D-Day looms large at reunion for Ocean City High School class of 1944

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Over 70 years, classmates have moved on, but haven’t forgotten the past

“Rocky” Gannon shows a photo of his B-17 crew. He left Ocean City High School in his junior to sign up to fly. “Rocky” Gannon shows a photo of his B-17 crew. He left Ocean City High School in his junior to sign up to fly. SOMERS POINT — On June 6, 1944, the graduating class at Ocean City High School had no way of knowing that a continent away the largest amphibious invasion in history was underway, carving out an Allied beachhead in France at an enormous cost in lives.

Their former classmate, Roland “Rocky” Gannon, found out about the invasion earlier. A teenager training to be a pilot in Texas, he had learned that the long awaited invasion had begun.

“Our tactical officer – he was like a drill sergeant – came into the huge barracks and said ‘The invasion has begun. It’s D-day,’” Gannon said. “I was excited.”

Gannon had left school to learn to fly, when the minimum requirements were scaled back. Pilots had been required to attend four years of college, but the losses in the air war over Europe were appalling, which meant changes were needed.

According to Gannon, the losses in the bombing raids over Axis territories averaged 10 percent, with American and Allied fliers facing tough resistance from the big antiaircraft guns on the ground and the Messerschmitt 109s in the air. That meant when 1,000 planes took off on a cross-Channel raid, 100 didn’t return.

What was then the Army Air Corps needed men, and fast, and accepted applicants as young as 17. One was Gannon, who talked his friend Anielo “Neil” Florentino into signing up with him when they were juniors at Ocean City High School. They were later assigned to the same airplane, with Florentino serving as Gannon’s co-pilot. They learned plenty, but missed their graduation. 

On Friday afternoon, 70 years later, 11 members of the OCHS Class of 1944 gathered at the Greate Bay Country Club for a sometimes emotional reunion, with Gannon as a guest of honor.

Attendees Betty Higbee-Chandler and Roland “Rocky” Gannon are Red Raiders for life. Attendees Betty Higbee-Chandler and Roland “Rocky” Gannon are Red Raiders for life. Betty Chandler was one of the organizers. Back in 1944, she was still Betty Higbee. Before the lunch meeting, she said with pride that she is a descendant of the Lake family, the founders of Ocean City in the late 19th century, and that she is one of the few people to have been born on the island.

During the war, Ocean City was a much different place, she said.

“So different,” she said. “You’d walk on the boardwalk, and everything was blacked out.”

Both for fear of air raids and to avoid presenting a silhouette of transport ships to the enemy, the coastline was on blackout through the war. According to reports from the time, cameras and binoculars were banned on the beach for civilians, and armed troops on horseback patrolled the waterside.

Volunteers in Ocean City kept watch for enemy planes while German U-boats prowled the waters. At times, fires could be seen from the beach, as ships struck by German torpedoes burned and sank. Chandler said most people avoided the beach because of the tar balls from oil spilled from the wrecks.

At the time, German prisoners of war were housed in Cape May County. Chandler said her family kept horses on the mainland at the time.

“I’d ride the horses out just to see what they looked like. They looked just like everybody else,” she said.

  The Ocean City High School class of 1944. The Ocean City High School class of 1944. After high school, Chandler went to work as the secretary to the mayor in Ocean City and in Woodbine. She worked at City Hall when the current mayor’s father, former Mayor Roy Gillian, was a city commissioner before the change in government.

Before lunch on Friday, Chandler, who now lives in Egg Harbor Township, sorted numerous last-minute details, and Gannon spoke to reporters. Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, presented the graduates with keys to the city. Both Gannon and Chandler spoke, while a few of those attending took pictures with their phones. Chandler was crying and smiling when she began speaking to her classmates.
“I’m so happy to see you,” she said.

Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian presents 1944 graduate Gam Broadley with a key to the city. The mayor had one for each of the 11 graduates who attended the reunion Friday. Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian presents 1944 graduate Gam Broadley with a key to the city. The mayor had one for each of the 11 graduates who attended the reunion Friday. There were 11 members of the class of ’44 present, out of 79 graduates. Of the 32 boys in the class, four were already in the armed services on graduation day: Edward Lynwood Adams, Theodore Morell Clymer, Sims Flack Drain and Robert Gordon Young, according to a report published at the time. The same edition of a local weekly paper included a story about a speaker at a Kiwanis event warning the seniors that they would all be involved in the war, and another about a Major Charles R. Meyers, on furlough after 65 bombing raids over Germany, who had come to Ocean City to go fishing before returning to the fight.

Gannon and Florentino were not on the list of graduates. In fact, although Gannon had taken numerous classes in his military career, earning bachelor and master’s degrees, he did not receive a diploma from Ocean City High School until 2003.

Known even then as Rocky, Gannon signed up shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted at 17 and was flying a B-17 bomber at 19, before he could drive a car. At 20, he was flying a B-29, known as the Super Fortress, and he said he has flown 34 different aircraft, from bombers to gliders.

He showed a photo of his flight crew from that first B-17. Of the three flight officers, none had a high school diploma, he said.

Gannon said he knew he was bound for Europe because the B-17 was not used in the Pacific theater. The European war was over before he deployed.

“Hitler knew I was coming. He heard I had my crew and I was on my way, so he committed suicide,” Gannon said. “So I didn’t go into combat.”

More accurately, Gannon didn’t fly combat missions in that war. But he remained a military pilot after the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. He flew 387 combat missions over Korea and Vietnam, serving 15 of his 37 years of active duty overseas. He retired as a colonel.

He is an Eagle Scout and remains active in the Boy Scouts after more than 70 years. He and his wife of more than 60 years, Roberta, have three children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife attended the reunion Friday.

Gannon has numerous photos from his time in the service, and brought his medals, including the Bronze Star, to show at the event. He said it is important for veterans to tell their stories so that young people understand the sacrifices made.

Speaking to his classmates, Gannon said he had told his story as part of a project through the Library of Congress.

“So if you want to know all the naughty things that I did, it’s all there at the Library of Congress,” he said. 

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