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News from the Oklahoma National Guard

NEWS | May 30, 2023

WWII Thunderbird turns 100

By Staff Sgt. Matthew Gunther, New York National Guard

The village of Mexico said happy 100th birthday on May 27, 2023 to Laurence “Sparky” Rector, a World War II veteran who fought with the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Division.

One hundred people gathered at Mexico’s VFW Post 369 to celebrate his military service and his life at home over the Memorial Day weekend.
Rector, who turned 100 on Memorial Day, also served as the grand marshal of Mexico’s Memorial Day Parade.

Rector, who was born in this Oswego County village in 1923, joined the Army in 1942 and was assigned to the 45th Infantry Division, which originally trained at Pine Camp—now called Fort Drum-- outside Watertown, New York.

The 45th Division, made up of National Guard units from Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, had taken part in the invasion of Sicily in June 1943 and then invade the Italian mainland beaches of Salerno, South of Naples in September.

New Soldiers were needed, and Rector joined the division’s 157th Infantry Regiment in time to invade the Italian coast at Anzio in January 1944.

The six-month long campaign at Anzio, originally supposed to be a surprise strike at Rome, cost the lives of 4,400 American and British troops. Rome was not liberated until June 4, 1944, two days before the allied landings in Normandy.

In August 1944, Rector took part in the 45th Infantry Division’s invasion of southern France. He fought with the division across Europe, receiving a Purple Heart.

The division eventually liberated the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp alongside the 42nd Infantry Division, now an element of the New York Army National Guard.

Today’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oklahoma Army National Guard recognized Rector’s service by sending him a custom-engraved box, highlighting his WWII service.

But “Sparky” Rector is better known in Mexico for his years as a wrestling coach in the community, according to friends.

After graduating from Ithaca College, he taught physical education in Vermont and Northern New York, before coming back to Mexico in 1956.

He founded the first wrestling program in Oswego County, producing several state champions and landing him a place in the New York State Wrestling Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Service Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

He also coached track and football and served as program director before retiring in 1985.

Jean and Art Chetney, close friends of Rector and his late wife Mary Ellen, said he took area teens under his wing and worked at providing a safe environment for them.

“When they had a house in town, they never even used to lock their doors,” Jean said.

“Sparky told the youth in his athletic programs that if they ever had problems at home, or partied too hard or whatever, they could walk into his home and stay the night away from trouble, and often they did. Their home became a haven and was always alive with kids coming and going,” she recalled.

“He never had a bad word to say about anyone, and everyone loved him,” Jean said. “Just don’t make the mistake of calling him Laurence or Larry, he likes to be called Sparky,” she joked.

Art said he enjoys his conversations with Sparky about World War II over their regular games of golf.

“He has so many funny and amusing stories, we could go on all day,” Art Chetney said. “I suspect he keeps the not-so-good stories to himself though. That’s just the way Sparky is, always looking on the bright side of things.”

When asked to speak to the crowd, Rector played down his military record.

“The war was just a short period of my life,” Sparky said. “You people here, and this community, have made my civilian life very happy and comfortable.”
Video by Staff Sgt. Reece Heck
Oklahoma Guard conducts annual Mechanic of the Year competition
Oklahoma National Guard
Feb. 7, 2024 | 1:36
Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen gathered to test their mechanical skills at the third annual Mechanic of the Year competition held at the Combined Support Maintenance Shop in Norman, Oklahoma, Feb. 7, 2024. (Oklahoma National Guard video by Staff Sgt. Reece Heck)

CG Information:
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rocky Anderson
President of the Mechanic of the Year Board