By Nathan Mayberg
QUEENS July 8, 2005 Its one thing to be honored by your town on a few occasions, but quite another to have nearly 40,000 New York Mets fans cheering loudly for your brave service during World War II.
And in a role reversal, New York Mets players want your autograph.
Sgt. Francis Currey, the only living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from New York State who served in World War II, is the man who had that experience this past Sunday at Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens.
Born and raised in Hurleyville, Currey is Sullivan Countys only Congressional Medal of Honor recipient of the 20th century.
A total of 37,824 fans roared when the stadiums public address announcer told the story of during the Battle of the Bulge, the 19-year-old Currey singlehandedly saved the lives of five of his fellow soldiers by forcing back a German advance by taking out a tank with a bazooka, forcing back other tanks with machine gun fire and anti-tank grenades, and wounding enemy soldiers. Due to his brave actions, the leaders of the advance, who were watching from afar, turned back due to fear of larger resistance.
Currey then transported his fellow wounded soldiers to safety by moving dangerously behind enemy lines.
His courageous actions were credited with shortening the war in Europe by at least six weeks.
It was Stars and Stripes Day at Shea Stadium on Sunday. The event featured multiple salutes to the veterans in the crowd, and a brilliant singing performance by a group of USO members that entertains servicemen stationed throughout the world.
But it was Currey who brought the house down, when thousands of New Yorkers heard his courageous tale. All of them stood on their feet and cheered him loudly, like he had hit a grand slam to win the World Series.
Currey stood near home plate in front of the classic New York Mets logo and tipped his hat to the thousands of people he had never seen or met before. He smiled, and walked back to his seat to watch the game.
Before the game in the clubhouse, the Mets players recognized him for what he did. One player in particular was moved in a deep, heartfelt way.
Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer who holds the record for the most home runs as a catcher, felt a special attachment to Currey. Piazzas dad is a veteran who served during the Korean War.
In a rare gesture, Piazza, took a bat that he used in games and signed it for Currey. Piazza said it was the least he could do for Currey. The two men then talked for nearly 20 minutes.
I thanked him for his accomplishments and service to this country. He is a national treasure, Piazza said of Currey. It is a shame that schoolchildren dont learn about [the heroic efforts of servicemen in battle]. Unfortunately, they are passing on quickly. I think its important that he gets the honor and the credit he deserves.
Piazza said the signed bat he handed to Currey was a small token of the gratitude and respect I have for the man.
Currey was delighted to receive the bat and autograph, and plans to hang it up at his home in South Carolina.
Thats a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, Currey said of the encounter with one of the best players in the game today.
He said that Piazza was knowledgeable about the war, and was a history buff who had read many books on the American military. The war hero observed that the slugger was genuinely interested in his experiences.
Piazza plans on sending one of his books, Medal of Honor, to Currey for him to sign. The book details the stories, with pictures of many Congressional Medal of Honor recipients through the years, including Currey.
Town of Fallsburg Councilman Neil Gilberg organized the appearance by Currey. Once Gilberg found out that the Mets were planning to have a special day to honor veterans, he contacted the organization, and told them about Currey.
Gilberg was also one of the main organizers for last summers Francis Currey Day, a day-long grand celebration. He is also coordinating this summers Currey Day, which is scheduled for Saturday, July 23.
In addition to the recent ceremonies to honor Currey, a monument honoring his bravery stands at the Sullivan County Museum, right in his hometown of Hurleyville.
In a rare twist, it was the New York Mets players who wanted to meet Currey, and take pictures with him. Cliff Floyd and David Wright were among those who wanted to meet Currey.
Innumerable veterans and servicemen who were home from Iraq walked up to Currey to shake his hand, take a picture with him, or, in the case of fellow WWII veterans, share their experiences.
Luke Gasparre, who has been an usher for the Mets for 41 years, was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, where more than 19,000 other Americans lost their lives. He served in the U. S. Army and earned the Bronze Medal and Purple Heart. The two men chatted for about five minutes, as Gasparre pointed to his medal.
Afterwards, the usher said simply about the chat, It was a pleasure to meet him. I can imagine what he went through.
Gasparre added that Currey told him, There are not many of us left.
A veteran of the invasion of Normandy followed, as would other former servicemen. One sat down next to Currey to watch the game for an hour and talk about those who had served, or who had fallen ill, or died recently.
Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was ill at the time, was one of the servicemen who was mentioned. Stockdale died two days later on July 5.
He flew over two dozen combat missions during the Vietnam War, until his plane was shot down. He spent seven years in a prison camp until being released, and was honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor when he returned to the U.S.
The baseball game itself was not action-packed due to the outstanding performance by Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who has the second-lowest ERA in the major leagues. He shut out the Mets by a final score of 3-0.
However, Currey enjoyed sitting back in the stands with his two sons, his grandchildren, and his friend Gilberg to watch baseball on a warm, Sunday afternoon.
For four years, he coached his oldest son in a Veterans of Foreign Wars Little League. Currey noted that he would have played in a league himself, but there was none when he grew up.
After Currey returned home from the war, he went to work for the Veterans Administration in New York City, at an office at 7th Avenue and 25th Street in Manhattan.
You cant get anymore New York than that, Currey said.
After two and a half years there, he transferred to the VA hospital in Albany, where he worked as a benefits specialist until his retirement.
Aside from Sundays game, Currey said that he enjoyed talking with many of the WWII veterans who were there, as well as those who had returned from Iraq. Alluding to the shrinking numbers of WWII veterans around, Currey said I am glad there is a few of them left.
Gilberg called the day an honor for me to bring Frank there and receive a standing ovation from [almost] 40,000 New Yorkers.
Thats [nearly] 40,000 people who didnt know about him, who now do, Gilberg added.
Gilberg said that the upcoming second annual Francis Currey Day promises to best even last years event.
The day will begin at 11 a.m. at Morningside Park with games for children, such as rock wall climbing, inflatables and other activities.
From 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., there will be a parade and a procession of military vehicles, marchers and a possible military flyover.
At 6 p.m., the entertainment will begin with the Sullivan Steppers, a line dancing group; Katie Tarpey, who is a pianist/singer from New York City; Somerville, a local country group formerly known as New Frontier; Chicken Lips, a local rock group featuring Town of Fallsburg Building Inspector Allen Frishman; and The Drifters, a legendary 1950s and 60s music group.
To top it all off, Gilberg said that at dusk, or around 10 p.m., there will be a spectacular fireworks display.
All of Sullivan Countys veteran organizations are invited to participate, as well as their families, Gilberg said.
In addition, the councilman, along with the organizers of the event, are welcoming all returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with their families as special guests.
All veterans will be recognized, he said.