Community Columns

Guest Column: a war, a wound and two wonders

This is the story of my husband, his war wound and two of the most amazing coincidences ever.

In the spring of 1944, right out of high school in Brooklyn, John Egan Gillies decided to sign up with the Air Force. But there was an issue: his eyes. He’d worn glasses since he was 6, and knew the vision test would be a problem. So his ophthalmologist gave him drops to improve his vision, put him in a cab and told him to keep his eyes shut until he got to the recruitment center. 

It worked. He passed the physical. His family threw him a big farewell party and he was off to a base in Maryland. There, unfortunately, he had to undergo a second physical, and this one he flunked. The stuff had worn off. 

Now Jack faced a new problem. He’d already had his farewell party, so he couldn’t just go home. Rather than face that embarrassment, he turned to the Army, where vision wouldn’t be such an issue. The Army took him, and he joined the 119th Infantry of the 30th Infantry Division, nicknamed “Old Hickory.” 

By Christmas he was at Camp Croft in South Carolina for basic training. One night, playing poker, he won big and stashed his winnings under his mattress. But he never got a chance to spend it. The bugle sounded at 4 a.m. and he forgot all about the money. Private Gillies was heading for the war.

Things happened fast after that. First a stop in New York, then a crossing to England aboard the Queen Mary. Finally his troop arrived by cattle car at the front. The air of excitement on that train dissipated fast when the door opened. “All I could see were dead bodies,” Jack told me. He had landed in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle of World War II except for D-Day. And things were not going well for our side.

By that time, Jack had made a buddy, a cab driver from New York who’d been there three months. “Do what I do and you’ll be okay,” he told Jack. “When I duck, you duck. When I crawl, you crawl. When I run, you run.”

Three days of fighting later, the cabbie shot himself in the foot. The last thing he told Jack before the medic arrived was this: “If you’re wounded, crush your glasses. They can mend your body but not your glasses.”

The war eventually led Jack to Hamelin, Germany, of Pied Piper fame, where his troop was charged with clearing the town. The soldiers were creeping forward when a U.S. tank came along. “Hop aboard,” the tank crew guys told them. “It’s all clear.” Not quite, as it turned out. That truth came home when a sniper’s bullet hit Jack in the neck. He fell into the tank’s track, his broken glasses beside him. The date was April 6, 1945. He called it “Wound Day.”

They took him to a field hospital where a German doctor worked on the gaping wound between his carotid artery and his trachea. Somehow that doctor saved his life.

Partially paralyzed, Jack was sent first to Paris for rehab, then to London, then upstate New York. Finally he arrived back at his family home in Brooklyn. Eventually he would receive a Purple Heart and other medals.

Having survived his wound and recovered from his paralysis, Jack’s first move back home was to enroll at St. John’s University in Brooklyn. As it happened, I was a student at St. John’s, too. One day, Jack and some friends were having lunch at Rex’s Luncheonette across the street from college and I was in the booth right behind him. “Oooh,” I whispered to my friends, “who has that beautiful voice?”

“That’s Jack Gillies,” someone said. 

Then we were dating, and Jack changed his schedule so we were in the same classes. Our first kiss was at Alley Pond Park in Queens. We were married on Aug. 28, 1948.

After college and law school, Jack was working as a law clerk when we bought our first house. It was in Massapequa, on Long Island. Thanks to the GI Bill, it cost $8,900, no down payment. Soon the house was full of the first three of our children. When we went to the beach, the fist-size hole left by the sniper bullet’s exit wound would make a small pool. Our kids would run their Matchbox cars through it, never knowing the painful story of its creation.

And that leads us to the first coincidence. It stemmed from an application for life insurance, which required a physical exam. When the examiner came to our house and saw the bullet’s entry wound in Jack’s neck and exit wound in his shoulder, he stopped. “Were you wounded in Hamelin, Germany?” he asked.

Jack was stunned, but said yes. 

“I’m the doctor who treated you,” came the reply. “I always wondered if you made it, and you did.”

We were in shock. So much so that we never even got the doctor’s name, to thank him properly.

The second coincidence happened one night when Jack was studying his law books. I’d already read everything in the house, so I took down his 119th Infantry yearbook and chanced upon something amazing. It was the story of a priest leading a Palm Sunday Mass on the tailgate of a jeep in Germany. 

“Jack,” I asked, “did you attend that Mass?” He said he did. Well, I told him, that same day I celebrated Mass almost 4,000 miles away, at Our Lady of Wisdom Academy in Queens. “Father Ansbro asked us to pray for his brother in Germany and the soldiers in his flock.” 

His brother was the priest leading that tailgate mass in Germany.

“So I prayed for you!” I said.

“I guess you didn’t pray hard enough,” Jack answered. “Two weeks later I was shot.”

“You didn’t die, did you?” I replied.

Jack would go on to a long career as an attorney and would serve as Village Justice and then Village Attorney in Farmingdale, Long Island, for many years. Among his many civic contributions, he was the longtime president of St. Mary’s Children and Family Services. His funeral in 1997 overflowed with people he’d helped through the years. Many of those stories we never knew until then.

Our own family grew large. Jack and I had nine children, and now the clan includes 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren (so far). 

All that and so much more, thanks to that nameless doctor in that field hospital in Germany in the winter of 1945, and the prayer of a faraway stranger.

We were meant for each other. “For me, for you, forever more,” says our headstone.

Postscript: I was introduced to the North Fork at age 4. I always knew I wanted to live here someday, and eventually it came true in 1972, when we bought our house on Nassau Point in Cutchogue. It became our year-round residence one wonderful day in 1993. 

There were other houses along the way, and now I live in Riverhead, but, at age 95, I’m still here.