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Fred Gumbus

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Representatives from Port Jefferson fire department and EMS organizations speak before the civic. Photo by Lynn Hallarman

By Samantha Rutt

The Port Jefferson Civic Association hosted a meeting on Feb. 12 dedicated to first responders. 

“Our first responders have been there for us many a time, we have invited them here to help our residents learn what it takes to run such operations as well as learn what unique challenges they face,” civic association President Ana Hozyainova said.

The Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS organizations have long been pillars of the Port Jefferson community, providing crucial emergency services to residents in times of need. However, recent challenges have highlighted the strain on these vital institutions, ranging from outdated facilities to a shortage of funding and volunteers.

One of the primary issues facing the Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS is the state of their facilities. Many of the buildings housing these organizations are small and outdated, failing to meet the needs of modern emergency response. These facilities lack adequate space for equipment storage, training facilities and administrative offices, hindering the effectiveness of operations.

The most prominent issue facing the fire department is flooding. The location of the historic building is nestled in one of the lowest points of the town’s landscape allowing it to be highly susceptible to excess water. Third assistant fire chief, Christian Neubert, explained past complications the department faced during severe storms and excess rain. 

“One of the big problems we have is the firehouse floods,” Neubert said. “So, getting the firefighters to the fire department can be complicated. We have a flood protocol that we put in place after the 2019 flood, that when there is an alarm, certain apparatuses are allocated to certain sides of Maple Place. Some go up the hill and some go down toward the village.”

The issue of flooding exacerbates the challenges already faced. Flooding not only poses a threat to the safety of personnel but also endangers critical equipment and resources essential for emergency response efforts.

“That’s one of our starting points for mitigating those emergencies,” Neubert added. “There’s a lot of logistical complications when we deal with those types of floods.”

Like the fire department, the EMS organization is also experiencing a facility crisis. The organization runs an EMS training program with Stony Brook University students.

“We run an EMS training program, the EMS Academy, out of our facility,” Mike Presta, deputy director from Port Jefferson EMS explained. “We make our pre-health student EMTs and they go on to serve the community for the four or five or six years that they’re working toward becoming a health professional.”

Presta continued explaining the program in greater detail, “Almost five years ago, we actually developed a program where they live in the building. We have 15 college kids that live there, they get free room and board.” 

Though the efforts and intention of the EMS organization are pure, they face challenges running their organization alongside the student training program. Presta explained that due to the need for living quarters, the organization has set up trailers in the rear of the property to best suit the other operations of the organization. 

In addition to facility woes, the Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS are grappling with a significant shortage of volunteers. Traditionally volunteer-based, these organizations rely on community members willing to dedicate their time and expertise to serve their neighbors. However, in recent years, recruitment efforts have struggled to attract new volunteers.

“We don’t get a lot of local community volunteers. We don’t really have many from the village, we don’t have any from Belle Terre, we don’t have any from Mount Sinai. So, our organization has grown to really rely on our Stony Brook University students,” Presta said.

Funding is also an issue facing these organizations as they rely heavily on property tax levies within the district and little elsewhere.

“Unlike some of our neighboring districts and partners, we don’t have as large a commercial tax base means that we don’t get to pull from a Walmart or a BJ’s or Target or Home Depot or a Lowe’s, we don’t have those large places,” Neubert said. “So, we have to be very mindful with our spending.”

Neubert continued explaining some of the ways the department has made efforts to save: “Recently, the fire district outsourced this faction of services to the supported firemen. So, our dispatchers now are Setauket dispatchers. That was a huge savings for the fire district, because they no longer had to pay full-time dispatchers out of the firehouse. And the reason that had happened was because insurance premiums have gone significantly up because of the recent floods.” 

In the face of these challenges, the dedication and commitment of the members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS remain unwavering. Despite the obstacles they face, these individuals continue to serve our community, ensuring the safety and well-being of all residents. As a community, it is incumbent upon us to support and strengthen these essential organizations as they work tirelessly to keep Port Jefferson safe.

The meeting also served as the first opportunity to register interest in running for officer positions for the civic association. Offices open for elections are, president, vice president, treasurer, recording secretary and corresponding secretary. Only members in good standing are eligible to run and the deadline to submit interest is March 11, also the date of the next association meeting. 

Frederick J. Gumbus “Pop”, 97 years old of Port Jefferson, died May 9.

He was born May 5, 1924, in Stony Brook, the son of Anetah and Joseph Gumbus.

Fred served in the U.S. Navy from 1942-1945 and was stationed in Okinawa. He was a tail gunner who flew a B24 bomber. Fred was a retired machinist – Mill Right for LILCO.  Fred was a 73-year member of the Port Jefferson Fire Department, where he was an ex-captain and honorary chief of Hook and Ladder Company 1.

Left to cherish his memory are his daughters Betty and Carol; his sons Fred Jr, John, Henry and Frank; 12 grandchildren; 25 great grandchildren; and many other family and friends.

His parents along with his wife, Geneva, who was his high school sweetheart, preceded him in death. His son Joseph passed away shortly after.

Services were held at Bryant Funeral Home May 16. He was afforded full military honors at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Port Jefferson.

Arrangements were entrusted to the Bryant Funeral Home of Setauket. Visit www.bryantfh.com to sign the online guest book. 

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Hugh Campbell in his plane, The Swoose. Photo from the veteran

One served in the Naval Air Force in the Pacific, a second on the ground in Europe and another in its skies, but all three put their lives on the line during World War II to protect their country. Several decades later, the Rotary Club of Port Jefferson honored the three village residents for their service at their meeting Tuesday for Veterans Day, to show them that their sacrifices would not be forgotten.

From left, Hugh Campbell, Fred Gumbus and Walter Baldelli a few years ago on an Honor Flight, in which veterans are brought on a free trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Fred Gumbus
From left, Hugh Campbell, Fred Gumbus and Walter Baldelli a few years ago on an Honor Flight, in which veterans are brought on a free trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Fred Gumbus

The three men, Walter Baldelli, Hugh Campbell and Fred Gumbus, are all still active in their community, as they are three of the longest-serving members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department.

Baldelli, 95, was a tech sergeant in the Army’s 29th Infantry Division. He recalled in a phone interview “the one that damn near got me”: He was standing guard in a city in Belgium and the Germans sent bombs over “every night so we couldn’t sleep.” When one came close one night, he ran for cover on one side of a church, and the bomb went off on the other side.

“I lost my hat, my coat went over my head; I dropped my rifle.”

When Baldelli walked around the building, “there was a mess of dead people.” He said that was the closest he came to being really hurt.

Fred Gumbus, bottom row, second from right, was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Fred Gumbus, bottom row, second from right, was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran

The tech sergeant also spent time during the war in Iceland, England, France — in Paris, he walked underneath the Eiffel Tower — and Germany. His last stop before returning stateside was Frankfurt.

Baldelli said, “It was quite an experience,” and when he finally arrived home one day at 3 am, he woke up his parents and “we started drinking wine till daybreak.”

Campbell also served in Europe, as a tech sergeant in the Army’s Ninth Air Force from 1942 to 1945. The 89-year-old former flight engineer said he remembers most of it like it was yesterday, and there was one point when he was going into battle every day.

“After a while, you begin to wonder, how many times can I do this, you know?” he said. There were “people shooting at you every darn day with everything they got.”

Hugh Campbell served in the Army’s Ninth Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Hugh Campbell served in the Army’s Ninth Air Force. Photo from the veteran

Campbell also shared that one day after a raid, so many men had been lost that he was sent out on a second raid in the afternoon. The commanding officer had said, “I hate to send you out again but we don’t have anyone else,” Campbell said.

He described the feeling of not knowing if he was alive or dead.

“Everybody you had breakfast with before you went wasn’t there, they’re gone.”

One interesting experience that Campbell had came after the war, when a longtime friend asked if he remembered any of his 44 missions against the Germans. Campbell told the story of a small city where a bridge went diagonally across the Rhine — which was unusual — and “they wanted to bomb and take the bridge out to cripple the German supply system.” He was about 19 years old at the time.

The friend replied that it was his village, that he had been there on the ground with his brother when it happened and saw the whole thing. The man recalled seeing big yellow triangles on the rudders of the bomber representing the insignia of Campbell’s group.

Campbell said his friend would not have known about the triangles unless he had, indeed, been there: “Here is a guy that was an enemy and now he and I are friends.”

Fred Gumbus was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Fred Gumbus was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran

Gumbus was an aviation ordnanceman in the Naval Air Force from 1943 to 1946, with Patrol Bomber Squadron VPB-118. The 89-year-old former tail gunner, who goes by “Pop” in the PJFD because he is the most senior Gumbus in the department, served on the Pacific front.

While returning from one mission, Gumbus said, he called the pilot from the tail to warn that there were five Japanese fighters following theirs and another American plane. Though Gumbus’ plane made it out of the skirmish, the Japanese had taken out one of their engines and another one was in flames. He said they put out the fire but were losing altitude, and had to get rid of any weight they could. He tossed out toolboxes, parachutes and the insides of the guns.

The pilot released a bomb bay tank, but it tipped and got caught, and was hanging partly out of the bottom of the plane. Gumbus said he had to get rid of it, because if the plane were to land like that, the gas tank would have scraped the ground and exploded.

“Here I am trying to kick this thing” out of the plane, he said, and he was hanging over the plane’s open bottom above the Sea of Japan without a rope or harness.

Eventually the tank was loosened and fell out — and the plane, though sputtering, landed safely on Okinawa.

When he found out the Rotary was planning to honor him, Gumbus said, he thought, “Well that’s wonderful … because lots of times you’re forgotten.”

A modest Campbell said about being honored for his service, “I guess I appreciate it and it never occurred to me that anyone would ever say anything about it.”

In 125 years, Port Jefferson Fire Department has seen many changes to firefighting and the village

Volunteers from Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 of the Port Jefferson Fire Department assemble on East Main Street in 1892. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive

Fred Gumbus still remembers the time he burned off his eyebrows, decades ago in a brush fire.

“The wind changed” and the flames “came across a big field of grass,” Gumbus said. He goes by “Pop” at the Port Jefferson Fire Department, where he is an honorary chief and a member since 1948.

Port Jefferson firefighters work at the Sinclair bulk storage plant during a 1964 fire. The blaze kept igniting because the fuel lines had not been turned off. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive
Port Jefferson firefighters work at the Sinclair bulk storage plant during a 1964 fire. The blaze kept igniting because the fuel lines had not been turned off. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive

He and Hugh Campbell, a former chief who joined the same year, were running from the fire, but realized it was gaining on them and they couldn’t outrun it. “We have to go through,” Gumbus said, and they covered their noses and mouths with their hands.

Campbell said, “We were going to burn to death if we stayed there.”

They made it out, coughing and choking.

Gumbus said his buddy was laughing at him and when he asked what was so funny, Campbell told him he didn’t have any eyebrows. He responded that Campbell didn’t either, “and we busted out laughing.”

The pair, who were once in the first grade together in Stony Brook, were in their 20s then. Now they are in their late 80s, and still members of a department that has since seen great changes.

The Port Jefferson Fire Department marks its 125th anniversary this year, and equipment and techniques are drastically different from the days these men first joined.

Fred Gumbus, James Newcomb, Walter Baldelli and Hugh Campbell, at the Port Jefferson firehouse, talk about the toughest and most memorable calls they went on in their many years with the department. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Fred Gumbus, James Newcomb, Walter Baldelli and Hugh Campbell, at the Port Jefferson firehouse, talk about the toughest and most memorable calls they went on in their many years with the department. Photo by Elana Glowatz

James Newcomb, an honorary chief who joined almost 69 years ago, said firefighters once used something called an “Indian can,” which was a metal backpack that held five gallons of water and squirted with a hand pump. Firefighters also used to just wear a rubber coat.

Campbell said those coats would burn or melt. He also noted changes to the way firefighters work — “in the old days we had more surround and drown,” but now firefighters attack the flames, and put them out where they are. They no longer “stand outside and watch it burn.”

One fire Walter Baldelli remembers was at the O.B. Davis Furniture Store on East Main Street. Baldelli, a 93-year-old honorary chief and a member since 1948, said the department fought flames through the whole night at the old wood-floored building, and found the body of a night watchman the next day.

Campbell said he was on the stoop next door taking a break and saw the man’s toes sticking up in the bathroom of the scorched building. The watchman was flat on the floor and his body “was like it was boiled” because the water shooting in from the hoses turned to steam. The firefighters knew the man was in there somewhere because he had left his hat at the back door of the building.

Firefighters battle flames at the O.B. Davis Furniture Store on East Main Street in 1960. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive
Firefighters battle flames at the O.B. Davis Furniture Store on East Main Street in 1960. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive

Another large fire was at the post office when it was on Main Street. It was 1948, and Baldelli said hoses drafted water from the harbor to put out the flames. He could taste the saltwater in the air.

The fire had started in the cellar, Baldelli said, and when the blaze was put out and he went down there, the water came up high and it was warm. He added that an employee on the scene when the fire broke out saved all the first class mail.

At one brush fire, Newcomb was on Norwood Avenue and the fire was jumping through the treetops on both sides of him. Newcomb said it was his scariest fire and when the flames came over his head, he stuck his nose in the dirt and the explosion “sounded like a jet coming down.” He said he couldn’t breathe for about 30 seconds.

Newcomb will be the grand marshal of the department’s 125th anniversary parade, which is on June 9 at 5:30 pm. The fire department, which was established in 1887, is also holding a block party on Maple Place that evening, with a display of antique apparatus.