A moment on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945 led George Gebes of Batavia to a lifetime commitment to serve veterans.
Gebes was in the Navy at the time, serving on a landing ship, tank during the invasion of the island held by the Japanese. He maintained the engine room and the gun turrets for the amphibious vehicle. After a quick trip on the mountain to salute the U.S. flag planted there, he vowed if he made it home alive, he would make sure veterans were remembered.
"We buried more than 3,000 boys in the first two days going in to Iwo Jima. This is what I wanted after I saw so many of our boys (who died)," he said at a 2001 ceremony dedicating a war veterans memorial at the Batavia Overseas Post 1197, Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Gebes died Monday, at his home, at the age of 98.
Love of Batavia
He may have seemed like a lifelong Batavian, but Gebes started life in South Dakota, growing up on a ranch. (And he celebrated his birthday in July with a trip back to the ranch). He moved to Batavia in 1936 to work at an uncle's greenhouse, then met his wife, Fran, who lived in Aurora. He also worked at the Challenge Windmill Co., then at the Willow Run B24 bomber plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., until 1943. When he received his draft notice, the father of two decided to instead enlist in the Navy.
After the war, Gebes and a few friends founded the current Batavia VFW Post, borrowing money to buy 7 acres on the east side of the Fox River to build a place for veterans and their families to gather. He served the post in many capacities, including commander and quartermaster, while Fran worked as bookkeeper and with the Ladies Auxiliary. Their goal was to turn it in to a community gathering spot; for decades they ran its Friday-night fish fries and its roast-beef dinners.
Gebes also served as a 4th Ward aldermen during the 1950s, belonged to the Knights of Columbus, and continued his love of horses from his ranching days by joining the Kane County Forest Preserve's Mounted Patrol.
The Gebeses also helped start and run Batavia's Loyalty Day parade, an annual event the first Sunday in May that promotes patriotism and loyalty.
In 2002, they were named the Batavia Citizens of the Year.
"I think it was basically that he really cared for the community, and wanted to do what he could to help it," son Ralph Gebes said about what drove his father.
'Part of his life."
After the war, Gebes worked in construction for homebuilders, and on projects at Illinois Youth Centers.
In 2004, he received the Bronze Star and the Combat Action Ribbon, almost 60 years overdue, for actions he took in March 1945 to prevent his LST from sinking after it had been attacked.
And in May 2012, he enjoyed a one-day Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II memorial.
He found the memorial impressive, but the spirit of cheering visitors thanking the veterans for their service more so.
"I couldn't imagine where all the people were coming from. I shook hands with every one of them," he said.
Gebes' son, Ralph, said his father didn't speak in detail about his war experiences until the last few years. "He cried a lot about that," Ralph Gebes said.
After trying for years to get a memorial going at the VFW, Gebes donated $5,000 to get it built.
"He was really concerned that all veterans needed to be recognized," Ralph Gebes said.
Gebes is survived by his daughter, Barbara Kalina; sons Tom and Ralph; eight grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren. A funeral Mass is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 2300 Main St., Batavia, where Gebes was an usher for more than 50 years.
Memorial gifts may be made to Batavia Cares, a group that sends gifts to troops serving overseas, at 324 Church St., Batavia; the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry, 100 Flinn St., Batavia; or Claver Jesuit Ministry, 3838 Llewellyn Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio, 45223.