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Thursday, June 20, 2013
It was Flag Day as I made my way over to the Hotel Roanoke for lunch last week; a fitting day to meet a group of men who once wore the flag — albeit one with 48 stars — on their uniforms.
I’d been invited to attend a reunion of Navy pilots from Fighter Squadron 74, boys who’d become men taking off from antiquated aircraft carriers. In the intervening decades, they’ve become much older men, but I saw a boyish twinkle in their eyes. A local member of the group, Bud G., had invited me to attend after reading my column some weeks ago on collecting the stories of the World War II generation.
Actually, more of the men I met that day served in those nebulous, forgotten years between the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. A couple enlisted in time for WW II, a couple stuck around long enough for the Korean era, but the bulk of them fell into that significant period in between, generally ignored by historians and unknown to the general public. “May you live in interesting times.” That’s supposedly an old Chinese blessing. Or is it a curse?
These vets had traveled from across the country to reconnect and reminisce. A few years ago, the attendance was much greater; only seven were able to attend this gathering. That number will continue to dwindle. But on this particular day from these seven diverse men, I was able to learn a lot.
Bud had particularly invited me to meet Dave S., a retired Navy commander from Long Island. Now in his 90s, he’d once been the skipper of Squadron 74. His was a storied career — Distinguished Flying Cross, Presidential Unit Citations, no fewer than 11 air medals. He flew 25 different types of naval aircraft over his career, including the fabled British Spitfire, which he ferried to Malta to save that crucial base for the British. Later he served in the Pacific theater at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Eniwetok and other island hops. In September ’42, he had just landed on the deck of the USS Wasp when it was torpedoed out from under him. He spent five hours in the water awaiting rescue.
In short, this is one impressive guy. As he told his stories, even the waiter was frozen in rapt attention.
Commander S. told us about one of his earliest adventures. The Wasp was part of a convoy protecting Lend-Lease shipments in the Atlantic. Adm. John Wilcox was on the battleship Washington when a fierce storm blew up, and the admiral was washed overboard. Immediately, the call went out for search and rescue teams. Dave climbed into his plane, and sat awaiting the order to take off with tears in his eyes. “This is my last day on Earth,” he told himself. He was wrong, of course, though another plane was lost in the fruitless search. Wilcox’s body was never found.
Over the famous peanut soup and spoonbread of the hotel, Dave and I had a conversation about the forgotten Battle of Khalkhin Gol. He was one of very few people I’ve ever met who could intelligently discuss this crucial and often overlooked skirmish. I could tell he was surprised that I understood the significance as well, but then I’m paid to teach WW II history. This guy, more than twice my age, knew his stuff. No, I’m not going to tell you about Khalkhin Gol — you’ll have to look it up.
The group caught me off guard by asking me to say a few words about my college classes and the oral history project I require, interviewing those who lived through the epic struggle. They seemed most interested in finding out about the attitudes of today’s 20-year-olds toward their generation, and were gratified to hear that college kids are fascinated by the Second World War and those who fought it. These men now in their 80s were of college age when they put on their flight jackets, and I think they were relieved to know that what they and their peers did has not been forgotten and is not unappreciated.
After lunch, we parted ways, and it occurred to me that I will likely never be in such company again. For a brief while, I saw not a group of old guys out for a lunch, but a team of cocky young pilots ready to take on the world. They took it on alright, and they saved it. From one who never wore his nation’s uniform, profound thanks.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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