Friday, March 11, 2022

Three Reasons You Are Alive Today 

gladys with gun

A WWII Tale of Close Calls and Near Misses

Everyone I know has a story or two that goes something like this: “I might not even be here today if it weren’t for…” We all have close calls, dodge accidents, or do crazy things in our youth and most of us live to tell the tale. But those near misses are the reason our children and grandchildren are here too. This is one such collection of WWII tales from my family, now passed down to my two grown daughters.

Gladys Hunt Valastro–1915-2008

Adirondack girl from a working family of loggers, hunting guides, rum runners, and cooks.  Gladys had a genius sense of design, color, function, and shape, loved art, and sewed all of her own clothes.  Creator of the world’s first kitchen designed for people in wheelchairs.

homemade suitGladys’s story provides the other two reasons you are alive today. She left the Adirondack town of Indian Lake, NY after high school to attend Pratt Institute in NYC, hoping to be a costume designer on Broadway.  She never got her break and could not afford the high cost of living in New York City, so she returned to Indian Lake where she, and many other young ladies, operated a manual switchboard for the local phone company.  “We were not supposed to listen in on the phone calls, but we often did.” (Picture the switchboard scenes at B. Altman’s in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).

1940-1943   Gladys pursued one of the only paths for women at the time–nursing.  She graduated in 1940.  “Terribly treated, slave labor, awful pay…” were some of the ways she described her early nursing career. One place she worked was St Luke’s Hospital, NYC. As unsatisfying as her early nursing days were, they laid the groundwork for her important contributions to the war effort and interior design for people in wheelchairs.

 

In 1943 she joined the US Army as a nurse, and that meant going to England.  So Gladys sailed with the 90th General Hospital on the Luxury Ocean Liner Queen Elizabeth (the QE, everyone called her), to be part of the massive invasion force to liberate Europe from Hitler. Huge ships in large convoys filled with war materiel and soldiers had to cross the Atlantic Ocean, navigating through the German U-Boats, to get to England. The QE was the fastest ship in the world at the time and thus sailed alone and zig-zagged her way from NYC to England.  “Everyone was packed tightly into stuffy little rooms,” she told me. Because she was a nurse, and thereby an officer, she was allowed to go up on deck for fresh air and was told by a sailor–on watch with binoculars searching the sea for German submarines–that “torpedoes just missed the ship last night” …and that is the first reason you are alive today.

gladys army

1944   The 90th General Hospital was marshaled (staged for deployment to the battlefields) in the Highlands area of England, sleeping in tents, preparing gear and supplies, and waiting for the invasion of Europe to begin–and for their turn to cross the English Channel and “go to the mainland.”  The possibilities for the massive assault landing included Norway, Northern France, Central France, or Southern France. No one knew where they would land–and as historians now tell us, not even the German Army knew. Only a few weeks after D-Day, Gladys Hunt and all the others of the 90th, climbed over the side of “a big ship, hand over hand, down a rope cargo net” into a small landing craft and motored to the shore now forever known as “Omaha Beach” in Normandy, France.”

Omaha Beach.  Being part of the first group of females to set ashore, she said, “We got asked on many dates. GIs would “borrow”  (or steal, she said) a jeep, and take nurses sightseeing.”  She tells of the time a group of them went to see the enormous German cannons on the top of a cliff that could shoot at ships 15 miles out at sea. These famous and feared “Big Guns” were in huge concrete bunkers. At the big guns, she said they, “Walked on piles of dark black material each the size of a pack of chewing gum as they looked inside…”  The next day, a group of soldiers–doing exactly the same thing–were vaporized by the tremendous explosion when it is assumed a GI tossed his cigarette onto the floor. That black material was gun powder. “It was everywhere,” she said. And that is the second reason you are alive today.

90th general hospital WWII

From the US Military Archives 90th General hospital.  You can just see Mom’s back at the boiling kettle behind the soldier walking by.

1944-1946   Her experience was very difficult for her and every soldier who survived WWII, and like so many others, Gladys did not speak of it much, but shared just a few memories here and there. Her early arrival on Omaha Beach must have been just before, or shortly after the famous “break out,” when the pinned down invasion force of Canadians, French, English, and US forces finally broke through the surrounding German Army and spilled into the flat, open French countryside.  The 90th followed General Patton’s Third Army across France, moving and setting up the hospital every few weeks. Mom said, “Nobody knew Patton’s tanks would move so quickly and so far each day after leaving the coast, so we were always moving our entire hospital and supplies to be closer to the Front. The Army had not planned for that.”  She added, “I got out of some nursing duties because the officers could see that I had a knack for setting up spaces so they looked better and functioned better.” This constant moving was difficult, but it served as a precursor to her design career following the war and her contribution that changed the world. The 90th treated many, many soldiers, some of whom  “died on our operating tables” during the Battle of the Bulge. The 90th General Hospital stayed in Paris until the end of the war.

WWII surgery tent

A surgery tent, photo by Gladys Hunt, 1944 or 1945

As shown below in the newspaper featuring her letter home the day she landed on Omaha Beach, she remembered longing for chocolate and asking for more 127 Black and White film for her camera. Another treasured memory she shared was, “We traveled on troop trains, in the back of trucks, and eventually arrived in Paris, France, which is as far as our General Hospital went.” One such trip happened on her birthday and as her cohorts passed her little gifts, suddenly an orange was placed in her hand. She had no idea how an orange could make its way into a soldier’s pack on a troop train in France, and she shared the precious gift with those nearby.

gladys hunt's letter home

1948-1950   Pratt Institute, New York City   It was this wartime experience that helped her to “see the need for,” conceive, and design the world’s first kitchen for people in wheelchairs, which became her thesis project, after returning to Pratt to study Interior Design.  The first working prototype was built in her NYC apartment–but that is another story.

sal valastro
Salvatore Charles Valastro –1922-2009

Professionally known as S.C., affectionately known as Sal. City kid. Son of immigrants from Adrano, Sicily. Raised in Queens, NYC. Architect, Fine Art photographer, and Haiku poet.

barbershop

Sal Valastro in his father’s barbershop.

1920s-1930s   My dad’s father, Joe Valastro, had a barbershop on Knickerbocker Ave. Dad and his friends played handball, used roller skates in the city streets, rode the trolley alone from an early age, went to Yankee baseball games with his father, bought everything from the local shops, wore knickers (notice photo below), remembered horses pulling wagons, and dodged Model-A Ford motorcars that filled the streets.  And Sal loved taking photographs.

sal on a scooter

But one summer was different.  Dad told me about the summer he and his parents spent in the remote Catskill Mountains at a working farm that boarded guests because his father had just sold his barbershop in Brooklyn, and was thinking of opening a barbershop in the Catskills (that did not happen, by the way). Apparently, the farmer had a big problem with chipmunks and squirrels eating his grain.  Dad, about age 9 or 10, was offered money by the farmer to shoot as many of them as he could. The farmer gave him bullets and a single shot, .22 caliber rifle to use. So that is apparently what he did most days: wander around the farm shooting at small animals. He got so good he could hit them while they were running.

1940s   World War II.  The war in Europe against Hitler was not going well and consumed the focus of everyone the world over.  Germany and Italy were invading countries in Europe and North Africa.  The “men” went to fight the war, and factories hired women to build war machinery.  Kids pulled small wagons around their neighborhoods to ask if they had any scrap metal to be melted and made into ships and tanks and guns, all desperately needed.

People collected fat, like bacon grease, and brought it back to the butcher shops to be sent to factories–and turned into explosives.  Along the shores of the East Coast, blackout shades were put over windows so German submarines (U-Boats) could not identify cities. Along the shores of the East Coast in 1941-1942 from Florida to Maine, 397 large ships were torpedoed and sunk by submarines… and many sailors went down with the ship.

sal in WWII

So Sal Valastro enlisted into the Army Air Corps and he tried to be a Fighter Pilot (a common dream of many kids). But your Grandfather did not have the right high-risk, reckless nature needed, so he “washed out” of fighter pilot school.  He told me they said, as he was given the bad news, “You would make a good airline pilot.” The Army then sent him to arial gunnery school to be a gunner on the B-17 or B-24 bombers those women in the factories were building every day.  It turns out that during his early gunnery training in Florida, Sal was a “better shot“ with the shotguns shooting flying clay disks, and even at shooting machine guns at moving targets, than his instructors.  So they made him an instructor. In fact, he was one of only two gunnery instructors for the Top Secret P-61 Night Fighter. I once asked dad, “Why did they think you could teach gunnery?”  Dad said, “Well, I was a better shot than they were, so they promoted me. That’s the way the Army does things.” Over in the European theater of war, hundreds of bombers flew in large groups from England to bomb occupied France, occupied Norway, and Hitler’s Germany. As an instructor, Sal stayed stateside the entire war, stationed in Texas and Florida and thus avoided being a gunner inside the bellies and turrets of the B-24 and B-17 bombers firing 50 caliber machine guns over Germany, where roughly 97% of gunners died in action, or were captured.  His one summer getting paid by a farmer for shooting at squirrels and chipmunks is the third reason you are alive today.

And so you see, Laura and Elly, you are alive today thanks to these close calls and near misses.

sal and gladys

Gladys and Sal Valastro circa 2000.

James Valastro is a wildlife tracker, videographer and cartoonist living with his wife and assorted pets in the wilds of Vermont.

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James Valastro is a wildlife tracker, videographer and cartoonist living with his wife and assorted pets in the wilds of Vermont.




9 Responses

  1. Ray Mainer says:

    My wife and I knew Laura when she was a middle school student. How fortunate we were that her ancestors survived those narrow escapes. Say “Hi” to her for us.

  2. Dom Penrose says:

    Loved your article about your parents…their voices and all others from that generation are rapidly disappearing

  3. louis curth says:

    Thanks for sharing memories from that time so long ago. Your barbershop photo brought to mind my own WW II era “I might not even be here today” story.

    My father had taken me to the village to receive my first big boy haircut in a shop that looked very much like the one in your photo. Just as the kindly barber, scissors in hand approached me, I bolted out of the chair and ran right out of the shop into the street with my father in hot pursuit. Luckily for me an oncoming car was able to stop just in time as my father snatched me from an unkind fate and gave me my first spanking on the spot.

    Memories from a bygone era…

  4. Sara J James says:

    Wonderful stories! Thank you for sharing your family history with us!!

  5. Mary Ann Randall says:

    My Dad, though missed WW2 by one month, talks about his childhood experiences of having the same freedoms as your Dad getting around the boroughs of NYC. Who could imagine today an 8 year old traveling the subway alone for a nickel to get to a baseball game!

  6. Cristine Meixner says:

    Gladys and Sal were kind and friendly people. Tell your children that, too.

  7. Wade Bittle says:

    What a wonderful story of the spirit and “can-do” attitude of your parents. I love hearing these recounts of that “greatest” generation. My parents, too, were both in the war effort at the tail end of WWII and Korea. No matter how old I get I never feel I can ever fill their shoes. I guess it’s an ultimate sign of respect. Hopefully passing these stories down will allow our kids and grandkids to not take for granted the freedoms they have, as well as why they are alive today.

  8. Mario cancellieri says:

    Hi, I am Mario cancellieri, my father Salvatore was your grandmother’s cousin.
    We visited your grandparents often and when I got married we lived next door to them and kept my motorcycle in his garage even though he never drove there was an antique car in his garage. I had driven your mother to the bus terminal in by the gwb when came to visit them. At first your mother didn’t believe me when I said I was related until I mentioned my mother Marie and she remembered my mother was French. I was there when they took your grandfather to Jamaica hospital, a sad day.

    • James Valastro says:

      Hi Mario- Wow, i just found this beautiful reply and story!!! So, so sorry for the delay. I would like to talk with you to hear about the times and the Valastro’s, the streets, the daily life and everything.

      802-355-9985

      Kind regards

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