WWII couple's service remembered
September 27, 2011
FARMINGDALE, N.J. (Army News Service, Sept. 27, 2011) -- World War II Army Sgt. George H. Geffken was laid to rest with full military honors, Sept. 22, at Arlington National Cemetery.
At the funeral to receive his burial flag was his wife of 67 years, Mary Geffken, who had also served in uniform during World War II as a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. In fact, she had been a poster girl for women in military service.
George joined the Connecticut National Guard in October 1939, at the age of 17 -- after having his father sign papers saying he was 18. Accompanying him to his Monday-night drills that year was a football teammate, Dick Hawley. Their friendship would later pay dividends as the two fought beside each other in the Pacific.
After a year of drills with the 43rd Infantry Division of the National Guard, George was propelled into the most hazardous part of his life. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, National Guard units across the entire country were mobilized, sent to formal training, and prepared for possible entry of the United States into war.
George's unit was formally inducted into active federal service on Feb. 24, 1941. The day of infamy at Pearl Harbor was less than a year away. The 43rd conducted basic training at Fort Blanding Fla., and advanced training at Camp Shelby, Miss., where George was promoted to sergeant.
During a furlough to New York in May 1942, the wife of George's friend, Bub Wall, introduced him to her roommate, Mary Cowan.
"This was the end of my childhood and the beginning of a new life for me," George had said of that first encounter.
Sixteen months older than George, Mary was working as an x-ray technician at Orange Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. She remembers fondly her first meeting with him.
"We met briefly that night and I was impressed with [his] honesty and shyness," she said. "The next day Mary and I met [George] and Bub at the Crossroads Café at 42nd Street and Broadway to spend an evening in New York. We had dinner at the famous Mama Leone's and later went dancing to Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra at the Hotel Astor Roof."
George and Mary became engaged in September 1942, and soon afterward the entire 43rd Division was shipped to Fort Ord, Calif., on the way to the South Pacific.
With her fiancée occupied with his Army service, Mary quit her job at the hospital and enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps -- just a day after her 22nd birthday. She too then had military duty, and shipped in 1943 to Fort Devens, Mass., for basic training.
Her first posting was to Fort Myer, Va., and she was assigned to the "Secret Room" of the Pentagon, working for the Army G-2. Her job entailed reproducing Army documents, including some U.S. troop movements, as well as other government secrets.
During her time in uniform, she was invited to attend a social function at one of the embassies in Washington. A photo taken at that event ended up making her a poster girl for the women in the Army.
"It must have been at the British Embassy on a Sunday afternoon," Mary said. "We were told to make sure that our shoes were polished, our hair an inch above our collars, no earrings, etc. As I recall, it was quite crowded with a lot of D.C. brass. We thought it was hilarious. There were several photographers taking pictures -- some of us in groups and some of us solo. I don't even remember my picture being taken alone!"
Months later, a WAC recruiting poster was introduced to encourage women to join the Women's Army Corps. Mary's image, not a photo, but a painting of her, was the central image on the poster.
"Why my image was selected I'll never know," Mary said.
While Mary had become the poster girl for the W.A.C. in the United States, her fiancée was preparing to go to the South Pacific.
After the Japanese Imperial Army suffered a clearly decisive defeat at Guadalcanal, their 8th Area Army took firm command. This newly commissioned administrative headquarters ordered a major air base built at Munda Point, on New Georgia Island.
The 43rd Infantry Division of Connecticut, George's unit, was one of those assigned to capture New Georgia. George and his fellow Soldiers landed there July 5,1943; their mission to take Munda Airfield began the next day.
"The days were scary as snipers were taking their toll," George said. "The nights were terrifying, as the Japs were masters at keeping us awake all night with random firing and screaming."
It was one of those snipers that would end up injuring George, while he was attempting to save a fellow teammate.
"Snipers were really pesty, and having heard of spraying trees on Guadalcanal with machine guns, I prevailed upon our platoon leader, Dick Hawley, for us to reconnoiter a forward hill to set up our two 30-caliber guns," George said. "Some sudden enemy fire drew my attention as we moved together up this hill. I spotted a GI laying in heavy jungle growth some 10 yards to our front. I made a dash to his side to determine if he was alive."
While attempting to drag the GI to safety, George himself was hurt by enemy fire.
"Immediately I was hit somewhere and felt the sting of a bullet, then another, and a third," he said. "I then experienced paralysis of my legs -- they felt like they were floating behind me. I called to Dick -- help me! But because he was still in the line of fire, he yelled 'crawl back to me.' I said 'I can't, my legs won't move.'"
His platoon leader and friend from back home called George to him, instructing him to drag himself, however possible.
"I did, just grabbing grass until I reached him," George said. "He got me to Columbus Carta, our medic from Middletown, who dressed my wounds and put me out of pain with morphine. We spent the night in a foxhole."
George received a Purple Heart for this incident as well as a Silver Star.
"... for gallantry in action in New Georgia, Solomon Islands, wherein he fearlessly advanced into the face of heavy enemy machine-gun fire to reach two wounded comrades, administer first aid and then in carrying the more seriously wounded of the two to safety received four wounds himself on the 13th of July ...," reads George's Silver Star citation.
George was eventually shipped to New Caledonia, then to a hospital in California. By November 1943, he was transferred to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. There, he underwent two operations and several months of rehabilitation. He was also closer to home and closer to his fiancée, Mary, who was stationed at Fort Myer, Va.
The two married in April 1944, and both left military service the following year. They raised three children together, Richard, Nancy and James.
(Richard M. Geffken is the oldest child of George and Mary Gefkin. He was named after George's World War II platoon leader and friend, Dick Hawley.)