"The Greatest Generation" Part IV

NOVEMBER 1999 - Our Members Answered The Call: They Served Their Country At Home And
Abroad And Returned To Serve the Public Here In Massachusetts
- As
we continue to profile members in our version of The Greatest
Generation, this month we are featuring Helen Schmidt, Ronnie Hayes,
and Tom Convery, all of whom came of age during the Great Depression
and Second World War.

Meet Helen Schmidt

Helen
Schmidt, of Jamaica Plain, was a teacher in the Boston School System
when World War II broke out. Hearing that the Navy was looking for
volunteers with a math background to serve as WAVEs (Women Accepted for
Voluntary Emergency Service), she signed up.

"I
took a Navy exam, passed, and before I knew it, I was in Northampton
for training," she said. "I was commissioned as an ensign and sent to
the Naval Powder Center in Indian Head Maryland."

"Duty
at Indian Head entailed testing gunpowder at different temperatures.
The Navy was testing new gunpowder that could deliver greater range for
the guns on their ships. They wanted to know how the gunpowder would
work in various climates around the world," Schmidt said. "It was
interesting duty....Needless to say no one was permitted to smoke."

Her
next duty station was at the Newport Naval Hospital in Rhode Island
where she felt her "greatest sense of fulfillment" during any period of
her life.

"I was working with sailors who had suffered horrible wounds. Many had lost arms or legs and others had been blinded."

"I
was helping those who had not completed high school to earn their
equivalency certificates and college credits. Although many of those
sailors were still in their teens, they were men in my eyes, not boys.
Some couldn’t get out of bed, so their bed became their classroom. We
taught right in the wards or wherever it was feasible."

"Some
of these young men taught me a thing or two about life, and courage in
the face of adversity. I probably got just as much out of our
relationships as they did."

Schmidt
feels that the GI Bill was one of the "greatest benefits" to come out
of World War II. "Educationally, it opened the door for millions of
ex-GIs. It closed the gap between the haves and have-nots in America,"
she said.

Korean War: Active Duty Again

In
1946, Schmidt resumed her teaching career, but she was still on reserve
status and when the Korean War broke out, she was called back into
active duty.

"I was stationed at
the Pentagon where I worked on statistics and the assigning of our
ships and aviation units. Life in Washington was interesting. There was
always the feeling you were at the center of the world’s activity."

When
the Korean War ended,` Helen returned to Boston and went on to become
head of the math department at Girls Latin High School from where she
retired in 1977. Margaret Carroll was the headmaster at the time.
Having combined active and reserve duty time of over 20 years in the
Navy, she was also entitled to a military pension.

Helen
has left Jamaica Plain which she "loved very much" and is now living in
Osterville with her sister Dorothy Feeney. Dorothy’s husband Martin,
who is deceased, was a former City of Boston elementary school
principal.

"I don’t think we have
enough discipline in the schools these days. Kids dress like they’re
going to the beach. When I was teaching ,we had a Memorial Day assembly
each May and if the boys didn’t wear a tie, they couldn’t attend. We
also had a character education period each morning after saluting the
flag... We taught the youngsters how to conduct themselves in society.
Times have certainly changed," were some of Helen’s comments on
education.

And has Helen read the
Greatest Generation? "Yes I have. It was an excellent book. Tom Brokaw
has always been a favorite with me. Every generation has its good and
bad, but I think that ours was mostly good."

Meet Ronnie Hayes

It
was November 1942 and Ronnie Hayes, age 16, a junior at Taunton High
School, couldn’t wait any longer. Using an altered birth certificate,
he joined the Navy and was off to "fight the Japs."

After
boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training School, he was assigned to the
USS Wichita as a gunners mate. He was soon in action in the South
Pacific where the U.S. was slowly and methodically taking control from
Japan.

Hayes
had almost survived the Pacific war unscathed until Okinawa, the last
island in a chain of islands to be taken before the pending invasion of
Japan. In desperation, Japan unleashed a kamikaze attack on American
warships. Most of the planes were shot down, but the few that did get
through caused gruesome casualties among crew members, one of whom was
Ronnie Hayes on the Wichita.

Hayes
was hit with shrapnel in his back when a kamikaze exploded on contact.
With a compound fracture of his vertebra and serious intestinal
injuries Ronnie needed expert medical attention if he was to live.

His
first operation took place on the Wichita itself before he could be
transferred to the hospital ship USS Samaritan for a second operation.
He was then flown to a MASH unit on Saipan where a surgeon from the
states was "operating on bad cases."

"He
took out several feet of my small intestine and performed a temporary
colostomy. I never ate for almost three months, lived on intravenous
glucose and went from 175 pounds to 95 pounds," said Hayes. "I had
peritonitis real bad and they had trouble controlling the infection."

Sent To Chelsea

Further
lengthy hospitalizations followed in Honolulu and Oakland, California
where with the colostomy removed and now weighing 112 pounds, Ronnie
took an "unauthorized" liberty before being sent to Chelsea Naval
Hospital for nine additional operations over the next 14 months.

It
was while at Chelsea that Ronnie met his future wife Barbara McDonald
who worked for the telephone company. "I still only weighed 120 pounds
when we were married on August 31, 1947. Being a Protestant and my wife
a Catholic, we couldn’t get married in the church, so Father McGinnis
married us in the rectory."

After
his discharge the couple settled down in Winthrop, Barbara’s hometown,
where Ronnie worked at several jobs including the Post Office while he
earned his high school diploma and attended the Boston Business
Institute on Commonwealth Ave.

In
1951, he began a career with the state’s DPW that lasted 31 years.
"Before I retired as a principal planning engineer, I worked on many
projects. Routes 128 and 495 were two of my most memorable. I immensely
enjoyed my career and the many fine people who were with me at the DPW.
Angelo Amato (State Retirement Board Member) was a good friend and a
hard worker on behalf of the union."

The
Hayes’ now divide their time between a cottage on Plymouth’s White
Horse Beach, that was built by Ronnie’s father, and Bradenton, Florida
from November to May. "We have a place at Sugar Creek Country Club
Mobile Home Park near the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training camp. Any
of my friends are always welcome to drop by if they are in the area,"
offered Ronnie. "We call it ‘God’s Waiting Room’." With three sons and
7 grandchildren the Hayes also have frequent visitors from within the
family.

Ronnie Hayes closed the
interview by saying, "This country has been good to me." While
displaying massive scars on his stomach and back, he praised the V.A.
Hospitals and the medical treatment he’s received. "I also receive a
V.A. pension in addition to my state pension, which really helps," he
mentioned.

Ronnie, after what you
have been through, you deserve both pensions and then some. Typical of
many members of this "Greatest Generation", you have never complained,
but simply proudly displayed your Purple Heart and went on with your
life.

Meet Tom Convery

"Because
it was our duty." That was Tom Convery’s no nonsense explanation of why
he left Medford High in his junior year the day after he turned 17 on
February 15, 1943. "It was the duty of young men to serve their country
in time of war," he added.

"I
wanted to be a ball turret gunner on a B-17. I had visions of shooting
down German planes over Europe. It would have been dangerous, but
exciting."

Unfortunately, it was
not meant to be. Upon completing basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi,
Convery was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for airborne training. But
during paratroop jumps he injured his right knee and was immediately
sent to Camp Meade, Maryland and to France as an infantry replacement.

While
in France as a member of the 106th Infantry Division, he was assigned
as a squad leader in Company L, 422 Regiment. Several of his friends
were among those troops in the 106th that were captured in the Battle
of the Bulge, but Company L was able to escape the fierce German
counterattack.

Although
his company saw considerable action as allied forces forged their way
into Germany, it was the battle with the elements that sticks in his
mind. "We were wet, cold, and exhausted from lack of sleep." Misery,
more so than the Germans, typified the daily life of an infantryman.
"Thank God for the American GI sense of humor and the ability to laugh
at how miserable we were."

After
being discharged in 1946,Convery returned to prep school and on to
Fitchburg State College where he earned a degree in education. He
landed a teaching job in Haverhill but it only lasted a few weeks. He
had remained in the reserves and when the Korean War broke out he was
called to active duty.

As it turned
out, active duty lasted for 17 years. While in Korea he received a
direct commission from technical sergeant to second lieutenant. After
returning to the states, he found that military life appealed to him
and he remained on active duty until 1967, long enough to earn a
pension. Now it was time to return to teaching.

Taught In Medford

He
was accepted in the Medford School System, first as a teacher at Hobbs
Junior High and three years later at Medford High where he taught
civics and history until his retirement in 1991.

It
was Convery’s assignment as job placement counselor while in the school
system that remains his greatest source of pride. I believe I was able
to place close to twenty-thousand students, grads, vets and even
welfare recipients over the years. I had a lot of help, a fantastic
resource network."

Tom met his
future wife, Beverly Wiltshire, while they were both students at
Fitchburg. They raised a family of 5 and have 10 grandchildren.
"Medford’s a great city to raise a family," he said. "Jack McGlynn
(Mayor) is a close friend. He’s a terrific mayor who takes great
personal pride in our community."

Convery,
still a true patriot, speaks glowingly of his three uncles who were
combat veterans. Uncle Ed Convery was state commander of the American
Legion. Ed was also commander of Legion Post 69 in Malden at the same
time. Uncle Dan McGonagle was commander of the Medford Legion Post and
Uncle John Convery was commander of the Everett Legion Post. "Imagine
that," he said, "three uncles serving as post commanders during the
same year."

Convery’s patriotism
continues unabated. He is a frequent guest speaker at schools in the
Greater Boston area. He reminds the youngsters of what earlier
generations went through to keep their country free. "The kids really
listen when I tell them what it was really like on the front lines," he
said. "They have seen the fighting part of war in the movies and TV but
never really knew about malaria, trench foot, frozen limbs, sleeping
sickness and dysentery."

A strong
veterans advocate, Convery’s personal statement of the "Greatest
Generation" is: "We veterans of W.W.II were fortunate in that we had
the total support of a grateful nation. The sad part about returning
home was to learn about former classmates and older mentors who lost
their lives in defense of our country. We all departed as boys and
girls and those of us who returned, were men and women."

Well put, Tom Convery.

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