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The Woyciesjes brothers

Peter and Martha Woyciesjes (woy-SEE-jess) were born in the Ukraine, he about 1880, she about 10 years later. They arrived in the United States in 1914, but apparently spent some time in Austria along the way. Eventually they would have four sons — John P., Joseph J., Marian and Michael.

Like many immigrants with unusual names, Peter and Martha Woyciesjes discovered that official documents in this country had changed theirs. Slightly. While they continued to use the correct spelling, their official name was Woycieszyn, which shows how bureaucracy — for no good reason — can complicate matters. The matter wasn't officially corrected until 1943.

Anyway, it wasn't the last name that became the big issue around 1920. It was the first name of their third child. Marian took a lot of kidding from other children. They said he had a girl's name. For awhile she stopped going to school. He found the solution in the man for whom the New World was named — Americo Vespucci. Marian Woyciesjes became Americo Woyciesjes, but soon became better known as Rico, who became famous locally for his amazing success on the Syracuse University boxing team. He was the Eastern intercollegiate light-heavyweight champion three years in a row, which was impressive enough, but it was his aggressiveness and the 22 knockouts in 32 fights that attracted so much attention and earned him a spot in the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

If there was a downside to Rico Woyciesjes' fame it's that it sometimes put his younger brother, Michael, into the background when it came to covering the brothers during World War 2 when both would emerge as heroes with incredible stories to tell.

However, Michael Woyciesjes did outrank his brother and he also served in the branch of the service that had been his brother's first choice — the Army Air Corps. That was one dream that didn't come true for Rico Woyciesjes, but perhaps the only one. (And how do I know it was his dream? Well, it goes beyond the second paragraph of the item below, the one that says Woyciesjes enlisted as an aviation cadet. That he would do such a thing was determined many years later. I'm saving that for the end of this piece because the proof, such as it is, is a real blast from the past.)

Here, in chronological order and with some editing to remove redundancies, are newspaper articles that told of the adventures of two interesting, daring, resourceful and, ultimately, very lucky veterans of World War 2 who once walked the halls of Solvay High School.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, February 19, 1942
Determined to fight for Uncle Sam as he did in the ring for Syracuse University when he won the Eastern Intercollegiate championship, Americo M. Woyciesjes, 26, of Gere’s Lock, Solvay, will enlist in the Marine Corps tomorrow.

The sturdy 175-pound boxer enlisted last year as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps but failed to meet rigid requirements and was honorably discharged.

Undaunted by his run of hard luck, Woyciesjes determined he was going to do his bit. He had already passed the Marine Corps physical requirements and tomorrow will be enlisted and leave for Parris Island, South Carolina, and training as a leatherneck.

 

Syracuse Herald-Journal, April 5, 1943

By Sgt. ARTHUR E. MIELKE
Marine Corps combat correspondent

Somewhere in the South Pacific — A two-fisted boxing champion who battled the Japanese several months on Guadalcanal is the proud owner of a display of 200 rare butterflies which he collected on that jungle island.

Private First Class Americo M. Woyciesjes, USMC, of Gere’s Lock, RFD, Solvay, New York, three-time winner of the Eastern Intercollegiate 175-pound boxing title, says little about his Jap-fighting, likes to talk about boxing, and will wax positively enthusiastic in any conversation about butterfly collecting.

While most Guadalcanal Marines used their spare moments for resting or writing letters, Private Woyciesjes was beating the jungle with his improvised net — a mosquito head net and a piece of wire — and a rifle.

The rifle was for Japs, the net for butterflies. His 200 rare specimens may some day bear the specific name “Guadalcanal Woyciesjesensis,” his friends say.

The Marine fighter-collector won his boxing titles in 1939, 1940 and 1941 while a student at Syracuse University, where he studied entomology in the College of Forestry. He captained the boxing team in his senior year.

He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter W. Woyciesjes. Two brothers also are in the service — Michael, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Force, and John, a petty officer in the Navy.

 

Syracuse Herald-Journal, May 12, 1944
CAPE GLOUCESTER, New Britain — Marine Sgt. Americo M. Woyciesjes has received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism on a secret mission.

The presentation of the award was made by Maj. Gen. William H. Rumpertus, commanding general of the Camp Gloucester forces.

The story of Sgt. Woyciesjes’ feat must be withheld for awhile, until it will no longer benefit the enemy. However, he has mailed the medal to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Woyciesjes, Gere’s Lock, RD 1, Solvay.

 

Syracuse Herald-American,, July 16, 1944

By LAWRENCE J. SKIDDY
Sports Editor

As a Marine, Americo Woyciesjes of Gere’s Lock, Syracuse University’s dynamic boxing star of 1938, 1939 and 1940, has made as fine a fighting record as he did when an Orange athlete.

Sgt. Woyciesjes, home for a 30-day furlough after two years of service in the South Pacific, leaves after his holiday to enter Officers Candidate School before going back to the war against Japan, in the Pacific Islands, where his brother, Lieut. Michael Woyciesjes is still on duty.

On his chest Americo wears ribbons which show a presidential unit citation, a personal citation from Vice Admiral Kincaid, the Navy and Marine Corps medal as well as stars to show participation in four major battles and two important campaigns.

The former college boxing champion hasn’t had a glove on his hands during two and a half years service in the Marine Corps and doesn’t intend to box again. He has his Syracuse University degree, but he plans to go to college for two more years, taking a refresher course and seeking a master’s degree. Then he’ll look for a job on a high school faculty as a science teacher. He’d coach athletes, too, if asked.

Sgt. Woyciesjes enlisted in the Marine Corps in February, 1942 and trained at Parris Island and at New River before being sent overseas. He was one of the first to land on Guadalcanal, taking part in the seizure battles and remaining on duty for the occupational and defense battles, being taken “off the Canal” in mid-December, 1942, for a long stay in rest camp.

He had some time off duty during his rest camp period and where do you think he went for the holiday? Back to Guadalcanal for a visit his brother, Lieut. Michael Woyciesjes, who had been assigned there soon after Americo was taken off.

In July of 1943 he went back into action, fighting on New Britain in the Cape Gloucester campaign. It was for valor in the Cape Gloucester fighting that he received Adm. Kincaid’s citation.

While in the South Pacific, Woyciesjes, who collects butterflies as a hobby, rounded up 1,000 different specimens. His collection is in storage for him in a foreign city. After the war he hopes to use the collection in lecturing to science students.

The main change in Woyciesjes, as compared with his college days, is the fact that he enjoys cigarette smoking. He never smoked until he went into the Marine Corps.

While in battle areas, Woyciesjes says most of his buddies were men he met in the service, but he did run across two Central New Yorkers. Of these Joe Chesneski was a pal at high school in Solvay and the other was a Marine named Lynch from East Syracuse. Americo knew him as Lynch in Syracuse and used that name on Guadalcanal. He never thought to ask Lynch his first name.

“Things like first names do not bother you up in the battle area,” he said. “You hang a nickname on your pal and it sticks. I never have, or never will think of this fine friend except as Lynch.”

Woyciesjes is happy to be selected for OCS, but is quick to add that he is delighted he traveled the hard way in getting the chance.

He was in the big contingent of Marine brought home to America in late June and one of the first things he did on reaching land after sending word to his mother in Gere’s Lock, that he had arrived, was to attempt to reach Lieut. Com. Roy D. Simmons by telephone.

Simmons was his boxing coach at Syracuse University and one of his finest friends. He learned that the coach had been shifted to Minneapolis, but hopes to see him, for at least a handshake, before he eventually goes back to the Pacific for duty.

“We have a long, hard fight ahead of us, but we are gaining with each passing day,” Woyciesjes said.

“I hate to miss any part of it and I certainly expect to be back in it. Right now I am worrying more about a good rest than anything else. Service life has been wonderful and I love it and will always have fond memories of it. But there’s no place like home.”

 

Syracuse Herald-Journal, September 17, 1944
A veteran of 42 missions against the Japanese in the South Pacific, including the first “strike” against Truk, Capt. Michael Woyciesjes of Gere’s Lock, RD 1, Solvay, is home for a rest before getting back into action.

His 42 missions represent some 69,300 miles of combat flying — all done in four-engined Liberators.

The 22-year-old bombardier, looking several years younger than his age, had numerous harrowing experiences.

He has gone through several crash landings in the Pacific, faced as many as 40 Japanese fighter planes, has had three of the four engines on his ship “conk out” and has flown through flak “so thick you could walk on it.”

He bears no scars of battle, considers himself lucky to be alive, let alone being home, and reports that despite the flak and mishaps, the bombing record always was “very good.”

A son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Woyciesjes, Capt. Woyciesjes, as squadron bombardier, flew in the lead ship of his squadron on any number of “strikes” or raids.

He holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with six bronze Oak Leaf Clusters and a silver cluster; a Presidential unit citation and battle ribbons for the Asiatic and Pacific theaters. The battle ribbons cover the North Solomons, Central Pacific, Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea and the Japanese Mandate campaigns.

On one occasion, he said, the ships were returning from a strike over Biak last May 24 when his No. 4 engine quit.

“We were 180 miles from our base,” Capt. Woyciesjes said, “and less than a minute later No. 2 started throwing oil and lost her pulling power. This was followed by the No. 3 motor. All we had left was No. 1 and we began to lose altitude.

“We flew at a 10-degree list and others in the squadron saw us going down and radioed the home field of our trouble. The field was alerted and a big “Dumbo” or Catalina flying boat was readied to pick us up at sea as soon as we crashed.

“We got down to 400 feet above the water and held at that altitude. How, none of us ever knew. The Lord was with us every inch of the way back. We just barely limped in and was there a reception committee at the field on hand to greet us! Everybody turned out, for they had been sweating out our mission with us.”

They had “shipped” over the side every piece of equipment to lighten the big Liberator and, as a last resort, took an ax and hacked off the tail turret and top gun turret.

A member of the 13th Air Force, Capt. Woyciesjes was on the first strike against the great Japanese base at Truk, March 29. This was followed by two other raids, March 29 and April 14.

“We ran into the Jap first team there,” the blond captain said, “and they were pretty good, but not good enough.”

One Jap fighter made a suicide pass at his squadron in the fighting.

Capt. Woyciesjes stopped in for a chat yesterday with Lieut. Michael Siegel, president of the Aviation Cadet Selection Board, to tell him how glad he is that he enlisted in this branch of the service. He signed up here January 18, 1942, and went overseas May 19, 1943.

“There were few dull moments from then on,” Capt. Woyciesjes told Lieut. Siegel, and then recalled for him one of the tougher missions.

“It was on August 30 last year,” the captain said, “during a strike over Kahila. The flak was heavier than usual and there was plenty of aerial opposition. We wound up with 55 flak holes in our ship and two Zeros made passes and left a trail of fifteen 7.7 caliber bullet holes down the fuselage. Yet not a one in the crew was hit and the plane was not disabled.”

On another day they had just unloaded their bombs over Rabaul and were on their way back to their base at Guadalcanal.

For some reason they never discovered they lost all their gasoline. That was last January 7. They stretched their glide over the Pacific as long as possible and finally made a crash landing a half mile off Rob Roy Island in the Solomons group. They knew the adjoining island was alive with Japs. The Liberator floated for 10 minutes and in that time they got their rubber life-rafts out and loaded them with rations, knives and their radio equipment and struck out for shore.

At 7 a.m. the next morning they sighted a B-25 and shot a flare into the sky. The pilot saw the flare, spotted them and dropped some food and radioed their position to his base. At 10:30 a “Dumbo” set its hulk down on the Jap waters and they were rescued.

“I can’t speak too highly for those Dumbo pilots,” he said. “They just go right in and rescue a fellow no matter how close the enemy may be.”

A list of the missions he was on, many of them duplicated time and again until the enemy was “pulverized,” includes strikes at Kahili, Kara, Ballalae, Buka, Rabaul, the Boni Islands, Rekata Bay, Satawan, Maknes, Biak, Yap and Woleal.

Their permanent and temporary bases were moved as the conquest of the Japs increased. First his outfit was based in the New Hebrides, then on Guadalcanal, next on Munda, temporarily at Bougainville and Green Island, then on the Admiralty Islands and Los Negros.

While at Guadalcanal, Capt. Woyciesjes ran into his brother, Sgt. Americo Woyciesjes, then serving with the First Marine Division. He is now attending the Corps officer candidate school. The captain also met a friend of the family, Lieut. Irene Giba of the Army Nurse Corps. A neighbor, Sgt. Edward Kasimir, was in his squadron.

Capt. Woyciesjes left the Admiralty Islands September 7, flying back to the United States. He arrived in San Francisco September 9 and reached home September 11. He leaves October 7 for the redistribution center at Atlantic City.

Soon after the war ended, Lieut. Rico Woyciesjes of the Marines got married. Befitting a former athlete, news of the upcoming wedding appeared first on the sports pages. The story of the wedding itself, ran a month later where most people would find it — in the society section:

Syracuse Herald-American, October 28, 1945
Announcement is made by Mr. and Mrs. Andrew H. Sembrat, 710 Tully Street, of the marriage of their daughter, Miss Mary Sembrat, to Lieut. Americo M. Woyciesjes, USMC. The ceremony was performed in St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church October 14 at 2 o’clock by the Rev. Michael Kuziw. A reception followed in the home of the bride’s parents. The bridegroom is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Woyciesjes of Gere’s Lock, RFD1, Solvay.

The bride was attended by her cousins, Miss Dorothy Husak as maid of honor and Miss Mary Husak as bridesmaid. Michael M. Woyciesjes, the bridegroom’s brother, who served as an Army bombardier, was best man. Michael Sembrat, a former paratrooper, was usher.

The bride will live with her parents when the bridegroom reports to his base in Quantico, Virginia. He expects to be released from service in about two months. He served overseas in several major engagements.

No doubt, Rico Woyciesjes was an unusually interesting person. I mean, who else would collect butterflies on Guadalcanal in the middle of World War 2? More tidbits:

His boxing coach, Roy Simmons Sr. (who also coaches lacrosse and was an assistant football coach for many years) called Woyciesjes "the most aggressive man I ever coached."

Woyciesjes was one of the original World War 2 frogmen. Thus the secrecy about his early missions for which he was an amphibious scout who sneaked onto Japanese-controlled islands to map out the terrain before invasions.

He worked his way through college with a night job at Crucible Steel, just outside of Solvay. He lived at home and to stay in training as a boxer, ran from his home to Syracuse University. When you consider the hill from downtown to the campus you've got to figure Rocky Balboa had it easy by comparison.

After the war he worked for Bristol Labs and Allied Chemical. Later, he set up a home laboratory and was the first to isolate and sustain life in a new culture which led to the development of Gentamycin, known as the "Last Resort Antibiotic." It is used mainly in hospitals for treatment of serious and complicated infections.

Rico Woyciesjes died in 1997 at the age of 81, survived by his wife, Mary; three daughters, Christine Barr of Baldwinsville, Julie Lischak and Marilyn Woyciesjes of Syracuse; a son, Americo P. Woyciesjes of Syracuse, and his brother, Michael. His other brothers, Joseph and John, had died in 1980 and 1985.

Michael Woyciesjes passed away in October, 2010. He was a lifetime resident of the Syracuse area, eventually settling in East Syracuse. Like his brother, Rico, Michael was a man of many parts. He retired from Bristol Laboratories in 1986.

He remained in the Air Force Reserves until 1981, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. According to his obituary in the Syracuse Post-Standard:

Michael was a lifelong naturalist. He spent his summers in the Adirondacks at his camp. He was an expert entomologist, having collected specimens from around the world since the age of 11. He was a past member of the CNY Orchid Society and CNY Astronomical Society, a gifted stained glass artist and an avid gardener. He instilled his life-long passion for the arts and sciences in his children and grandchildren.

He was predeceased by his loving wife of 39 years, Dorothy (Husak) Woyciesjes. He is survived by his children, Michaelyn (Charles) Featherly, Patricia (John) Harmon, Peter (Deborah) Woyciesjes, Theodora Salcedo, Helen (Chris) Buonocore, and Stephanie Woyciesjes; 10 grandchildren, Michael (Janette) Auchampau, Griffin (Amy) Harmon, Jenica and Samantha Harmon, Erik and Alek Woyciesjes, Andres and Sofia Salcedo, Matthew and Jacob Buonocore; and many loved nieces and nephews.

Joseph Woyciesjes also was a resident of East Syracuse when he died in 1980, at the age of 70. He was born in Galicia, Austria, and was a machinist for the Penn Central Railroad for 49 years, retiring in 1975. He was survived by his wife, Sophia; two daughters, Mrs. Kathryn Zadrovicz of Fairfield, Connecticut, and Mrs. Dorothy Mautz of Baldwinsville; two sons Joseph Jr. of Milford, Connecticut, and Nicholas; and 21 grandchildren.

I have no information on John Woyciesjes, except that he settled in Bernhard's Bay in Oswego County and died in 1985. However, I have reason to believe that among his children was Robert M. Woyciesjes, who was a lance corporal in the Marines and served in Vietnam. He died in 2005 in Dallas.

Joseph Woyciesjes and his wife, the former Sophia Petryszyn, lost a son in 1962, First Lieut. George Woyciesjes, a 24-year-old Air National guard pilot, who was killed when his jet fighter plane "flamed out" during a training mission and crashed at Hancock Field, near Syracuse.

At the top of this page I mentioned a blast from the past involving Rico Woyciesjes, who was 19 at the time . . . the time being January, 1935. He and his brother, Michael, and thousands and thousands of other young American boys and girls followed the lead of publisher William Randolph Hearst whose newspapers, in 1934, had launched an organization that briefly was all the rage:

The Junior Birdmen of America (JBA) program was open to all young people — ages 10 through 21 — who had an interest in aviation. Information was carried by the 17 Hearst newspapers and many other publications around the country.

Many clubs were formed, supporting the model-airplane industry and teaching the youth of America the basics of flight. The Junior Birdmen of America is by far the most remembered club. It only cost ten cents to join. Members received a pin and a membership card, plus details on how to organize your own flight squadron.

One of the members who did just that was Americo Woyciesjes of Gere's Lock.

Syracuse American, January 6, 1935
The Syracuse wing’s membership is zooming along, and increasing at such a rapid rate that the next few months should see this Junior Birdmen unit ahead of some of those whose are leading us now.

By the middle of last week we had 2,111 boys and girls enrolled, an increase of about 500 since the middle of November.

Three more flight squadron groups were recently chartered by your local wing headquarters. One is at Sherburne, one at Verona Station and one at Solvay.

The Solvay squadron is headed by Americo Woyciesjes, whose address is Gere's Lock, RFD 1, Solvay. His members are Michael Woyciesjes, Michael Danko, John Danko, Frank Santulli, Mike Santulli, Jerry Santulli, John Fiust.

Two months later there was an update. I am assuming the report below was submitted by the future Syracuse University boxing great:

Syracuse Journal, March 2, 1935
The flight squadron recently chartered by Americo Woyciesjes of Solvay has been christened the Blackhawk Squadron, and the group is starting off in great shape by making definite plans for model building work.
The first report sent to your wing commander reads in part:

“Last Sunday we had our first meeting. I took the squadron to the airport, where we spent most of the afternoon looking over the planes and watching them take off and land. I demonstrated with a Waco biplane,, showing the boys the movements of the ailerons and rudder.

“When we reached home I called the meeting to order. All the members were present. We decided to have meetings every two weeks, with 10 cents as monthly dues.

“We had election of officers at this meeting. Michael Danko was elected captain, Frank Santulli sergeant-at-arms, and Michael Woyciesjes, treasurer. I chose a proficiency committee consisting of Michael Danko,, Michael Woyciesjes and myself. We discussed plans for making model airplanes to enter in coming events. Up to this time we have only collected pictures of airplanes, pilots and air terms.”

The Junior Birdmen movement faded as World War 2 approached. Rico Woyciesjes soon would be busy studying and boxing at college and working nights at Crucible Steel. As the first story on this page stated, Woyciesjes was discharged from the Air Cadet program and enlisted in the Marines. The rest, as they say, is history.

His brother seems to be the only one from the Blackhawk Squadron who did his fighting from a plane in World War 2.

Two members, Michael and John Danko, were brothers-in-law of Rico and Americo Woyciesjes, thanks to the 1930 marriage of John Woyciesjes to Mary Danko. The Danko brothers lived in Syracuse. In January, 1940, Michael Danko signed up for an interesting program that was organized to give flying lessons to 200 young men and women. Whether Danko ever became a pilot, I don't know, but in October, 1940, he joined the Navy and was listed as an apprentice seaman. His brother, John, had left earlier in the year for Alberta, Canada, to enter the priesthood of the Basilian Missionary Order.

Junior Birdman John T. Fiust of Gere's Lock served in the Navy during World War 2. Michael Santulli, also of Gere's Lock, was in the 25th Infantry. He was wounded at Luzon in 1945 and was erroneously reported as killed in action. Imagine the relief for family members when he came back from the dead a few days later.

His brother, Germano "Jerry" Santulli, also was in uniform during World War 2, though I haven't yet found his branch of service. He died in 1991, at the age of 67, surviving 27 years after his first attack. He exercised by walking the Fairmount Mall where he became known as "The mayor of mall walkers." He also was a popular Santa Claus during the Christmas season.

Francis Santulli, the other member of Rico Woyciesjes' Blackhawk Squadron of Junior Birdmen, was a native of Italy and apparently never had the opportunity to fly. He worked 43 years at Crucible Specialty Metals. He died in 2002 at the age of 81.

As for the Junior Birdmen, well, you don't hear much about them anymore, and when you do it's usually something said in jest. Or sung. There are many versions of a song called "Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen," with this particular link connected to a scene in the Audie Murphy film biography, "To Hell and Back."

That said, Junior Birdmen certainly wasn't a joke to its young members, and certainly Rico and Michael Woyciesjes, and the rest of the Blackhawk Squadron lived up to the organization's pledge, which begins like this:

With our eyes on the skies and our hands on our hearts, we solemnly pledge ourselves to be faithful to friends, firm against foes, useful and helpful in our lives, honorable in all our acts and ever loyal to the land that nurtures us, our United States.

With all the courage we possess and all the skills we shall acquire, we pledge ourselves to defend our country and protect our liberties.

 
For another look at Solvay way back when, check out
the Solvay-Geddes Historical Society
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