DAYTON – Paul Young rarely talked about his service during World War II – about the B-25 bomber he piloted, about his 57 missions, about the dangers he faced or the fears he overcame.
Some things you just don’t talk about, he said.
But Susan Frymier had a hunch that if she could journey from Fort Wayne, with her 92-year-old dad for a reunion of his comrades in the 57th Bomb wing, he would open up.
She was right: On a private tour at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, amid fellow veterans of flights over southern Europe and Germany, Young rattled off vivid details of his plane, crewmates, training and some of his most harrowing missions.
Dad, you can’t remember what you ate yesterday, but you remember everything about World War II, his daughter said, beaming.
When Young came home from the war more than 70 years ago, there were 16 million veterans like him – young soldiers, sailors and Marines who returned to work, raised families, built lives. Over the decades, children grew up, married, had children of their own; careers were built and faded into retirement; love affairs followed the path from the altar to the homestead and often, sadly, to the graveyard.
Through it all, the veterans would occasionally get together to remember the greatest formative experience of their lives. But as the years wore on, there were fewer and fewer of them. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, just a little more than 1 million remain. The ones who remain are in their 80s and 90s, and many are infirm or fragile.
So the reunions, when they are held, are more sparsely attended – yearly reminders of the passing of the Greatest Generation.
When veterans of the Battle of the Bulge gathered in Kansas City this summer, only 40 came, according to organizers, down from 63 last year and 350 in 2004.
Of the 80 members of Doolittle’s Raiders who set out on their daring attack on mainland Japan in 1942, 73 survived. Seventy-one years later, only four remain; they decided this year’s April reunion in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., would be their last, though they agreed to meet Saturday for a final toast in honor of those who have gone before them.
A half-century ago, when retired Army First Lt. Frank Towers went to his first reunion of the 30th Infantry Division – soldiers who landed at the beaches of Normandy and fought across France and Germany – he was surrounded by 1,000 other veterans.
Now if I get 50, I’m lucky, said Towers, who is working on plans for a reunion in February in Savannah, Ga. Age has taken its toll on us. A lot of our members have passed away, and many of them who are left are in health situations where they can’t travel.
So why persist?
It’s a matter of camaraderie, Towers said. We spent basically a year or more together through hell or high water. We became a band of brothers. We can relate to each other in ways we can’t relate to (anyone else). You weren’t there. These guys were there. They know the horrors we went through.
Memories live on
Some veterans fear that their service will be forgotten after they are gone. Some 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, Young said. 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 woman 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.
Oh, Dad! said his daughter, and hugged him tightly.