Street naming honors WW 2 war hero, victim of Nazi atrocity

Flight crew of the Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’m: (top row, l-r) 2nd Lt. Norman Rogers, pilot; 2nd Lt. John Sekul, co-pilot; Lt. Bernard Cassidy, navigator; Lt. Yancey Robinson, bombardier; (Bottom row (l-r) : Sgt. William Adams, nose gunner; Sgt. Elmore Austin, waist gunner; Staff Sgt. Thomas Williams Jr., radio operator; Sgt. William Dumont, belly gunner; Sgt. Sidney Brown, tail gunner and S. Sgt. Forrest Brininstool, engineer. Lt. Bernard Cassidy, navigator and Lt. Yancey Robinson, bombardier.
Photo by Richard Vitacco

A co-pilot who was heinously murdered as a POW in World War II will finally be recognized in his home town 75 years after he was killed by an angry mob.

A street co-naming will honor U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant John Sekul, a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber crew member murdered by Nazi sympathizers after being shot down behind enemy lines in 1944.

The co-naming, supported by Community Board 9, will take place on Monday, August 26 at the street corner where Sekul lived – Newbold and Havermeyer avenues.

It is scheduled for noon, with a procession led by Unionport American Legion Post #1056 at 2151 Newbold Avenue starting at 11:30 a.m.

Richard Vitacco, president of the East Bronx History Forum, which meets in Westchester Square at the Huntington Free Library, compiled the research that persuaded CB 9, community members, and Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. to support the naming.

Vitacco told the Bronx Times that Sekul, who was born in 1922, graduated Evander Childs High School in 1940 before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1942, was the co-pilot of the B-24J bomber ‘Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’m’ on August 24, 1944 when he, along with his crew were shot down over enemy lines.

After their capture, most of the crew was then being transported across Germany to a prison camp when they had to change trains in Russelheim, Germany.

While walking through that city’s streets to the train, the U.S. soldiers were accosted by townspeople who mistook them for British soldiers who they believed had bombed an Opel car factory that produced war machinery the previous evening, said Vitacco, adding American warplanes had also participated in bombing the town during the daylight hours.

The German civilians, joined by a Nazi air-raid warden for Russelheim, Josef Hartgen, who was also a foreman at the plant, attacked the prisoners, according to Vitacco’s narrative.

After the crew was beaten, Hartgen executed most of the crew, including Sekul, shooting each of them in the head with a 6.35 mm pistol, said Vitacco, adding that two of the crew members survived when the Nazi ran out of bullets.

While permanent places of remembrances were placed in Russelheim, as well as in Georgia, to remember what happened, Sekul was never honored in his home town, said Vitacco.

Vitacco believes the co-naming will bring folks to a greater awareness of what happened so it will never replicate itself, adding the effort drew support from residents and businesses in the area.

“Their story was an atrocity,” said Vitacco. “The goal is (to raise awareness so) that something like this doesn’t happen in the future.”

Vitacco received a great deal of support from American Legion Unionport Post #1065 and the Bronx County American Legion.

Ricardo Garcia, adjutant of Post #1065 and vice commander of the American Legion’s Bronx County executive committee, said the Unionport American Legion post will march in a procession the morning of the street co-naming, along with a military band and local people.

“This is indicative of what the American Legion supports and what we do,” said Garcia. “It is fantastic.”

Some of Sekul’s descendants have indicated they will be present at the street-sign unveiling, he said.

“It’s phenomenal that the family is going to be present,” said Garcia. “Unfortunately, it is 70-plus years later but they can walk away with a sense of what Sekul was able to accomplish.”

Garcia said that it is incredible that Vitacco was able to get in touch with Sekul and some of the other crew members’ families.

“Richard has done some major work on this and it is something I am proud to support,” said Garcia, adding it was great that the Bronx will finally know the story of the crew and about the hero they had in their midst by learning about Sekul.

Reach Reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 260–4597. E-mail him at procchio@schnepsmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @patrickfrocchio.
John Sekul will be remembered for his heroics as a co-pilot in World War II.
Photo courtesy of Richard Vitacco

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