Wallace B. Gillman, a young radio operator on the Navy’s USS Langley aircraft carrier, sent a cheerful note to his loved ones in South Buffalo.
“Chin up, folks!” wrote Gillman, who attended South Park High School before enlisting to fight in World War II. “I’m OK and going to stay that way … and Uncle Sam is a swell guy to work for.”
A few weeks later, on Feb. 27, 1942, Japanese dive bombers killed Gillman and 15 other Langley crew members during an attack in the Indian Ocean.
Gillman was 21. He was one of 155 individuals from South Park killed during military service in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Their stories are told in a new book called “Our Fallen Warriors Remembered” by Matthew E. Parsons, 63, a 1970 graduate of South Park. Parsons, a former Buffalo Police homicide investigator, became a cybercrime expert and retired in 2011 as assistant director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
He said he was inspired to write the book after looking at photos of a monument at his old high school honoring South Park students who died serving their country during World War II.
“I was looking at these names on the monument, and I thought to myself, ‘These people are more than just names on a plaque or a piece of rock. What are the stories behind these names?’ They were all young people who put their own lives on hold to go off to war when their country needed them.”
He found that 154 men and one woman from the school died in war-related incidents between 1918 and 2004. The first to die was John A. Mallion, a former South Park football player who joined the Marine Corps during World War I. Mallion died of gunshot wounds after a battle in France. The most recent was Army Sgt. David M. McKeever, who left behind a wife and young son when he was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush in Iraq.
The one woman in the group was Jean V. Herko, an honors grad who became a nurse and a lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. She and 22 other passengers died when an Army plane crashed in a foggy valley in Italy in 1945.
One of the many stories that touched Parsons was that of Ignatius Camiolo, a Merchant Marine who died in an oil tanker explosion off Mexico’s coast in May 1942.
“Camiolo was killed just 11 days after he had to be rescued from another ship that was hit by two German torpedoes in the Gulf of Mexico,” Parsons said.
World War II soldier John W. Flanigan died in January 1942 after an apparent accidental shooting in his commanding officer’s tent in Camp Stewart, Ga. The shooting happened just weeks after Flanigan traveled home to marry his South Buffalo sweetheart, Mary O’Day.
The book tells the stories of 136 individuals who died during World War II, eight who died in the Vietnam War, seven in Korea, three from World War I and one from Operation Iraqi Freedom. Parsons said he is especially proud that his research uncovered information on 15 former students whose deaths had not been previously known to the school.
Parsons donated his time to research and write the book, and all proceeds go to the South Park Alumni Association. The 240-page book costs $25 and can be purchased by calling the alumni group at 716-816-4828. A book signing will be held at 1 p.m. on Memorial Day at American Legion Post 721 at 136 Cazenovia St.
Writing the book was “a gratifying and heart-wrenching experience,” said Parsons, who also earned degrees at Erie Community College and SUNY Buffalo State. He hopes to encourage alumni from other area high schools to undertake similar projects.
“Every high school has a list of people who died in war,” he said. “People whose sacrifices should be remembered.”