Two major league heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There were many major league baseball players whose careers were interrupted as they served their country during World War II, but only two lost their lives in action. This is their story.

There were many major league baseball players whose careers were interrupted as they left to serve our country in World War II, including Tigers Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg. Another Hall-of-Famer, pitcher Hal Newhouser, attempted to enlist several times but was refused as he was diagnosed with a leaky heart valve and was classified as 4-F -- ineligible to serve.

The history books, however, show that two major league players were killed in action in World War II. This is their story.

Harry M O’Neill was born in Philadelphia and grew up in nearby Darby, Pa. He attended Gettysburg College, where he was a kicker and center on the football team, a center on the basketball team, and a catcher on the baseball team. He signed with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, where he was a third string catcher. His story is told here, at baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com.

O’Neill played in just one major league game, a 16-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers in 1939. He came in as a substitute in the ninth inning and did not make a plate appearance. After the season, he joined the faculty at Upper Darby Junior High School as a history teacher. He played minor league baseball with the Harrisburg Senators, and semi-pro basketball with the Harrisburg Caissons.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1942, O’Neill enlisted with the U.S. Marines and attended officer training school. First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill was sent to the pacific theater where he led the 4th Marine Division in amphibious assaults on enemy positions at Saipan and Tinian. Despite being wounded when a shell fragment lodged in his right arm, he declined the opportunity to return home to his wife, Ethel McKay O’Neill, and instead returned to active duty.

O’Neill was killed in action in Iwo Jima, one of 7,000 American soldiers and 92 officers who were killed in action there. The battle goes down in history as one of the greatest victories by the U.S., and is regarded as a turning point in the war. O’Neill is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Elmer Gedeon was born and raised in Cleveland, and attended the University of Michigan where he was a three-sport athlete and a true star. Gedeon was a first baseman for the Wolverines baseball team and a varsity end and punter on the football team. He also excelled at track, where he was an All-American in the high hurdles, but was reluctant to come out for track because his passion was baseball. His story is here.

The Daily Globe wrote in 1938, "Michigan track coach Charlie Hoyt is raving over hurdler Elmer Gedeon, a junior and Wolverine footballer, but Elmer is more interested in winding up in pro baseball."

Hoyt later added:

"I have no doubts that Elmer could have run under 14 seconds for the high hurdles if he were able to give it the necessary time and work. We've had some great hurdlers here in the past ... but this fellow Gedeon has more on the ball than any of them. Ged has been forced to make one of the greatest decisions of his life just because he is such a good hurdler. With the Olympics coming up in 1940, he would be a cinch to make the trip for Uncle Sam. But his first love is baseball and to that love he will yield."

Gedeon held the Ohio high school record in the hurdles, and tied Jesse Owens U.S. record of 7.2 seconds in the low hurdles while at Michigan. He finished third in the high hurdles at the NCAA Championships in 1939, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic track team. Unfortunately, the Olympics were canceled due to the war in 1940.

In 1938, Gedeon hit .285 for the Wolverines as a first baseman and he followed that with a .320 season in 1939. He signed with the Washington Senators in June 1939 and made his major league debut against the Detroit Tigers playing center field where manager Bucky Harris felt he could best use his speed. He was the starting center fielder the next day. He played in five games, recording three hits in 15 at bats.

Gedeon reported to spring training with the Senators in 1940, but spent the season in the minors in the South Atlantic League. After the season, he was an assistant football coach at the University of Michigan. In January, he received his summons from the military and joined the U.S. Army.

The Air Force was part of the Army at the time, and Gedeon was trained as a pilot. He earned his wings and a commission as a second lieutenant as part of the twin-engine bomber crew in May 1942. He was assigned to the 315th Bomb Squadron, 21st Bomb Group at MacDill Field in Tampa, Fla.

Flying aircraft was a dangerous business in the 40s, and flight training was very hazardous. Gedeon was injured when his plane clipped some pine trees and crashed during training in North Carolina. He sustained burns and broken ribs, but managed to escape the burning aircraft.

Gedeon was trained to fly the new Martin B-26 twin-engine bomber as part of the 394th Bomber Group. One of the locations he trained was Battle Creek, Mich. He was the operations officer in his squadron and was in charge of planning missions, not necessarily flying planes.

On April 20, 1944, five days after celebrating his 27th birthday, Gedeon flew a B-26. But while dropping his bomber’s load on German targets in occupied France, he was caught in the searchlights and took on enemy fire.

Baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com gives this eyewitness account from Gedeon's co-pilot, who flew with him on that day.

"We got caught in searchlights and took a direct hit under the cockpit," recalled co-pilot JamesTaaffe. "I watched Gedeon lean forward against the controls as the plane went into a nose dive and the cockpit filled with flames. He must have been thinking, 'Oh, no. Not again.'" Taaffe, with his clothing on fire, desperately struggled to open the pilot's and co-pilot's top hatches. He looked back and saw no movement from Gedeon as he scrambled to safety through the hatch. Descending through the night sky he watched the flame-engulfed airplane spiral out of control and explode on impact with the ground, carrying Gedeon and five others to their death. The other crew members were Second Lieutenant Jack March, Staff Sergeant Joseph Kobret, Sergeant John Felker, Sergeant Ira Thomas and Private Charles Atkinson.

Taaffe was captured and held as a prisoner of war at Stalag 3 by the Germans until the end of the war. He and Gedeon were listed as missing in action, their families not knowing their whereabouts for a year. It was not until May 1945, that Gedeon was declared killed in action by the Army. He was buried at a British Army cemetery in France, and his remains were returned to the U.S. in 1945.

Captain Elmer Gedeon was buried with honors at Arlington national cemetery. He was inducted posthumously into the University of Michigan sports hall of fame in 1983 for track and baseball.

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