Wesley Ko, commander on glider for Normandy invasion
Flying into France on a glider as part of the Normandy invasion, Wesley Ko landed with his Army unit on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day. The fierce battles he encountered were among six World War II campaigns he participated in during a span of 2½ years.
“The only way to get through it was not to think about it,” he wrote in “On Silent Wings of Courage,” a memoir. “The fear only got worse over time, not better. That was because, as time went on, having survived so many campaigns, you figured your time was coming.”
In his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw devoted a chapter to Mr. Ko, who survived the war only to face financial upheaval at 70 when his printing business failed, leaving him about $1 million in debt. Rather than declare bankruptcy, Mr. Ko took another job and worked to pay back his creditors.
“In the war I learned to be self-sufficient,” Mr. Ko told Brokaw. “I matured. I learned to be a leader. When my business failed I was able to move on.”
Mr. Ko, who in retirement on Cape Cod edited The Glider Tow Line, a newsletter for those who served in the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, died of heart failure Dec. 15 in his East Falmouth home. He was 93.
“My father cared a great deal about his unit,” said Mr. Ko’s son, Bob, of Stow.
He added that when Mr. Ko heard Brokaw was writing about World War II, he sent the NBC news anchorman a list of people he served with whom he thought Brokaw should interview “and Tom came back to him and said he would like to interview him.”
Brokaw wrote that Mr. Ko faced prejudice when he became part of the Army’s 82d Airborne Division.
“Asian complexions were real burdens for American citizens when their country was at war with Japan,” Brokaw wrote, adding that “too many of their fellow citizens made no distinction between the enemy and the Asian Americans in their midst.”
Mr. Ko told Brokaw that he “didn’t make an issue of it. I was born and raised in this country and I didn’t think I was different.”
Mr. Ko rose to become a captain as he participated in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a concentration camp in Germany.
After basic training, Mr. Ko trained to become an officer and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne as a second lieutenant.
There was initial concern that soldiers “wouldn’t follow orders from an Asian,” he wrote in his memoir, but he proved himself during his first real battle in Sicily, and “from then on, I had troop command.”
For the Normandy invasion, he was given command of a weapons platoon. While flying into France, “we started receiving machine-gun fire,” he told Brokaw. “We sat on our flak jackets to give us a little more protection, we were flying so low.”
Mr. Ko wrote in his memoir that he was hit with a piece of shrapnel during an artillery barrage but was able to return to combat.
“Even though it was terrifying, one thing about being an officer is that I felt I couldn’t show any fear,” wrote Mr. Ko, who was awarded a Purple Heart.
The oldest of three children, Mr. Ko grew up in Philadelphia. Brokaw wrote that Mr. Ko’s father was a Methodist minister who had attended Princeton and Temple universities, and that his mother was the daughter of a Chinese laborer who was brought to the United States to help build the railroads. During the Great Depression, Mr. Ko’s family operated a laundry business.
“I never though much about being Chinese,” Mr. Ko wrote in his memoir. “Our life was very much Americanized. We had no Oriental friends, and I never learned Chinese because it was never spoken at home.”
Growing up, Mr. Ko played baseball and basketball through his family’s church, and after graduating from high school, he worked for a printing business.
After the war, Mr. Ko went back to Philadelphia. With his brother and another man, he started a printing business that at its peak employed about 100 people.
A few years after returning home, Mr. Ko met and married Ruth Neff, a secretary.
By the mid-1980s, new environmental restrictions governing the disposal of waste chemicals prompted Mr. Ko to move his printing business out of Philadelphia. Officials in Glens Falls, N.Y., offered incentives to move there, but a combination of factors slowed the opening of a new plant and the company went out of business, leaving him with about $1 million in outstanding bills.
Mr. Ko wrote that it would have been easier to declare bankruptcy, but instead he negotiated an agreement to get his debt down to a more reasonable figure, which he paid off while working in the quality control department at a manufacturing and electronics plant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“We take pride in the fact that we did everything on our own, with no one’s help,” he wrote in his memoir. “Because we are not indebted to anyone, we live well today.”
With the debt paid, Mr. Ko retired in his mid-70s and moved with his wife to Cape Cod.
A service has been held for Mr. Ko, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two daughters, Deborah Grimes and Pamela, both of Boston; a brother, David of Florida; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
After moving to Cape Cod, Mr. Ko enjoyed fishing, writing poetry, and spending time with his grandchildren, but “he really dedicated his life the last 15 years to promoting his unit,” his son said.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Ko began editing the quarterly newsletter The Glider Tow Line, which allowed him to stay in touch with surviving veterans of the 325th Glider Infantry.
“It was a well-written newsletter,” said Tony Lockwood of Falmouth, a friend of Mr. Ko for nearly 15 years.
Mr. Ko was buried in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, and his son said the family put on his gravestone the words “Let’s Go” and “325 GIR” to indicate his regiment’s motto and abbreviation.
“That’s what he wanted because it was so important,” his son said.