
Information from: Union-Sun & Journal, http://www.cnhi.com/lockport