WWII reunions poignant for dwindling veterans
But in a Holiday Inn hospitality suite with patriotic bunting, bowls of pretzels and chips with soft drinks at their tables, the stories flowed easily.
Williams remembered the tension of his first mission, his hand ready at the tag that would release him to bail out if necessary. It went without incident, and upon their return to base, a flight surgeon measured out two ounces of whiskey for each crewman. "Sixty-nine to go," he said then, because 70 missions was considered the tour of duty. Sometimes on later missions, he would pour the two ounces into a beer bottle to save up for a night when he needed numbing.
Robert Crouse, of Clinton, Tenn., is 89 years old, but he remembers as if it happened yesterday the time a shell blew out the cockpit windshield ("you could stick your head through it"), disabling much of the control panel. Another plane escorted the bomber, its pilot calling out altitude and air speed as Crouse’s plane limped back to base, riddled with holes.
Young recalled flying a damaged plane back to base, hearing his tail gunner’s panicked yells as Plexiglass shattered over him. "You could feel the plane vibrate; you fly through the smoke, you smell the smoke and you hear the flak hitting the plane like hail on a tin roof."
Not all the memories are bad ones. There was the late-war mission when they hit a spaghetti factory instead of the intended target ("Spaghetti was flying everywhere," recalled Crouse, chuckling). There was Williams’ first Thanksgiving meal overseas: a Spam turkey, spiced and baked to perfection by an innovative cook.
"I still love Spam," he said.
Then there was R&R in Rome, hosted by the Red Cross. Young men not long removed from high school toured the Colosseum and other historic sites they had read about. They visited the Vatican; some met Pope Pius XII. Williams got a papal blessing of a rosary for his engineer’s fiancee.
"It was pretty good," Williams said of his war experience, "except when they were shooting at us."
Some of the veterans fear that their service will be forgotten after they are gone. Crouse and others have written memoirs, and many of the reunion groups now have websites, magazines and other publications in which they recount their stories.
"You just hope that the young people appreciate it," said Young. "That it was very important, if you wanted to continue the freedom that we have."
Their children remember. Some are joining them at the reunions; others keep coming after their fathers are gone.
At this year’s reunion, Bob Marino led a memorial service and read the names of 42 members of the 57th Bomb Wing who died in the past year. A bugler played "Taps."
Marino, 72, a retired IRS attorney and Air Force veteran from Basking Ridge, N.J., helped organize the gathering. His Brooklyn-native father, Capt. Benjamin Marino, died in 1967 and left numerous photos from the war, and Marino set about trying to identify and organize them. To learn more about his father’s experiences, he corresponded with other veterans — including Joseph Heller, who was inspired by his wartime experiences with the 57th to write his classic novel "Catch-22."
"He never talked about any of this," Marino said, turning the pages on a massive scrapbook as veterans dropped by to look at the photos. "Once in a while, something came out. I wish I had sat down and talked to him about it."
This was precisely the gift Susan Frymier received at the reunion in Dayton.
She watched as the father who had long avoided talking about the war proudly pulled from his wallet a well-worn, black-and-white snapshot of the plane he piloted, nicknamed "Heaven Can Wait" with a scantily clad, shapely female painted near the cockpit.
She listened as he described German anti-aircraft artillery fire zeroing in on his plane. "I had to get out of there. All the flak ... they were awfully close." He described "red-lining" a landing, running the engines beyond safe speed. His voice suddenly choked.