Laughing with Heroes
This weekend I am in Pensacola, Florida with three of my personal heroes. These three men were all members of VB-109 during World War Two. They flew as aircrew on the PB4Y-1 Liberator over the vast reaches of the Pacific protecting our furthest reaching western assets during the biggest conflict the world has ever seen. And they are hilarious!
I first spoke with Roy in 2010 while I was waiting to begin flight training on the P-3C Orion in Jacksonville, FL. I had been given many odd jobs while flying the desk in order to keep me gainfully employed and accounted for during those months. One of them was to make cold calls to veterans of the Patrol and Reconnaissance Aviation community regarding a hall of honor that was to be established in the new P-8A Poseidon training facility. This literally involved names given to me from squadron records and then using Google to see if I could find current contact information. Daunting is the word that came to mind then and now. I was soliciting nominations, from these veterans, of people they believed should be honored in the inaugural class for this wall. Of all the calls I made, very few went through to the correct person and a very small percentage of those were met with any interest. But one stood out - Roy. He was more than eager to talk to me and began mentally preparing his packages for his former squadron mates.
Roy called back several times before he mailed me two, picture-filled packages. The competition was steep that first year and unfortunately Roy's mates did not make it but the relationship was formed. To say Roy and I kept in touch would be an understatement. We became pen pals, yes actual letters were exchanged! We did eventually swap to email once oceans got in the way during my deployments. We talked about everything - families, flying, dogs, travels, food - Roy was particularly interested in my deployments to Okinawa because he had been there with his crew; they had flown over watch during the battle of Okinawa.
We compared pictures and notes for four years before finally meeting up at the VB-109 squadron reunion in Atlanta, GA in 2016. I was so excited! I would finally be meeting this Roy, his family, and a group of awesome men who I had heard so much about. In my mind, I knew they were not the young, spry 20 somethings Roy had described and sent pictures of but I had no other way to imagine them. When I walked into the hospitality room they had set up as a gathering space in the hotel, I was met with album upon album of pictures documenting all aspects of their lives in their squadron. The same smiles and determined looks captured in those photos greeted me with handshakes and welcoming introductions. The seven men that were there at that reunion all wanted to hear about flying in the Navy today while I wanted to sit and listen to them for hours. That's exactly what we did!
We talked for hours swapping stories of mischief, tough flights, countries we had traveled to (which were almost all the same), chiefs/CO's we did or did not like, call signs, and loss. Those seven men, all sixty or more years my seniors, shared so much in common with me that decades did not seem to matter. They did enjoy hearing all about the "newest of the new" airplanes, the P-8A, and how all the technology affected flying from a pilot's view. I compared it to a chess game which made them all laugh and sparked stories of them playing chess in less-than-ideal conditions on runway aprons in Thailand, Japan, and Guam.
They told me about their lives after the war. How family was or was not there when they got back. How different it was to go back to work after the post war draw downs. How hard it was to keep in touch and how they missed the comraderie they had formed in their planes. They encouraged me to stay in but understood all of the reasons I gave for getting out - they were all the same ones they had had. They started these reunions 21 years ago as a way to stay connected to those who were scattered to the four corners of the world and to connect their families knowing that one day they would no longer be here to tell their stories so their families would have to.
This is the third reunion for their squadron that I have attended. Four of my heroes have since passed and they are dearly missed. Their stories are still told through the pictures Roy passes around and the memories people share of the war and the past reunions. The sad reality is that this year may very well be the last year. The oldest of the three remaining veterans is 96! The group in attendance has dwindled from 60 to 25 and this is not a singular tale. Groups of WWII veterans are leaving us every day and taking with them their stories of the days before GPS, cellphones, digital cameras, and so many other modern conveniences. History books and movies can only do so much to preserve these memories, the rest is on each of us fortunate enough to be connected to them.
I ask that you take the old saying "remember history" one step further and remember your friend's/family's history. That may sound simple or like something that can wait but it cannot. Generations coming up now do not have grandparents that were in WWII. Their grandparents were in Korea or Vietnam or OIF/OND/OEF. Those relationships need to be forged now and those stories need to be heard. If you are a veteran, while the memories and experiences you had may be difficult to share, sharing your tales will benefit you and those with whom you share them. It only takes a few minutes of quality, tech-disconnected time that will last far beyond.
I know I said that I would be wrapping up Barking Up The Wrong Tree today with you but I felt that it was far more important for me to discuss these amazing men this week. Thank you for indulging my break in schedule. I hope it brings reflection to your day and that if there is a WWII vet in your life that you will spend some time with them in the days to come to memorize their stories to carry forward. The memories I have of spending time with the seven of them will certainly be passed down to my future children through the letters Roy and I have exchanged (I have kept them all) and the pictures he has given me.
Check back on Oct 12th when we will conclude our talk on Barking up the Wrong Tree.