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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Service and Memory:

World War II veteran from Warsaw named to NY State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame

James Gillen is known for his contributions to preserving Wyoming County’s World War II history.

He served in the war himself and helped author “WWII Gold Star Veterans of Wyoming County, New York.” The book told the stories of the county residents who died during the conflict.

Gillen received special recognition Tuesday as State Sen. Patrick Gallivan named him to the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

“James is a member of the Greatest Generation,” Gallivan, R-Elma, said during the county’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “He served the country with pride and distinction from 1944 to 1946 as a Seamen 2nd Class. It is my honor to induct James Gillen to the New York State Veterans’ Hall of Fame Class of 2022.”

Gillen’s World War II experience started with him ditching school in an attempt to enlist in the Navy. Gillen was too young, but the chief petty officer at the recruiting station offered him adventurous-sounding training as a gunner aboard an aircraft once he graduated.

Gillen was trained rapidly, attending boot camp in Jacksonville, Fla., before advancing to aviation ordinance school in Norman, Okla.

All the trainees expected they’d be flying, but — Gillen included — discovered the available slots were limited, so he became an aviation ordinanceman instead. He maintained the machine guns, rapid-fire cannon and bombs carried by naval aircraft.

Gillen had spent about a year there when the war ended. Because of his training he was transferred to Ford Island at Pearl Harbor and assigned to the aging aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga.

The huge carrier was the third ever built for the Navy. It had seen intensive action and combat damage throughout the war, but was assigned at that point to Operation Magic Carpet.

Magic Carpet was an effort to transfer the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel home quickly after the war ended. The carrier’s massive hangar deck had been emptied of aircraft, with endless rows of steel bunks installed in their place.

Gillen said in a 2019 interview he didn’t have a clue what he was going to do duty-wise, but was assigned to the captain’s orderly group — essentially serving as policemen, although it wasn’t much needed.

The ship was packed everywhere with returning military personnel.

The ship transported about 2,500 soldiers and sailors back to Oakland Bay in January 1946. But they didn’t return to Hawaii — the crew was told the Saratoga was going to be outfitted with scientific instruments, unneeded aircraft and other equipment to be expended in the Bikini atomic bomb test a few months later.

The famous aircraft carrier would essentially serve as a “guinea pig” to see if such ships could survive an atomic blast.

Gillen continued his role as an orderly until June when he was discharged. The Bikini atomic bomb tests began about a month later and the Saratoga was sent to the bottom.

“WWII Gold Star Veterans of Wyoming County, New York” was published in 2019, honoring the lives of 103 service members who were missing or killed in action during the war. It includes short biographies of every service member who died, along with several others associated with the county.

With the help of the Wyoming County Historian’s Office, Gillen dedicated years of his life going through records and newspapers. He connected with veterans’ families who shared stories, military records and photographs.

“My service during World War II taught me many things. The ones which are most important to me is about love and service to my country,” Gillen said. “As the saying goes, ‘All gave some. Some gave all.’ But 103 men from Wyoming County, servicemen, gave the ultimate price — the gift of life itself. On behalf of those 103 men, I accept this award very humbly.”

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