by William A. Harris, deputy director
On this Memorial Day weekend, we’ll again honor the service of Augustus Julius “Gus” Siko, one of the original FDR Library staff members and one of only four National Archives employees to die on active duty during World War II. His patriotism and sense of duty will always be remembered here at the Library and by NARA. Though we remember Gus’ ultimate sacrifice, let’s also celebrate his brief, but eventful life, for Gus was above all a natural athlete who loved playing sports and excelled at them.
A Poughkeepsie native, Gus was born on December 19, 1921. His parents were Austro-Hungarian immigrants, making their way to New York in the early 1900s. He was one of five children, having two brothers and two sisters. Gus became active in sports at an early age and soon a local and regional star player at a variety of games. At Poughkeepsie High School, Gus lettered in four sports–basketball, baseball, football and track. In his senior year, he served as co-captain of every team except track, a testament to his skill and popularity.
Football garnered Gus the most acclaim. The 1938 Poughkeepsie High School football team began a winning streak that continued through the 1939 undefeated season and to a one loss 1940 team. He became a star halfback, a threat on the ground and in the air. He was also an accomplished kicker, better at punting than point after attempts. But he was also active in student government and on school committees.
His last season playing football for Poughkeepsie High School earned him the kind of high school glory about which movies are made. After an early loss, Siko led the team on an undefeated streak, highlighted by two late season games. Against arch-rival Kingston, Siko and his team destroyed their undefeated opponent 25-0. As the Kingston paper was forced to admit, “Siko’s individual performance was one of the best witnessed in local football.” Outdoing that win, Siko saved the following game against Middletown by throwing the winning touchdown pass with only ninety seconds left on the clock.
Though the University of Alabama expressed interest in Gus, he decided to remain in Poughkeepsie and play independent league and club team basketball and baseball. He needed a paying job, too, and applied for a position at the brand new FDR Library in neighboring Hyde Park. Director Fred Shipman interviewed him for a clerk-cashier post on June 23, 1941. The hiring process moved swiftly, and he reported for duty four days later on a temporary appointment. The Roosevelt Library’s public dedication was only a few days away, and we needed an admissions clerk.
Gus was hired less than six months before Pearl Harbor. Early in World War II, he applied through the Elks War Commission’s “Keep’em Flying” program to the Aviation Cadet Training Course. He was accepted and enlisted in the US Army on June 8, 1942, almost a year after joining the FDR Library. He went to Nashville and then Louisiana for training and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on July 23, 1943.
Sent next to California, Gus wrote that he felt proud to wear a leather flight jacket made in Poughkeepsie. Perhaps he was wearing it on the evening of October 14, 1943, when his plane crashed near Neighbors, California, on a training mission. Everyone on board was killed.
News of his death came as a shock to the local community. His parents were inconsolable. The county clerk was “grief stricken” and “shocked beyond words.” His high school coach remembered Gus as a “fine student and natural leader” and “undoubtedly the best punter and passer Poughkeepsie has had.” I suspect Gus would have appreciated that remembrance above all others.
He was laid to rest in Poughkeepsie on October 25, 1943, leaving behind a widow, Frances, who gave birth to his son a few weeks later. We remember him today not as a distant figure in the Library’s history, but as one of us, a colleague and a neighbor, who reveled in competition, giving his all to the sports he loved, and ultimately giving his life in defense of a country he loved even more.