William James Jr.

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

William James Jr., in 2013, instructs Boy Scouts on placing flags at veterans’ graves in Guilderland’s Prospect Hill Cemetery. He will be buried there on Saturday.

GUILDERLAND – William James Jr. was a man with deep and long commitments — to his country, to his town, to his fellow firefighters, and most of all to his family.

After serving in World War II, Mr. James was a life member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. For over 60 years, he faithfully decorated graves every Memorial Day at the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Guilderland.

He will be buried there on Saturday after a fire truck has carried his casket to the cemetery. His daughter Carol Benson said she had asked her father if he’d like to be buried in the national cemetery, run by Veterans Affairs, in Saratoga. “He replied, ‘I was born in Guilderland, I’ve lived in Guilderland, I’ll die in Guilderland, and I’ll be buried in Guilderland.” She added, “He was very proud of the town of Guilderland.”

Mr. James died peacefully on Saturday, June 1, 2019, surrounded by his loving family. He was 96.

The son of the late William and Catherine James, he was born in his parents’ house on Zoar Avenue in Guilderland. He attended the one-room schoolhouse on Krumkill Road. “He’d tell us that he used to walk to school, uphill both ways,” his daughter recalled with a chuckle.

Except for his Army service, Mr. James spent his entire life in the once-rural town that, during his lifetime, became suburban. Soon after graduating from Albany High School in 1943, Mr. James was drafted into the Army.

He first went to England for training, said his daughter. “They were preparing for D-Day. He was a stevedore, loading the ships … The first day,” she said, of June 6, 1944, when the Allied forces began invading Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, “he was on a ship in the harbor with ammunition in it.”

In 2013, Mr. James had told The Enterprise some of his D-Day experiences as a member of the 298th Port Company of the 518th Battalion. He recalled that almost every ship taking part in the invasion had large balloons tied to the bow and stern with about 200 feet of cable to protect them from dive bombers.

“Everywhere you looked, any direction, an ocean full of ships,” he said.

A few days after D-Day, Mr. James’s unit dug foxholes and established a base near the beach where they would unload ships daily. During this time, enemy planes bombarded his unit on two occasions.

Mr. James also recalls military engineers intentionally scuttling several ships near the beach, forming a makeshift dock and deep-water berth for larger ships to drop off supplies.

After his service, Mr. James returned home and joined the American Legion, and helped to found a VFW post, his daughter said.

“As a kid, we always had tons of flags at the house,” Mrs. Benson recalled, because her father was devoted to decorating each veteran’s grave at Prospect Hill before Memorial Day. “He was always marching in parades.”

As a young man, when Mr. James went to Memorial Hospital in Albany for nose surgery, his nurse was Elizabeth Jane Sattler, the woman who would become his wife.

“I liked him when I first saw him,” Mrs. James recalled. “He was handsome.” She borrowed Mr. James’s watch to take his pulse.

Soon after his discharge from the hospital, she was walking home from work when she saw Mr. James. “There he is, waiting by the peanut store,” said Mrs. James. “He recognized me, too ... He said, ‘If you show me where the hat store is, I’ll take you home.’”

“He always wore a fedora,” said his daughter, chiming in, to add to her mother’s story.

“I’d never been out with a boy before,” said Mrs. James. She worried about an attack, but took the risk and never regretted it. “I helped him pick out a hat, and he drove me home.”

That led to a date — and a three-pound box of candy — for her birthday and eventually to weekly square-dances in the McKownville firehouse — and marriage.

The union lasted for 67 years, ending only with his death.

After marrying, Mr. James built, with his own hands, a house on Zoar Avenue near his parents’ home. His brother also built a house on the street and raised his own family there.

William James’s three-bedroom brick ranch house had “a nice big yard,” Mrs. Benson said, “about three-quarters of an acre.”

She went on, “He was an avid gardener. I used to tell him, ‘Dad, you could put a number-2 pencil in the ground and it would sprout’ … We ate out of the garden. My mom would can the vegetables.”

Mr. James also had a green thumb with house plants, and was a member of the Albany African Violet Society.

He spent most of his career at the Voorheesville Army depot, working for the federal government as an inspector. “When the Voorheesville depot closed, he became the fireman there,” said Mrs. Benson. “Then he moved to the Scotia depot and did the same thing there.”

All the while, Mr. James had a second career from which he never retired. He was a life member volunteer fireman at the North Bethlehem Fire Dept for over 60 years. “He spent all his free time at the firehouse — not bellying up to the bar, but helping,” Mrs. Benson said. “He taught classes, held office, ran drills; he did everything.” He also served in the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York.

When Mr. James was deemed too old to wield a firehose, he still served the department, directing traffic at the scene of fires. Mrs. Benson said of her father’s fellow firefighters, “They were lifelong friends.”

She went on, “Several years ago, he talked to the chief about his funeral.” The department bought a casket adapter, she said, so “he will ride on the firetruck” and one last whistle will sound at the firehouse that he helped to build.

Mr. James retired from the Scotia depot at age 58, and then worked for a dozen years as a bus driver for the Guilderland Central School District. “He loved it,” Mrs. Benson said. “Kids didn’t smoke or curse or fight on his bus. He ran a tight ship.”

As a father, she said, “He was strong-willed. We didn’t get away with anything.”

Mrs. Benson went on, “He taught me the love of gardening. He taught me how to grow things.”

She also said of her father, “He was very patriotic. That’s where I learned my respect for the flag … He sacrificed for his kids and his family.”

She concluded, “Once he made a commitment, it stuck.”

****

William James Jr. is survived by his wife of 67 years, Elizabeth Jane Sattler James, and their four children: Carol Benson and her husband, Robert, William James III and his wife, Andrea Lawton, Rita Jones and her husband, Bill Lieberman, and Philip James; five grandchildren: Philip Benson, Sarah Hutchings and her husband, Bill, Adam, Dirck and his wife, Whitney, and Kirstan Jones; seven great-grandchildren: Philip, Evalyn, and Landon Benson, Lily and William Hutchings, and Dirck and Carter James; his niece Ginny James, and his nephews, Morgan and David James.

His brother, Morgan James, died before him.

Relatives and friends are invited to call at Hans Funeral Home at 1088 Western Ave. on Friday, June 7, from 4 to 8 p.m.

A celebratory service will be held at the funeral home on Saturday at 10 a.m. followed by a graveside service at Prospect Hill Cemetery with military honors.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Fisher House (for veterans and their families), 113 Holland Ave., Albany, NY 12208.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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