Humble hero turns 93

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“I’m living my youth over,” said Kenneth Bailey, here at a surprise party on Saturday for his 93rd birthday.

VOORHEESVILLE — Ken Bailey is a humble man but his friends see him as a hero. They packed Smitty’s Tavern in Voorhesville on Saturday to celebrate his 93rd birthday.

Family members were on hand — his 16-year-old great-grandson, Ryan Bailey, called him “awesome” — and so were friends he has made in the last year or so as a result of reluctantly agreeing to go on an Honor Flight to see the World War II monument in Washington, D.C.

Bailey was in the thick of the war in Europe, earning five major Battle Stars and a Bronze Star, too. He trained on motorcycles and ended up driving officers in an armored car. Today, he rides on a motorcycle with the Patriot Guard Riders, escorting others on Honor Flights and marking solemn occasions like funerals as well.

“I was in five battles,” said Bailey. The worst may have been the Battle of the Bulge.

“We never ran out of gas or ammunition but we ran out of food,” he said. The American soldiers lived for weeks on black bread and hunted deer as they watched out for food that was booby-trapped to explode.

But Bailey had fond memories of food elsewhere during the war. “I had my first ice cream in Liège… vanilla; it was delicious,” said Bailey. He also recalled a woman and her daughter coming out to the armored car he drove in Brussels, also in Belgium.

“They gave us waffles, which were great, but their milk was hot and curdled. We were taking food away from them so I pretended I liked the milk. I almost threw up.”

Bailey remembers such details — the dates and places, too — with sharp precision more than 70 years later. They are as engraved on his psyche as surely as the horrors of battle. He describes his war years in the same narrative style as he chronicles his youth — the everyday anecdotes matter as much or more than the grand historic moments.

Ken Bailey points to a picture of himself as a young man, in 1942, astride a motorcycle in desert sand.  He was training at Camp Young in California for warfare in Africa that was over before he got there. Instead, Bailey was sent to England for the invasion of Europe. The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer


Early years

Bailey, who was raised in Delmar, has Altamont roots. His mother, Gladys Crounse, was born on Oct. 3, 1899 on the Crounse farm off of Gardner Road; she lived to be 100.

“My mom walked the railroad tracks to Altamont for school,” said Bailey. “She’d hide her muddy shoes under a bush before she got to school and put on her good shoes so Altamont kids wouldn’t ride her.”

She went to school until the 10th grade when she was 15, stopping school because her mother died. “Then she took care of the household,” said Bailey; this included her father and four brothers.

She learned to drive a car at the Altamont fairgrounds.

A favorite activity for village boys was riding a bobsled down the big hill into Altamont, right across the train tracks. “If a train was coming, the brakeman would throw a chain under the sled,” said Bailey. “If it didn’t stop, the driver would have to steer it into a ditch.”

His father, Henry Bailey, was born on July 1, 1896 and worked as a maintenance mechanic at the A&P bakery in Albany before becoming a self-employed carpenter.

His first job was driving a bakery wagon for his father. Meanwhile, Roy Crounse, one of Gladys’s brothers, drove a butcher wagon with meat from the Crounse farm.

“Uncle Roy took my father to the farm to meet his sister,” said Bailey, describing how his parents got together. “People said, ‘If those kids ever get married, they’ll never go hungry. They’ll have bread and meat.’”

Ken was born in 1922 and notes his birth date — on Groundhog’s Day — is easy to remember: 2/2/22.

As a boy, he attended a one-room schoolhouse in Bethlehem before being in the first class to graduate from the new high school, in 1939. “I loved math and science and high school shop,” said Bailey.

He started working when he was 10 at the Laverys’ truck farm; he made 10 cents an hour weeding the carrot and lettuce patches. “Your knees got covered with mud,” he recalled.

When he turned 11, he got 12-and-a-half cents an hour, and, when he turned 12, he earned 15 cents. His childhood wasn’t all school and work. He loved cars and, when he was 12, he would ride his bike to the fairgrounds in Altamont.

“I’d park my bike and hide it and climb a tree to watch the auto racing, until they chased us out,” he said with a laugh.

At 13, he got to work in the two-car garage at the farm for Mrs. Lavery’s stepson — setting the course for his life.

When Bailey graduated from high school, he worked at the garage full-time and, after his boss was drafted, he went to work for Orange Motors. He started there in 1941, came back to work at Orange after the war, staying for a total of 46 years until his retirement. He was a mechanic for 15 years, then was promoted to become the service manager before he went into sales, becoming the sales manager.

He met the woman who would become his wife, Florence Eckler, at Sport Haven on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar, where the Peter Harris clothing store is located now. She was 17; he was 18.

“Downstairs was roller-skating and upstairs was bowling,” said Bailey. “One Friday night, I got my nerve up and asked her to skate. We skated ever since. I’ve still got her skates.”

The couple got engaged in June of 1942. Florence turned 20 on Oct. 2 that year and they were married two days later, on Oct. 4, 1942.

His wife died on Christmas Eve nine years ago. They were married for 62 years and three months. They had danced to Vince Gill’s “Look At Us” on their golden anniversary: “If you want to see how true love should be, then just look at us.”

“Florence loved to ride,” said Kenneth Bailey of his beloved wife. This picture was taken in 1942, the year the couple married.


Army life

Bailey got his draft notice on Nov. 4, 1942. The officer he reported to noted he had just been married and sent him home until Nov. 18, Bailey said.

He was stationed at Fort Meade in South Dakota and was proud to be a member of the 4th Cavalry. “It’s very old, from the old West,” he said. “It was started in 1856.”

The cavalry no longer had horses; they were let go in April 1942, Bailey said. “We had just one horse,” he said. The commanding officer, Colonel Joseph Tully, would ride it on the parade grounds.

In January 1943, the 4th Cavalry was sent to the California desert to train and Bailey was assigned to ride a motorcycle. “It doesn’t work good in the desert sand,” he said. “When the war in Africa ended, there was no point training in the desert.”

He was then sent to Paris, Texas. On his only furlough, he got to meet his first-born son, Kenny, who was a month and a half old. “It was just wonderful,” he said.

His wife decided to visit in Texas and his commanding officer assigned him to communications so he could have nights off. “I had to learn Morse code but it was worth it; she stayed for three weeks,” he said.

Next, his unit was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey to go to England to get ready for the invasion of Europe. “It took 14 days to crisscross the Atlantic,” Bailey said. They traveled on the Highland Chieftain, a Merchant Marine ship that he said was blown up two weeks later.

He was stationed in Singleton, which Bailey described as “a little bit of a town.” A woman in a thatched house there would bring him tea and crumpets, he recalled.

“We kept going to Brighton Beach to waterproof our cars,” Bailey said. “I was driving an armored car, like a tank with wheels…an M20.”

Ken Bailey and his crew were in this M20 in August 1944 when they found themselves behind enemy lines in Mortain. — Photo from Mark Yingling


They trained for six months for D-Day, the invasion at Normandy, without being told what it was. When they finally embarked, Bailey was the last one on the LST so he would be the first one off.

LST stands for Landing Ship, Tank; they were created during World War II to carry vehicles, troops and cargo directly onto shore.

“This was six days after D-Day,” he said. “The 63 men in my outfit were the first to land on French soil,” on islands off the coast.

“The worst thing we seen were parachuters still hung up in a tree, just left hanging there. It was very emotional,” he said.

He also said, “Before we landed, the LST opens like garage doors and the ramp comes out.” The water, he said, was 13 feet deep. “I can’t swim. I thought, ‘I’ll hold my breath and keep the wheels straight.’”

But, as it turned out, he didn’t have to. “We waited till the tide was out.” Then the water was six feet deep. “That was no trouble,” he said.

As part of the 7th Corps, 1st Army, Bailey made his way through France toward Paris. “Every night, we’d hook up to hedgerows and put camouflage over. Bed-check Charlie would fly over and tip his wings,” said Bailey.

In August 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Dunn was in the M20 armored car with Bailey and his crew when they found themselves behind enemy lines, surrounded by SS Panzer tanks during the Mortain counterattack.

“Germans had surrounded the whole infantry,” said Bailey. “I drove the car into a river bed where they couldn’t see us. We were below their line of sight. I thought we’d have to leave the car. I couldn’t get out. So I cut trees to make a road bed to get out,” he said.

Back at camp, he recalled, “Colonel Tully wanted to see me in his tent. ‘Good job,’ he said. ‘Get something to eat. See you later.’ He took his two fingers,” said Bailey, describing the way the colonel stuck out his pinky and forefinger, folding the others under, “and shook them at me, saying, ‘If you’d left it, I’d send you back after it.’”

He never knew if the colonel was joking, he said.

“I got the Bronze Star for that,” said Bailey. “I was very honored.” The Bronze Star is the fourth highest military honor.

He and the two others in his crew — “my radio operator and my gunner,” said Bailey — were awarded Bronze Stars while Lt. Col. Dunn was awarded a Silver Star, the third highest honor.

On Nov. 27, Col. Tully was made general for the 9th Infantry Division. Dunn filled in as commander for a few days. “He was only 10 years older than me. He gave me one of his dress shirts…I had to turn that back in,” he recalled.

John MacDonald took over as commander of the 1st Army, 4th Cavalry and 3rd Army, 2nd Armored Division on Nov. 29.  “I took a Jeep and put a big bar in so he could stand up and direct,” recalled Bailey of readying a vehicle to transport MacDonald.

He also put in a German sports-car seat so MacDonald would ride comfortably and he put plastic on top so snow wouldn’t blow in. And, Bailey cut out the back of the Jeep to accommodate a four-foot radio.

He described MacDonald as being of the old school, wearing a cavalryman’s riding clothes. “He’s a West Pointer. He’s boots and britches with a riding crop, like for a horse,” said Bailey, speaking with immediacy in the present tense. “He loves the Jeep.”

Outfitting a Jeep for an old-school colonel, Kenneth Bailey, among other things, installed a bar, so that Col. John MacDonald, during the Battle of Humain in Belgium, in 1944, could stand, as if astride a steed, to direct troops as he led an armored attack against German tanks. — Photo from Mark Yingling


MacDonald led his men in battle, using the Jeep that Bailey outfitted and drove, the way a military leader of old might have used a horse. He led an armored attack against a German force of 90 Panzer tanks at the battle of Humain in Belgium.

“He led the charge of the 4th Cavalry,” said Bailey. “I had to drive along armored cars and tanks. He’s holding on to that bar with one hand and holding a riding crop in the other hand.” If a tank had made a sharp turn, it would have run them over.

“I wrote in my notes, I wrote ‘crazy,’” Bailey recalled. “It was crazy driving alongside those tanks like you’re on a horse. He was new and wanted to show what he could do.”

Bailey concluded, “It went good — real dirty.”

Bailey went on, “We took Aachen — twice. They pushed us out and we pushed back in. It was our first city in Germany. General Eisenhower drove through. He was excited and waved to us. That’s the closest I ever got to Ike.”

Bailey ended the war 60 miles from Leipzig. “We met the Russians there...,” he said. “We went back to southern Germany.”

Eventually, said Bailey, “They sent us to Le Havre. We stayed in cigarette camps, in tents,” named after brands like Camel. “I was in Chesterfield. We waited for a liberty ship to pick us up but the longshoremen were on strike in New York. We waited all summer.”

Bailey took officers to Paris in a Jeep and got to see L’Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees among other sights.

Finally, in October, he made the 11-day trip home on a Merchant Marine ship and was discharged from Fort Dix on Oct. 30.

He arrived at Albany’s Union Station on Broadway on Nov. 1, with no fanfare, and no one to greet him.

“I got a taxi,” Bailey recalled. He threw his duffle bag in the backseat. At 2 a.m., he pulled up to his parents’ home on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar, where his wife and son were living.

Back home

“She came jumping out and that was it,” he said. He was home and in the embrace of his beloved wife.

“My beautiful wife, she saved $100 a month,” from the money he earned, he said. “She saved over $3,000.” The couple bought property and, with the help of his father, built their first home, in Bethlehem. On Dec. 22, 1946, their second son, Jack, was born.

They later bought property on School Road in Voorheesville and moved into a garage while, once again, they built their own house. “I don’t like mortgages,” said Bailey.

They raised their three sons — Kenneth, Jack, and Ronald — in the house, and Bailey lives there still. “I’ve been here 64-and-a-half years,” he said.

Two of his sons have died — Kenny on Sept. 16, 1966, and Ronny on Sept. 16, 2002.

His wife battled Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease for a decade. “She would not give up,” said Bailey. “Florence said, ‘If I go first, you’ve got to keep busy.’”

Bailey mows his own lawn and does his own housekeeping, laundry, and cooking, although he says his great-granddaughter, Alyssa Bailey, checks up on him. He has 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren; the youngest is six months old.

“Florence had told me I should go to D.C. and see the monument, but I kept putting it off,” he said.

But then, in 2013, Rhonda Cooper, the Leatherstocking Honor Flight director, called him. “I was still hesitant,” said Bailey, “but she said, ‘The papers are in the mail.’”

He made the flight that October. “It was wonderful,” he said. “They treat you so good.”

He described all the fanfare from the band to the motorcycle escort, fanfare that had been missing on his homecoming from the war.

“There was a big crowd in Baltimore where the plane landed, just like in Albany,” said Bailey. “I didn’t need a wheelchair but, because I was over 90, they said I had to use one.”

He described seeing the 4,048 stars at the National World War II Memorial. “There is one star for every 100 people we lost during the war. There are an awful lot of stars. Two women came by, women I didn’t know, and helped me get up. People don’t do that,” he said, crying at the recollection.

“Then, coming home, they had mail call, just like the old days,” he said. “I got 38 pieces of mail.”

The return flight landed in Albany at 11 p.m. “and there was still a whole gang waiting for us,” said Bailey.

The experience changed Bailey’s life. He’s become part of what made it so special for him. One of the tokens he was given was a star cut from a retired American flag. He has since joined in on cutting out stars himself.

Most importantly, he’s been befriended by motorcyclists in the Patriot Guard Riders. He has long loved motorcycles; he rode with his wife and his sons rode, too. “They say I have blue blood,” said Bailey, a reference to the blue oval on Fords, “but there’s a tinge of black and orange,” he said, referring to the colors for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Initially, Don Miller offered him a ride on his sidecar. “I said, ‘I don’t want no sidecar,’” recalled Bailey. Now he rides on the motorcycle with Miller or Mark Yingling.

“I’m living my youth over,” said Bailey. “I’ve been on 31 unofficial missions, 11 on the back of a motorcycle.”

One trip included lunch at Jack and Cindy Pollard’s Home Front Café in Altamont, which serves as a tribute to veterans. “Jack said, ‘Come up to my house to see my vehicles.’”

He collects World War II vehicles. “He has an armored car exactly like the one I drove, an M20,” said Bailey. “I got in; it was great. He’s getting it running and wants me to drive it.”

Bailey runs into old friends and makes new ones on excursions that included a tour of the Altamont Fair. “The older I get, the smaller the world gets,” said Bailey.

Last August, he was part of a ceremony in Delanson where, as a tribute to veterans, a helmet was placed on a rifle, standing between a pair of combat boots. “I cried when they played taps...It gets me. We never had this kind of stuff,” said Bailey.

Saturday’s birthday party was just one of many welcome surprises. “When I walked in the door and saw everyone, I just about turned around and walked out,” said Bailey. “I said, ‘Gee, guys.’ To tell you the truth, I still can’t believe it.”

One of the guests at the surprise party was Dominick Mele, another World War II veteran. Bailey had met Mele in December when he attended Mele’s 100th birthday party with his Patriot Guard friends, so Mele returned the favor.

Old guard: Art Hamilton, right, lights 93 candles on a birthday cake for Ken Bailey, center, while Dr. Dominick Mele is ready with an extinguisher. All three are World War II veterans; Mele is 100 and Hamilton — a Navy D-Day veteran — will turn 90 this year. The moment was captured on many cameras, like the one at far left. — Photo by Donald Miller Jr.


And the surprises just keep coming. Recently, Mark Yingling set up a conference call with the descendants of Tully and MacDonald. “They passed away when their grandchildren were young…Here I am, a lowly corporal and I’m the link between them,” said Bailey.

Another surprise arrived in the mail in December — a letter from the French consulate, saying Bailey would be awarded a French Legion of Honor Medal. He reads from the letter: “This prestigious distinction underlines the deep appreciation...for your contribution to the liberation of our country.” Bailey added, “It’s signed by the president of France, Francoise Hollande.”

He’ll receive the medal in the spring. Bailey is not yet sure where but he is certain the Patriot Guard Riders will escort him. Since those selected for the medal are appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor, Bailey’s cake on Saturday, between the red and white stripes, said “Happy Birthday, Sir Ken.”

Bailey doesn’t let such honors swell his head. His favorite part is being on the open road with the Patriot Guard Riders.

“It’s the freedom,” he said. “It’s like you’re an open-cockpit pilot. You’re just soaring. Everything goes away.”

More New Scotland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.