SOUTH HADLEY — A World War II infantryman shared his wartime memories Thursday as guest of honor at a breakfast organized by the school superintendent to recognize veterans.
The event in the South Hadley High School library drew more than 80 community members and students to the first in what organizers hope will become an annual tradition.
“The veterans in this room protected our freedoms and ensured that our country is a land of opportunity,” said Leslie Hennessey, director of the Council on Aging. “Today, we are humbled by their actions and we gratefully pause this morning to honor their many sacrifices, deep courage and unwavering patriotism.”
Wearing baseball caps denoting their branch of service or campaign hats covered in pins, the community’s veterans turned out in large numbers.
Lifelong South Hadley resident Lawrence Batley was guest of honor.
“Larry, along with many of his South Hadley boyhood friends, answered the nation’s call of duty during World War II,” said Brian Willette, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3104.
Batley said he enlisted in the Army in 1943 as a private first class, serving as an assistant Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gunner in the 95th Infantry Division.
After receiving the “Distinguished Military Service Award” for his selfless service and personal courage from Superintendent Nicholas Young, Batley spoke. He read from a binder filled with photographs, letters and stories from the war. All told, Batley saved around 200 of the letters he received during his time in uniform.
“I never could throw a letter away that came from home because I always knew that somebody sat down for at least a half an hour and thought about me,” Batley said.
Drawing from a letter written by one of his sisters, Batley read a description of the celebrations in South Hadley for Victory over Japan Day.
“Is there any chance of you coming home now?” his sister wrote. “Until I hear from you, Larry, keep well. But even if I don’t write, I guess a day don’t go by that I don’t think of you. That’s the truth.”
Reading another letter from his company commander, Batley recalled the boys he left behind.
“These were my friends,” he said. “You don’t think that you know them when you have 100 or 150 people in your company but when you eat breakfast, dinner and supper in the same mess hall, you rub elbows with all of these guys that are in your company.”
As he went through the list, Batley paused at the names of two men with whom he shared a close bond: Elroy Olson and Marvin McCall.
Olson, Batley’s squad leader, went to take out an enemy machine gun nest. It was the last Batley saw of him.
“He went down with two fellows and I heard the machine gun firing after a while and Olson never came back,” he recalled. “Two days before that, he was waving a yellow telegram from home that he was a father of a baby boy.”
McCall died as a prisoner of war. Batley had served as his assistant BAR man.
“I was supposed to stick to him like glue, that guy,” Batley said.
If he had, Batley likely would have ended up a prisoner of war as well.Importance of service
The South Hadley Public Schools Veterans’ Recognition Breakfast was the superintendent’s brainchild. Young has spent about 33 years in the U.S. Army Reserve. A colonel, he has commanded infantry and medical units.
In addition to Batley, the commanders of the local American Legion and VFW posts spoke. Library Director Joseph Rodio also gave a presentation on South Hadley Public Library’s collection of local war memories.
Speaking to the students in attendance, John Collins, director for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, highlighted the importance of public service.
“Whether it is serving in the military, serving as a teacher, serving as a government official, we need good people in government,” he said. “We need bright young minds to continue to help defend and run our country, and teach our young people.”
Sophie Gatzounas, 18, is one of those answering Collins’ call. She will enroll at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, this fall.
Gatzounas said she was recruited to play on the institution’s basketball team and found the mix of education, athletics and service too good to pass up.
“I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself,” she said.
The breakfast ceremony, she said, put everything in perspective.
“Serving is important to everyone in this room,” Gatzounas said.
At least a dozen other students who either have enlisted or plan to enlist attended. During a pause in the ceremony, a group of students gathered around Batley. Zabe Solivan, 17, was one of them. A junior, Solivan plans on enlisting in the Navy this summer.
“I felt like he had something interesting that I could learn,” Solivan said. “He definitely did.”
Solivan said Batley spoke of his service, how he earned his Purple Heart and the comrades he lost.
Phillip Girard, an Army veteran who also served during World War II, said he attended out of concern for his fellow veterans. His son-in-law, Mark Heberd, said Girard — a two-time Purple Heart recipient — attends many such ceremonies.
Granby resident Joshua Bouchard likewise said he came to support his fellow veterans.
“From what I’ve seen, the community really cares for their veterans,” he said. “At least in my (experience), there are a lot of great people who care.”
Two South Hadley students, Sarah Carr and Anna Evans, also earned awards for their participation in the VFW’s essay contests.
Young’s goal with the breakfast was to build bridges between community groups while forging an intergenerational connection between veterans and students.
“Overall, we just feel strongly the school is the hub of the community and as the hub, we have a lot of responsibility to have a lot of outreach to the different groups,” Young said.
Emily Cutts can be reached at email@example.com.