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Saluting Our War Heroes: Artillery man kept big guns firing

Joseph A. Sternisha, 92

Hometown and residence: Gowanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: Drafted 1942 - 1945

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Artillery

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Joseph A. Sternisha’s fascination with chemistry landed him a job at the Moench Tannery on Palmer Street in Gowanda after he graduated from high school.

“The owner of the tannery spoke to my chemistry teacher. He was looking for someone to replace a chemist who was being drafted for World War II, and he interviewed me and felt that I was qualified,” Sternisha said. “I ended up being the engineer for the tannery’s coal-fired powerhouse.”

Sternisha loved the work, but some 18 months later, Uncle Sam came knocking on his door, too. He received a draft notice and like his two older brothers went off to war. Frank, the oldest, served with the Army Air Corps in England, and Tommy, the middle brother, served in the 7th Armored Division in France.

“I went to Fort Niagara and was assigned to artillery. At that time, they were looking for artillery people,” the 92-year-old veteran said of how he came to serve in the 256th Field Artillery Battalion.

Many of the soldiers in the battalion had been drafted from Western and Central New York. But what pleased Sternisha was having a friend from Gowanda among his comrades – Robert Palcic, a gifted piano player.

As someone with a keen interest in science and how things worked, Sternisha said he was awed by the piece of artillery he and his fellow soldiers were assigned to operate. It was known as an 8-inch gun, a reference to the interior diameter of the more than 30-foot-long barrel.

“It was a complicated piece of machinery. It took two trailers to haul it around,” Sternisha said. “It was like the big guns that were mounted on Navy destroyers and battleships.”

The 240-pound shells were capable of soaring more than 20 miles to their intended targets, he said.

“We never saw where the shells landed but we were going after the Germans’ railway guns a lot of the time,” he said.

The railway guns were monster-sized weapons mounted on flatbed rail cars and also had to be assembled.

“Some of them were so big that it took a crane to load the shells,” Sternisha said.

Sternisha, whose modesty reflects the Greatest Generation, described his job on the gun crew as “minute.” Yet as the radio man, it was a crucial job. Once a target was selected, mathematicians at headquarters calculated the angle at which to raise a gun’s barrel and how much of a charge to pack inside it in order for the artillery shell to reach its destination.

“I would relate this information to the crew.”

Sternisha also was in contact with the pilot of an observation plane, who flew high above the intended targets in order to confirm a hit or a miss.

“When the pilot would say to me, ‘I’m in position, fire when ready.’ I’d raise my arm and drop it. That was the sign for the crew to fire the gun. I’d report to the pilot, ‘Shell is on the way.’ It took only a matter of seconds for the shell to reach its destination and the pilot would let me know if it was a direct hit, or if it had gone over or under the target, or on either side of it. If we missed, the mathematicians would make adjustments.”

When there was a direct hit, Sternisha said the observation pilots were often shocked by what they witnessed.

“The hit would take out not only the gun but its ammunition and the pilot would report, ‘You won’t believe the blast I just saw.’ The pilot would want to know where we were because he wanted to see the gun responsible for doing that. But I couldn’t announce our location over the radio.

“Sometimes headquarters would give a pilot information to get near to us. He’d land and take a look and say he couldn’t believe something that big could get around.”

The power of an 8-inch gun not only unleashed fury on the enemy, but buildings near it, according to Sternisha.

“When we were in Belgium, there were these barns and the slate shingles on them would actually come off because of the gun’s concussion.”

And there was the sound the gun made when it fired.

“Deafening,” Sternisha said.

But not all the sounds of the war Sternisha experienced were bad.

He remembered the time his buddy from back home, Palcic, came upon a piano in a German barrack.

“We took over the barrack and believe it or not, there was a piano on the second floor. When Bob went up there, he sat down and started to play it. I asked Bob, ‘Can you play Tea for Two and some boogie-woogie?’ And boy did he do that. It was wonderful,” Sternisha said of the unexpected musical respite.

After the war, he returned home to work at the tannery. Later, he went to work at Ford Motor Co.’s Woodlawn stamping plant and retired from there in 1983.

A former commander of Gowanda’s American Legion Post 409, he is the father of five children. He also has several grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

And while he remains impressed with the power of the gun he was assigned to in the war, Sternisha says it is the melodies his buddy Bob tapped out on the piano keys so long ago that provided him with some of his happiest war memories.