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As Memorial Day arrives, Berks veterans remembered for their sacrifices

When John Gross returned home to Wernersville after serving as a B-17 pilot in World War II, his soon-to-be wife asked if the thought of dying had ever crossed his mind during his frequent flights through enemy airspace.

“It had about a thousand times,” the pilot responded to his then-girlfriend, Arlene.

Gross was fortunate to survive the 35 bombing runs he flew over Europe, though, and he lived to be 95 before his death in 2017.

As this Memorial Day approached, his daughter, Kaye Sensenig of Cumru Township, said she was filled with thoughts about her dad and the many other men and women who risked everything to serve in the U.S. military.

“My heart aches for those who died or whose lives were changed because of their sacrifices as veterans,” she said.

While her father had a good life after the war, she said, he, too, surely thought back on comrades he lost and the dangers he endured.

“I think my dad had a lot of memories he didn’t want to remember,” she said.

“But we’re fortunate to have so many who have served our country,” she said. “It’s amazing how they did what they felt they needed to do, even when they were so young. Where would we be without them?”

Gross had not spoken much about the war until he reached his 90s and his family convinced him to share his life story with them.

“We told him that he really needed to write it down,” Sensenig said. “It means a lot to us that he’s remembered.”

John Gross, second from left in the front row, with his flight crew in England. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
John Gross, second from left in the front row, with his flight crew in England. (COURTESY OF KAYE SENSENIG)

So Gross wrote about how he was a student at Muhlenberg College when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 6, 1941, and how he then joined the Army Air Forces.

He requested to be a pilot, and after several phases of training, including flights aboard the famous Memphis Belle, he was deemed ready to fly B-17s in combat.

He and his crew from the 95th Bomb Group conducted several training exercises from their base in Horham, England, before they were called up for their first mission in Hamburg, Germany. While that bombing run was considered rather easy — a “milk run” as it was known — more dangerous flights were to come.

During his 35th and final mission, for instance, their plane was hammered with German projectiles and shrapnel while it still had several 1,000-pound bombs on board, prompting Gross to pray for guidance.

“Kick rudder” was the advice he heard, a move that separated his plane from its formation so it could return to base, likely saving the lives of the crew, he said. The plane was so damaged that it never was flown again.

More than 160,000 Allied airmen and 33,700 planes were lost in the European theater during the war, with more than 600 men from his base alone dying and another 860 becoming prisoners of war, so Gross always realized how fortunate he was to not be among them, Sensenig said.

When he later co-owned the John Gross & Company food distribution business in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, he kept on display the list of all 35 of his missions.

After completing that required number of missions he was offered the opportunity to pilot his squadron’s lead plane or to instruct B-29 pilots, but he turned down both offers.

“We had enough close calls and I had walked away without a scratch,” he said.

He credited his survival to God, Kaye said, and he spoke about how before each mission the chapel on base was filled with airmen praying for a safe return.

“You couldn’t find a seat in there,” he’d say.

After his bombing missions were finished Gross never flew again, instead choosing to return home to a civilian job and the girlfriend he dearly missed, as he explained to his family in his writing.

“I then married my forever love, my best friend, Arlene,” he wrote.

Edward Symanowicz

Like many of his generation in the 1940s, Edward Symanowicz went into military service and was sent off to war not long after graduating, which in his case was from Reading High School.

After training he was assigned to the 5th Squadron, 9th Bomber Group of the Army Air Forces in the Pacific Theater, serving as a tailgunner on a B-29 Superfortress bomber, on which he flew 32 official missions over the Japanese empire.

Though Symanowicz died in 2017 at the age of 91, details of his service live on through his “Little Blue Book,” a diary he kept of his experiences in World War II. In it, he documented dates and length of time of each mission, the names of other crew members, and descriptions of what he’d seen from the air.

And for that his family, including his son, Mark Symanowicz of West Reading, are grateful.

“It really tells his story,” said Mark, who along with his sister, Gail DiBlasi of Flying Hills, donated Symanowicz’s notebook to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, to help educate others about the war.

The elder Symanowicz at times would share his stories, such as in 2014 and 2015, when he spoke during World War II Weekend staged by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum on the grounds of Reading Regional Airport in Bern Township.

World War II veteran Edward Symanowicz of Reading, left, with his son, Mark Symanowicz of West Reading, signs a photo during World War II Weekend at Reading Regional Airport in 2015. (COURTESY OF SYMANOWICZ FAMILY)

Though his diary lists the 32 sorties he flew through hostile airspace, he also talked of at least two other missions he was part of.

One was a “show of force” over the signing ceremonies to end the Pacific war on Sept. 2, 1945, also known as V-J Day or Victory Over Japan Day, and which also happened to be his 20th birthday. On another he helped drop supplies to Allied POW camps.

During a 2015 interview with the Reading Eagle, the elder Symanowicz said he would never forget the elation he felt during his birthday flight.

“It was great,” he said. “We won the war.”

There were also stories that were harder for him to tell, such as a mission in which he saw another plane in his formation shot down with a friend of his on board, Mark said.

Symanowicz’s outfit was based on Tinian, the staging point for the operation that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9. His B-29 took off from the same airfield as the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima to start the nuclear age.

Therefore he witnessed the loading of the weapon dubbed Little Boy into the Enola Gay.

Among his other missions was a flight over Iwo Jima during the U.S. invasion of the island in February 1945 in which his plane flew low, dropping landmines.

“As the Marines landed, a mountain on the island erupted in gunfire,” he recalls. “That picture still sticks in my mind.”

World War II veteran Edward Symanowicz of Reading. (COURTESY OF SYMANOWICZ FAMILY)


Symanowicz recorded the last flight aboard his plane, which was nicknamed the “Bad Tomato,” in his diary on Aug. 30, 1945, about 16 days after President Harry Truman announced Japan’s unconditional surrender.

“Our course took us right over Tokyo and Yokohama, so we got a good view of the damage done by our bombing strikes,” he wrote. “It sure felt good flying over those places without having to worry about flak or fighter planes.”

Mark said he’d be thinking of his dad on Memorial Day, as he often does, and also remembering his many contributions as a civilian, such as serving as an assistant Cub Scout master.

“He was a good, upstanding guy, and I’m proud of him and proud of his service,” Mark said. “He’s absolutely my hero.”

Mary Jane Painter Thompson

For late Army Tech Sgt. Mary Jane Painter Thompson, her dedication to veterans continued long after her service in World War II was complete.

The Reading woman received a Bronze Star for her service in 1944 and 1945 as a cryptographic analyst in the Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

She earned induction into the Berks County Military Hall of Fame.

Her overseas assignments included deployments to Morocco, Algiers, France and Italy, and in her position she commanded 15 personnel and was responsible for maintaining communication with soldiers sent behind enemy lines on clandestine missions.

She knew that if her communication ceased that meant they were captured or killed in action, said her daughter, Linda Thomas of Reading.

A photo of World War II veteran Mary Jane Painter Thompson of Reading alongside some of the medals and commendations that she received for her service. (COURTESY OF LINDA THOMAS)

Following her military service, Thompson helped many veterans in her community as a member of Mount Penn VFW Post 8993 and by visiting wounded veterans at Wernersville State Hospital.

She would talk to veterans about the services, benefits and medical care they’d earned and guide them toward receiving that assistance, Linda said.

“She was totally about the veterans,” Thomas said of her mom’s commitment. “I was just in awe of her.”

Thompson had quit Albright College to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WACS, in 1943 but returned to complete her degree in psychology after the war. She held offices in the Veterans Of Foreign Wars, to which she belonged for 30 years.

She died in 2000 at the age of 78.

As Memorial Day approached, Thomas said she’d be thinking of her mother’s actions during wartime and far beyond.

“She loved our country,” Thomas said of her mother. “She had a dedication that very few people have. She wanted to make a difference, and she did.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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