by Morey Storck
Tarrytown resident Leon Gutherz was awarded five medals, due to a neighbor’s interest and initiative, albeit 70 years late. It was during an outside gab session one afternoon that Gutherz happened to mention his war record to one of the group. She immediately picked up on it, felt he definitely deserved recognition, copied his discharge papers, put the request in writing, and sent the package to Congresswoman Nita Lowey.
On May 12 in her White Plains office, the congresswoman presented five awards to Gutherz, saying, “I am so proud to be a citizen of the United States of America and present these medals to a person who has served with distinction so that we can live in liberty here.”
Gutherz, 91, joined the Army right after his high school graduation. During his senior year he was approached by a U.S. Army recruiter. He was offered the opportunity of a college education and, in return, would be required to join the Army, much like the ROTC program today. “I just had to take an exam and they’d put me into college. So, I took the exam. Did well, and just like that I started at Alfred University in Engineering,” Gutherz said. “I was there until the Battle of the Bulge broke out in Europe.”
At that point, the Army felt they needed all the manpower they could get right away. Once more Gutherz was approached by the Army. While having completed just one year at Alfred, he was asked if he wanted to become a paratrooper. “Hey, what did I know? I was just a little Jewish kid from the Bronx, so I said okay.”
He left college and entered infantry training. With that completed, Gutherz was transferred to Ft. Benning, Georgia, and then to the 11th Airborne Division and the Army Airborne Pathfinders (Angels), an elite intensively trained and selective unit, for which Gutherz also volunteered.
The Pathfinders would set up visual and electronic navigational aids to mark the parachute drop zones and allow the pilots to “home in” on the correct location to drop the airborne soldiers in a concentrated pattern. Their battle cry was ‘First In – Last Out’, never leaving the scene of combat until all are safe.
The division was held in reserve in the United States for the first half of 1944. In June, the division was transferred to the Pacific Theater of Operations. The division’s first airborne operation was a combat drop on the Tagaytay Ridge, February 3, 1945, with the drop zone around the Manila Hotel Annex. Later, the division participated in the Liberation of Manila, and after that, divisional paratroopers conducted a raid on the Los Banos internment camp, liberating more than 2000 civilians. The 11th Airborne and Pathfinders’ last WWII combat operation was in the north of Luzon aiding combined American and Philippine forces who were battling to subdue the remaining Japanese resistance on the island.
General MacArthur had made plans to use the 11th Airborne Division in the invasion of Japan, but after the detonation of two nuclear bombs, the division was instead selected to lead the forces that would occupy Japan. “Whew! Just missed that little invasion party,”joyfully commented Gutherz. The 11th Airborne had been stationed on Okinawa following their last combat operation, waiting for MacArthur, but on August 28th it was ordered to Yokohama, Japan as part of the occupation force. Four years later it was recalled to the U.S.