Robert S. Gemerek inherited his father’s mechanical abilities and would sometimes tinker with automobiles at his dad’s business, Stan’s Garage, in Clarence Hollow.
But when World War II started, Stan Gemerek closed the business and went to work at Bell Aircraft as a supervisor at the old Elmwood Avenue plant in Buffalo. Robert, thanks to his dad, soon landed a job at Bell, working at what was then known as the new plant out in Wheatfield.
The younger Gemerek tested .50-caliber machine guns to make sure they were suitable for installation in the nose of P-39 Airacobra fighter planes. He also checked the quality of .30-caliber machine guns that were to be mounted in the wings.
When a draft notice arrived at the family’s home, Gemerek’s civilian life was over. It was time to get into the fight in a more direct way, and he knew exactly how wanted to defend the country – as a pilot.
“I scored pretty good on the aviation test, but when it came to the medical test, my eyesight wasn’t that good,” Gemerek lamented.
Realizing he had valuable experience with aircraft construction, the Army Air Forces trained Gemerek to be a group armor inspector, putting him in charge of crews responsible for loading bombs into airplanes and repairing .50-caliber machine guns.
As for patriotism, the Gemerek family proved to be high-caliber. The second-oldest of five brothers, Gemerek and two other brothers all served at the same time in the Second World War. “My older brother, Don, was also in the Army Air Forces in Africa,” he says, “and my younger brother Kenneth was in the Navy and served in Saipan.”
Gemerek would be spared the battlefields, though that did not shield him from danger.
“We left from Newport News, Va., in what was seemingly a group of hundreds of warrior ships,” he says. “It took us a month to get to Europe. We were dodging German submarine patrols, and depth charges were going off trying to get the submarines.
“On the way, a tanker right next to our ship going through the Strait of Gibraltar got sunk by German planes that were strafing us. We were lucky we didn’t get sunk.”
The ship was transporting bombs, he explains, and “the troops … were told to go below. If we’d gotten hit, there would have been a heck of a bang.”
Happy to arrive in one piece in Italy, Gemerek was assigned to the Foggia Airfield Complex, where he again saw the life-and-death moments of war up close. “A B-24 with a 10-man crew blew up as it was taking off. Something malfunctioned,” Gemerek recalls. “We all jumped in the safest place we could find.”
The sight of the explosion was upsetting, Gemerek says, but he and his buddies carried on, making sure that fragmentation bombs, and 500- and 1,000-pound bombs were properly placed into the planes.
When the planes’ .50-caliber machine guns gave out, Gemerek supervised repairs, making sure his crews properly replaced bushings and other mechanisms.
Work shifts often continued round-the-clock. “Whenever there was something to do,” he says, “we got orders to take care of it.”
And when the war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, Gemerek and his fellow airmen got orders to prepare to head to the Pacific in preparation for the planned invasion of Japan, “but then President Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs.”
And that ended the war.
Gemerek headed home, but not before he went up in a B-24 and flew over Europe to see where the planes he had serviced had done battle.
“We were up about 12 hours, and it was kind of like a sightseeing tour,” he remembers. “I could see where we had fought, and there was nothing left. The pilots and the bombardiers had done a good job.”
Upon his return to the States, Gemerek looked up a young lady he had met at a USO dance in Springfield, Mass., and discovered, to his delight, that the embers of romance were still aglow.
“I had corresponded with her through letters while I was overseas,” he says.
And the rest is history. Gemerek married Barbara Long, and they raised five children. He supported his family by putting his mechanical abilities to work, first at the Buffalo Police Department auto repair garage and then advancing to the repair garage at the city Water Department.
“I worked myself up to be superintendent of that garage,” he says
After 65 years of marriage, Barbara Long Gemerek died last year. During those final years after she came down with Alzheimer’s disease, Robert Gemerek once again answered the call of duty by serving as her primary caretaker. There would no nursing home for his beloved Barb.
He was so attentive that just before bedtime, he would toss her nightgown into the dryer so that it would be warm.
He is too shy to say it, but his daughter Gail Kaminski said, “Mom called him ‘my hero,’ over and over.”