Local historian and WWII veteran Donald Bayles celebrates his 100th birthday

As a high school student, Donald Bayles was hardly interested in history class. But several decades later, one took an interest in him.

On Sunday, the Southold resident and World War II veteran celebrated his 100th birthday. Last week, in honor of his milestone, he was surprised with a celebration at the Longwood Library, the local history room in which is named for his father, Thomas Bayles, who wrote a history column for the Long Island Advance. 

Like his father and Richard Bayles, his grandfather, Mr. Bayles took up the family trade — documenting history — late in life to play a critical role in documenting Long Island history, particularly the areas that lie within the Longwood Central School District. Among the books bearing his name are histories of Camp Upton in Yaphank, Middle Island, Coram and the Horton Point Lighthouse.

His journey into Long Island’s past began approximately 30 years ago, when Longwood history teacher Paul Infranco reached out to him for help with his students’ local history project, which over the years evolved into a series of pamphlets and monuments that recognized local veterans. Mr. Infranco learned of Mr. Bayles after reading his published tome of letters his great-uncles Albert and Edward wrote during their service in the Civil War. They were killed in the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia. 

In the years that followed, Mr. Bayles and Mr. Infranco co-authored several books, including one on the history of the Longwood Central School District which Mr. Bayles said is nearly complete and will soon be published. 

“We did a lot of research on families that lived in that area back in the late 1800s,” Mr. Bayles said of his and Mr. Infranco’s works. “Because I was a land surveyor, I could draw maps, and we did a lot of maps to show how the area changed over the years.”

Born Dec. 10 1923, Mr. Bayles grew up in Middle Island, about 45 minutes west of where he and his wife, Doris Bayles, 98, have resided since 1974. Shortly after he graduated Port Jefferson high School in 1941, Mr. Bayles enrolled in the NYU College of Engineering in the Bronx. In January 1943, he visited the Draft Board in Patchogue to head overseas. The following month he was enlisted into the Army, serving as a sergeant with the 24th infantry division in the Philippines during World War II. 

On July 2, 1945, while fighting on the island of Mindanao, a mortar shell exploded near Mr. Bayles. Shrapnel pierced his right arm and side, perforated his diaphragm and collapsed one of his lungs. Doctors cut out a piece of one of his ribs and inserted a drain tube into his lung, where it remained for approximately two months. In spite of this injury and long road to recovery, Mr. Bayles said that of all the things he has done during his 100 years, he is most proud of his military service.

After recovering in multiple hospitals overseas and in the states, Mr. Bayles was awarded a Purple Heart and after a long recovery, discharged from the armed services from Kennedy General Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 19, 1945. The doctors listened to the 22-year-old’s pleas that he make it home in time for Christmas.

“I was discharged with 100% disability because of the wounds that I had, but they were pretty well healed up,” Mr. Bayles said. “I was practically as good as new. My first thoughts were to go back to school and get my engineering degree. This was December, so I would have to wait for classes that would begin in September, so I did nothing In the meantime. Well, I did one thing. I married my wife.”

In May 1946, Mr. Bayles began courting Virginia Doris Faron, who grew up in Coram, a neighboring hamlet of her husband’s former stomping grounds. The two rode the same bus to the Port Jefferson School District and attended Middle Island Presbyterian, but never properly met until 1946, when they both attended an auction her sister was running at a Middle Island home. 

“She came up, she was looking for her sister and she started talking to me,” he explained. “Right away I got interested. I said ‘let’s walk through the orchards here. There’s a lot of peach blossoms here, we can cut them and take them home to your mother.’ That was the beginning. After that I saw her about everyday … That was in May, and on Sept. 1 we were married.” 

Mr. and Ms. Bayles celebrated 77 years of marriage this year.

After graduating NYU, Mr. Bayles made his living as a civil engineer, a career path which brought him and his wife to Knoxville, Tennessee, New York City, Providence, Rhode Island and across Long Island. At one point, he worked for Suffolk County’s Department of Public Works under Suffolk County’s first-ever elected executive, Lee Dennison, but sought something new.

“I was in their bridge design section before I went into business for myself,” he said. “During that time, I think we built one bridge. I got very bored working for the Department of Public Works because we just didn’t do much. And that’s when I finally decided to go into business for myself … When I opened up my own office in Middle Island, my first job on my own was designing new locks for the Shinnecock Canal.”

Following a boat ride through Pipes Cove, the Bayles moved to Southold in 1974. Mr. Bayles’ persistent pining for a new project followed him throughout his personal life. He is a man who took up skiing for the first time in his fifties, who two decades later joined the Southold Historical Society and served as its president. In addition to his published works on local history, he wrote various volumes on his personal history, including a look back on his service and a travelogue documenting the various places he and his wife made memories. While he does not see any reason to publish such personal tomes, who knows what could become of these introspections? After all, his great uncles’ letters and his father’s photographs made their way to the public. 

Now, on the precipice of the publication of his and Mr. Infranco’s volume on the history of Longwood Central School District, Mr. Bayles said he does not want his hands to idle.

“I said [to Mr. Infranco], ‘you have to get something for me to do,’” he said. “I have to have something to do. I can’t just sit in a chair and do nothing. When I get up, I want to turn the computer on. I think ‘what can I look up?’”