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Bob Vetter

Ballplayers Wounded in Combat

 

Date and Place of Birth: November 30, 1924 Buffalo, NY
Date and Place of Death:    October 30, 2006 Buffalo, NY
Baseball Experience: Minor League
Position: Pitcher
Rank: Private
Military Unit: C Company, 1st Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division US Army
Area Served: European Theater of Operations

Robert L. “Bob” Vetter, the son of Louis and Anna Vetter, was born on November 30, 1924, in Buffalo, New York. He attended Fosdick-Masten Park High School, played American Legion Junior League baseball with Marlow's and sandlot ball with Babcock Drugs in the Buffalo Suburban League. Aged 19, the bespectacled right-hander with a natural submarine and sidearm delivery, was signed by the Rochester Red Wings of the Class AA International League in the spring of 1943. He pitched one regular season game for the Red Wings under manager Pepper Martin before being sent to the Jamestown Falcons of the Class D PONY League for seasoning, where he was 4-7 in 19 appearances, which included a no-hitter over Batavia on June 16.

His rookie season was cut short when, on July 14, he had his screening test for the Army and was inducted into military service on August 4. Private Vetter trained at North Camp Hood, Texas, with Company D, 129th TDTB (Tank Destroyer Training Battalion), and Camp Butner, North Carolina, before departing for Europe on May 11, 1944, with Company C, 1st Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division aboard the USS General A. E. Anderson. Vetter arrived at the port of Bristol, England, on May 25, 1944, then landed at Omaha Beach, Normandy, on July 6, 1944 (D+30), and was engaged in heavy action as his battalion, along with the 2nd Battalion, led the charge for Hill 122 in St. Lo, France, on July 25, 1944.

"We were supposed to move on St. Lo screened by a roving barrage," he told Jamestown Post-Journal sports editor, Frank Hyde. "The barrage was to have lifted at intervals to give us a chance to go in and mop up, but this mission was just like a ball game where someone bobbles the first grounder. Everything goes wrong after that. Guess that's the way it was at St. Lo.

"In the first place the Germans were smart. They moved back with the first barrage and planned one of their own with the advantage of knowing every fox hole and barrier since they had just deserted them. When we moved into that pock-marked slaughter pen you can imagine what happened."

During the barrage, Vetter was wounded and his platoon sergeant, who was standing beside him, was killed. Further men were killed and wounded as the German troops opened fire. Then came the American barrage, adding to the horror as the shells fell directly among their own troops.

"Everyone was down but a couple of us," Vetter continued. "We finally decided to get out of there because we could see American's falling back on both sides of us as the smoke cleared at intervals. Then they really tossed the book at us. Mortars, machine guns, bazookas - the works, if you get what I mean."

The 134th Infantry Regiment suffered 35% casualties in two days, including 102 men killed, 589 wounded, and 102 missing.

"I was lying on my back when I came around. A fellow named Bonzar from Lowell, Massachusetts, came rolling down into my ditch. I could only wiggle my hand a little and my mouth was hanging open. I rememebr trying to shut it so I could shout something but was no dice. My whole face was paralyzed but I sensed being hit several times. Later I learned it was in the head, chest, stomach and side. Shells were nicking the trees and it was fascinating to lie there on your shoulder blades and watch them. A burst would come over, sending down a little cascade of clipped leaves and wood splinters.

"We finally decided to try and move out. My helmet, glasses and canteen were gone and I remember wanting a drink of water awfully bad. About that time a fellow named Newberry came up the gulley, walking straight up in shell-shocked rigidity. He was laughing out loud in a strange and terrifying sort of way as he headed straight for the German lines. I never saw him again.

"Corporal Kent finally joined us and between he and Bonzar they plastered me with a few first aid dressings. They said I was hit pretty hard in the right side, but my left side was numb. That's the way it is today, seems to effect the opposite side. Pretty soon a first aid man came through the smoke and took over. I never saw Kent or Bonzar after that, but heard they got out. The first aid man started along a shell swept ridge as we headed back for our stations. I sure figured this was the end, but he said the Germans wouldn't fire on a Red Cross worker. They didn't either, although we must have been in plain sight.

"We worked down into a gulley where they had a jeep backed up. They put me in the front seat and laid another fellow on the hood. I held his head. Guess he was about done in. That's how we reached a temporary hospital set up in a hedge grove.

"Something happened then that seems sort of funny now. They left me sitting on the ground for a few minutes. I had on a regulation field jacket turned inside out to keep it from reflecting the sun's rays. A big lump under the jacket aroused my curiosity and I kept working at it in a dazed sort of way. Suddenly out fell eight grenades! Hate to think what would have happened had a shell knocked off a pin during all that shooting. Anyway I picked up one and was holding it in my hand when a big sergeant spotted me. He let out a war whoop like a Comanche and dove at me head first, grabbing the grenade and brushing the others out of reach. Guess he thought I was daffy and was going to blow up the whole bunch of us."

Eventually, Vetter was shipped to England where he convalesced at various hospitals before being flown home to New York. Following two operations on his wounds at Ashford General Hospital in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, Vetter was honorably discharged on November 17, 1944, with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB).

Despite a metal plate in his skull, a semi-paralyzed left arm and hand, and a numb side, he returned to professional baseball in 1945. He made a single appearance for the Rochester Red Wings and a handful of relief appearances for the Winston-Salem Cardinals of the Class C Carolina League, before sending a telegram in May to Harry Bisgeier, president of the Jamestown Falcons, where he had played before military service in 1943. "Those fellows [Bisgeier and manager Jim Levey] had a lot of faith in me," Vetter recalled. "They taught me to have faith in myself." Vetter rejoined the Falcons and was 10-9 in 22 appearances with a 3.73 ERA.

In 1946, Vetter, still only 21 years old, started the year with the Rome Colonels of the Class C Canadian-American League before being purchased in early May by the Auburn Cayugas of the newly-formed Class C Border League. He was manager, Barney Hearn's opening day pitcher and defeated the Watertown Athletics, 14-3, for the beginning of his best season in professional baseball. On July 22, he pitched an exhibition game against a young Jackie Robinson, who was in his rookie season with the Montreal Royals, and, during the regular season was 13-7 with a 3.66 ERA, including a string of six consecutive wins when he was forced to ask for his release from the club on August 14. Pieces of shrapnel lodged in his shoulder were causing problems and his physician ordered an immediate operation. It spelled the end of Vetter's professional baseball career as a pitcher.

Although he made a very brief return to minor league baseball in 1950, appearing in 13 games for the Class D Georgia State League Jesup Bees (he did not pitch and batted just .098), he spent the rest of his working life as a car salesman, a guard with Globe Protection and at Trico and Bell Aerospace.

Reflecting on his military service during an interview with Garrett Smith, Vetter was asked if there's one thing he'd do differently. “I’d like to tell the guy interviewing me that I wanted to play ball in the service instead of being stupid and telling him I wanted action in the service!”

A longtime resident of Eggertsville, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, Bob Vetter died on October 30, 2006, in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Buffalo, after a short illness. He was 81 years old.

Date Added December 18, 2017

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