I recently attended a monthly luncheon sponsored by the Atlanta World War II Round Table at Petite Au Berge Restaurant. About 150 folks were in attendance, mostly World War II veterans and their spouses. It was an honor to break bread with these men and women.
The expression "hero" applies to all our military men and women who serve in harm’s way on foreign shores, safeguarding this great country. However, listening to members of the "Greatest Generation" talking, not bragging, about their experiences heightens the meaning of "hero."
These are the victors of yesteryear, fading at the rate of one every 90 seconds, soon to be gone from a nation that will never see their likes again.
Their stories vary depending on their branches of service, on the locations and dates of battles, and on the tanks, bombers, beaches and ships they came to know. The things that bind them into a brotherhood are their enduring love for their country and the true grit of American individualism.
Their own stories
Guest speaker British Royal Marine Richard Sadler helped the British effort at age 14 as a member of the Boys Brigade, recovering German fire bombs. Later, as a Royal Marine, he served aboard an LCM (landing craft mechanized), delivering British Royal Engineers and explosives to Juno Beach during the Invasion of France. And, yes, he mourned the loss of many friends.
Before attorney Fletcher Thompson served in the Georgia State Senate and represented Atlanta in the U.S. House of Representatives, he had dreams of blue skies at age 18.
"I wanted to be a fighter pilot," he said. "Instead, I ended up in Texas with the 90th Infantry Division. I told the sergeant, ‘Sir, there’s been a mistake,’ but he replied, ‘No mistake, son, you’re in the infantry.’ Thankfully, my orders arrived for aviation cadet training."
Thompson still didn’t get his wish. He was sent to the South Pacific as a navigator of an OA-10, the Army Air Force’s version of the PBY Catalina Flying Boat.
He recalled, "We were in Air Sea Rescue. Most of our missions lasted eight to 10 hours. If a downed pilot was in a life raft, we had a chance of spotting him; if he only had on his life vest, his chances were slim."
The future Congressman flew from New Guinea, Leyte, Luzon, and Okinawa, and participated in the search for the USS Indianapolis, the Navy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering the first atom bomb to Tinian. After hostilities ceased, his plane and crew were sent to pick up a B-25 crew on an isolated island.
"It turned out to be a Japanese Navy Base," Thompson said. "We taxied up and were quickly surrounded by Japanese infantrymen with rifles. Thank goodness the Japanese officer spoke English and knew the war was over. We were treated to a nice dinner at the governor’s house, then stayed at a resort area with hot springs and geisha girls. Sort of a nice way to end the war, don’t you think?"
Doing their duty
Past Round Table Commander Randolph Goulding piloted the sturdy P-47 Thunderbolt over Germany.
"It was a great fighter plane," he said. "It was rugged and well-built. My missions consisted of ground support for our troops and strafing targets like bridges and marshaling yards. In a power dive, the Thunderbolt could hit 600mph. I loved it."
Sy Rosen served with the 3rd Infantry Division in France, Germany and Austria. Sy was a rare find: a member of a Bazooka team.
"Our primary target was machine gun positions. Yeah, it was sort of risky, and I don’t think I’d want to do it again," Rosen said.
Jack Cox fought his way through southern France with the 36th Infantry Division. Asked what he did, Cox responded, "As little as possible."
Cox lived in France before the war, spoke French, and married a French girl. Of their marriage, he said, "We were married for 65 years. I knew it wouldn’t last."
George Wilkerson fought his way across Europe with the 20th Armored Division as part of a seven-man tracked 105mm Howitzer crew.
"We could lob a shell seven miles," he said.
Asked if his crew was ever assigned to assist Gen. George Patton, Wilkerson frowned and said, "Yeah, and he made us take off our stocking caps in the freezing cold — said it didn’t look good. We didn’t care for the $!%&&&%#$##."
The 20th Armored also liberated the concentration camp at Dachau.
"It was sad," Wilkerson said. "Very traumatic; a horrible thing to witness." Peanuts creator Charles Schulz served with the 20th, as did future vice president Spiro T. Agnew.
U.S. Marine Robert Tollman doesn’t say too much about his experiences in World War II, which is understandable. He served on islands in the Pacific that the Marines called "hell" — Guadalcanal and the New Georgia Campaign, for example.
Early in the war, Tollman flew as rear gunner on a Marine SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber.
"I enjoyed flying," he said. "But one time when I fired on a ship the pilot yelled, ‘Cease fire! That’s a captured Japanese ship, and those are American sailors down there!’ Thank goodness I didn’t hit anything."
Bob Jones piloted the legendary C-47 Gooney Bird troop carrier, cargo plane and paratrooper hauler. You name the material, and that material was stuffed into the bays of Gooney Birds.
Jones said with a grin, "I hauled whatever they told me to. I’m not even sure what some of it was."
Robert "Bob" Gibbs, M.D., served on the Navy destroyer USS Barry early in the war and then transferred to submarines. Gibbs said, "I served on several subs and finished World War II as commanding officer of the submarine S-11."
Richard Born navigated a B-26 Marauder pathfinder. He led the planes to the target.
"I never got hit," he said. "But the plane sure did. It had holes all in it after some missions — looked like a piece of Swiss cheese."
The most remarkable trait among the Greatest Generation at the World War II Round Table was their indomitable sense of humor.
Now in their late 80s and early 90s, the brotherhood of war bonded these men long ago.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.