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This Day in History: Baseball's WWII sacrifice

On this day in 1944, a United States Army Air Forces pilot participates in a mission over the skies of France—but Elmer Gedeon wasn’t just any pilot. He was also a professional baseball player who’d left his career behind to fight for his country.

Gedeon would become one of only two Major League baseball players to make the ultimate sacrifice during World War II.

The young athlete was nothing if not talented. He played football and baseball in college. He even ran track and was a contender for the Olympics. Nevertheless, he ultimately chose baseball and a career with the Washington Senators.

“The club thought a lot of him,” baseball player Mickey Vernon later said. “He was a big, tall fellow. The one thing I remember the most is that he could run really well.”

Gedeon was still a rookie when he left to join the military and begin training with the Army Air Forces.

Everything nearly went awry during a training flight on August 9, 1942. Gedeon was the navigator on that plane, which unfortunately clipped some pine trees as its pilot attempted to depart. A newspaper later reported that the bomber “ripped through the large trees of the swamp for about 100 yards, clearing a space that long and about 75 feet wide. Trees larger in girth than a grown man were broken off.”

Gedeon would receive a Soldier’s Medal for what happened next.

“[Lieutenant Gedeon] had suffered broken ribs and severe shock,” his citation describes, “[yet he] re-entered the burning wreckage and removed Corporal John R. Rarrat, a fellow crew member, who had been rendered helpless, due to having received a broken back and broken leg in the crash. Corporal Rarrat would have been burned to death had it not been for the unselfish action of Lieutenant Gedeon . . . .”

Gedeon was badly burned, and he spent 12 weeks in the hospital afterwards. “The ribs gave me the most trouble,” Gedeon said. “I had to rest on my stomach because of the burns, so the ribs couldn’t be taped.”

Nevertheless, Gedeon returned to duty. He told his cousin that he’d “used up his bad luck” and would have “good flying from now on.” He still hoped to return to baseball someday. “If the war ends before I’m past my playing age I’ll return to the game,” he shrugged. “If I’m too old, I’ll do something else.”

By April 1944, Gedeon was in Europe serving as an operations officer for the 394th Bomb Group. Gedeon’s job was to plan attacks, not fly them, but on April 20, he chose to fly. His B-26 Martin Marauder joined 29 other planes in a mission to attack a German construction site in France. The Germans were building a launchpad for a V-1 rocket.

The American planes arrived at about 7:30 p.m. and were greeted by intense anti-aircraft fire.

Gedeon dropped his bombs before running into trouble. “We got caught in searchlights and took a direct hit under the cockpit,” his co-pilot James Taafe said. “I watched Gedeon lean forward against the controls as the plane went into a nose dive and the cockpit filled with flames.”

Taafe managed to escape. He watched from his parachute as the bomber hit the ground and exploded.

Gedeon was initially listed as MIA, but his body was later found in a small British army cemetery in St. Pol, France. His remains were returned to the States and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Yet another member of the Greatest Generation who gave everything he had to give, simply because his country needed him.

Heroes, one and all.

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