WWII veterans' kids keep reunions,
By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY
GETTYSBURG, Pa. If World War
II made any impression on my father, he never said. Like many of his generation,
the one they now call "the greatest," Dad rarely talked about the war.
Cpl. Milton Stone was an Army
Air Force aircraft and engine mechanic in the 43rd Bomb Squadron, 29th Bomb
Group. His unit was sent to Guam to take part in the 1945 firebombing of Japan,
a ferocious campaign that helped end the war. But he wasn't a war hero. In fact,
he didn't much care for the military. "He disapproved of veterans groups," says
my brother Philip, a Vietnam veteran. He thought "they never grew up." (Related
audio and photos: USA
TODAY's Andrea Stone traces father's WWII history)
Yet here I was, 11 years after my father
died, attending a three-day reunion of men who shared that Pacific island with
him so long ago. They were old and frail, much like the long-bearded Civil War
veterans immortalized in newsreels shot here at Gettysburg a half-century after
their historic battle.
Why was I here? What did I hope, at
age 46, to find? Perhaps a side of my father I never knew. Something to help
explain the man he was to become. Maybe even someone who knew him then.
Whatever it was, thousands of other
baby boomers are searching for it, too. On this Veterans Day, as work wraps
up on the National World War II Memorial in Washington, the children of World
War II vets are asking — sometimes for the first time — what Dad
and Mom did in the war. For us, learning about the past helps keep their memory
alive. But like the memorial that will be dedicated next Memorial Day, the questions
often come too late. Of the 16 million veterans of World War II, just one in
four are still alive. Every day, 1,100 more die.
Faced with our parents' mortality and
contemplating our own, many of my generation — even those who rejected
our parents' values during the turbulent '60s — have become more interested
in the defining event of our parents' lives. Having lived through Sept. 11,
we now have an inkling what Pearl Harbor was like. And we know it was nothing
But because so many of our parents are
now gone or no longer able to guide the way, thousands of us are finding other
ways to connect. Emotional reunions like the one held here for the 29th Bomb
Group are one route. So are battlefield tours and Internet research.
"Maybe my generation is realizing now
what great things this generation did for the world, and we realize there's
not a lot of time left to gather up that part of history firsthand," says Mike
Cahalan, 40. The United Parcel Service pilot, who traveled here from Louisville
was among six children and grandchildren accompanying Paul Cahalan, a B-29 radio
operator who turned 79 at the reunion.
Brendan Reidy, 78, a B-29 gunner and
retired New York City detective, brought his wife to reunions before her death.
This time, he brought several children and grandchildren. "They all wanted to
find out what I did in the war," he says.
Like the children of Holocaust survivors,
the offspring of World War II veterans are the "caretakers of their parents'
memories," says Ed Linenthal, a University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, religion professor
who studies commemoration. "Given the deep divisions over the war in Vietnam
and the growing (debate) over the war in Iraq, keeping the 'good' war a stable
memory is certainly part of the work of heritage."
The work of memory is carried out on
•The Internet. Our parents'
accomplishments were documented with typewriters and carbon paper. Their children
are wired and using the Internet to track down their stories. From Web sites
that play Glenn Miller's In the Mood to chat rooms on sites such as www.armyairforces.com,
the Internet has become a central clearinghouse about the war.
Marylou Bennett, 49, an educational
researcher from Newtown, Pa., was teaching her mother how to search the Web
in August. She typed in the name of her uncle, Robert Fritschell, a B-29 commander
whose plane was lost over Japan. Up popped the 29th Bomb Group site.
There she found an inquiry from Tom
Loll, 55, of Ripley, N.Y. He was looking for information about his uncle, Raymond
Loll — Fritschell's co-pilot. Bennett and Loll began an e-mail exchange
that led them to meet at last month's reunion. Bennett's mother — Fritschell's
kid sister Carolou Nelsen — also came.
"It's so interesting that these young
people are here," says Nelsen, 75, of Milwaukee. "This reverence for camaraderie,
of shared experience, may be the only good thing to come from the war."
For Dan Dupre, 53, the search began
when he recently noticed "29th Bomb Group" etched into the grave marker of his
father, who died in 1966. "I just Googled it, and there it was," he says of
the link to Arthur Dupre's unit. When the group's historian, Joseph Chovelak,
responded to Dupre's e-mail with an envelope of information about the B-29 munitions
specialist, "it blew me out of my chair," says Dupre, a Jacksonville insurance
executive. So he came to the reunion. "I just felt like I needed to," he says.
"You have to connect."
Affluent baby boomers are spending vacations retracing their fathers' footsteps.
Companies that run World War II-related tours say their trips increasingly attract
more relatives of veterans who have died or can no longer travel. Valor Tours
of Sausalito, Calif., says veterans' sons, daughters, nephews and nieces make
up 60% of groups visiting battlefields in Europe and the Pacific.
My own interest was sparked
a decade ago when, in my job as a USA TODAY reporter, I accompanied D-Day veterans
to France for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Dad was already
gone a year by then. Yet I had his yellowed Army discharge papers. No unit was
listed, but I knew he fixed B-29 bombers on Guam. Eventually, I found the 29th
groups usually contract as health problems and deaths take their members. But
many report attendance steady or even growing as kids and grandkids replenish
When the 29th held its first
reunion in 1985, almost all who attended were vets. Today, of the 2,500 airmen
who served in the unit, only about 200 are alive. Fewer than 90 vets attended
last month's reunion, several in wheelchairs or ambling with walkers and canes.
When the children and grandchildren of veterans were asked to stand at a banquet,
about 80 rose. Some came from as far away as Alaska.
Warren Johnson Jr., 58, only
traveled from Richmond, Va. But it had taken him a lifetime to arrive.
His father, Warren Sr., was
23 when the plane he commanded was shot down over Tokyo on March 10, 1945. His
was the first plane the 29th lost. Warren Jr. was born three months later. The
freelance photographer came to the reunion as "a closure thing."
Johnson was brought to tears
when he met Cedric Fowler, 87, a retired Indianapolis church organ installer.
A B-29 radar mechanic in the war, Fowler had hitched a ride to Guam with Johnson's
dad and spent a month with his crew.
Johnson had spent a lifetime
wondering how things would have been different if he had known his father. Here
was someone who did. "It's just a real connection. That's the closest I could
come to somebody who knew him in a combat situation," Johnson says, tears streaming
down his cheeks.
It will be up to offspring
like Johnson to carry on once veterans like Fowler are gone. While some reunion
groups have merged with other units or hired professional event organizers,
the 29th has turned to its children.
My sister Roberta never liked
her middle name, Madeline. A child of the '60s, she didn't appreciate being
named after a B-29 Super Fortress that incinerated thousands of Japanese civilians.
But Dad obviously had a soft spot in his heart for the Madolyn II, on
whose wheel-well doors he and four buddies painted their names. So when my sister
was born in 1949, he talked Mom into giving her that name — with a different
There were other unspoken clues
that the war had left its mark. A devoted Bonneville man, Dad winced when my
husband, Stephen, and I bought our first new car, a Toyota, and our second,
a Honda. He never could persuade us to buy an American car.
But years earlier, in the summer
of 1966, he did prevail on my brother to see it his way. Philip, then 19, had
received his draft notice and was considering going to Canada, like so many
other young men who opposed the war in Vietnam. He and Dad went on a camping
trip to New Hampshire, and when they returned, Philip declared himself a conscientious
objector. It was a compromise that led him to serve a year in a non-combat role
as an Army medic in Vietnam. When he was discharged from Fort Hood, Texas, in
August 1968, he hitchhiked, still in uniform, to the Democratic convention in
Chicago to protest the war.
"Dad always said, as did everyone
in his generation, that we all ... had an obligation to serve in the military
when drafted," says Philip, 56, now a lawyer in New York. "It was patriotic,
it was democratic, it was the cost of liberty, and it was just something that
all men were supposed to accept."
My father met his obligation
in August 1942, when the U.S. Army Air Force drafted him. Dad went in the same
time as his older brother Bernie, who became a bomber navigator in Europe. But
Dad got queasy on planes and hated to fly. So he became a mechanic.
The B-29 was the most sophisticated
aircraft of its time, built to cover the 3,000-mile round trip to Tokyo from
Guam, in the Mariana Islands. There were more than 200 ground mechanics in the
43rd squadron. At the reunion, though, you could count ground vets on one hand.
Most here flew air missions. They bonded during 16-hour flights under heavy
fire, escaping the fate of those on the 21 planes the group lost in combat.
But several fliers I talked to told
me the fellows left behind at Guam's North Field were integral to their missions.
"If they didn't do their jobs, we couldn't do ours," says Howard Adams, 81,
of Clinton, Md., an airborne radar operator at the time. "When we worked overtime,
they worked triple time."
Filling in the blanks
I came here to fill in the blanks. What
I learned was this: The cheesy studio photo of Dad standing in front of painted
palm trees was taken in August 1942 in Miami Beach. Incredibly, the Army took
over the hotels there for basic training. New recruits were drummed out of their
rooms at 4:30 each morning for calisthenics on the beach. But his "vacation"
didn't last long.
Another photo shows him in Amarillo,
Texas, where he did his mechanic training. In a later snapshot, Dad was in Pratt,
Kan., where the 29th Bomb Group formed before leaving for San Francisco and
shipping out to Guam.
It must have been quite a journey for
a New York kid born in a Lower East Side tenement and raised in the Bronx.
Dad's war began in January 1945, when
he and other ground crews arrived in Guam. From conversations and diaries in
the reunion's memorabilia room, I got some feel for his life there. The men
first lived 12 to a tent, then 30 to a Quonset hut. The tropical weather was
perfect; the food, pretty good. There were no mosquitoes, but they used mosquito
nets to keep out the jungle rats.
Replacing shot-up engines and patching
torn fuselages was hot, dirty work. When ground crews weren't doing that, they
pulled guard duty. Although the Marines captured Guam in August 1944, Japanese
holdouts still hid in caves beneath the end of the airstrip.
For fun, the men played beach volleyball
and fished in the coral reefs. And they maintained their sense of humor. When
a pilot wrote on a maintenance form that his "target radar hums," a ground crew
chief reported back, "Reset target radar with lyrics."
Humor aside, these men took part in
one of the war's most controversial campaigns. As part of the 20th Air Force,
the 29th dropped incendiary bombs on the Japanese mainland from March 9 to Aug.
15, 1945. Along with other units, their raids killed about 900,000 people, injured
1.3 million, displaced half the population and did vastly more damage than the
Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.
Marylou Bennett, whose uncle was lost,
says it best. "I have a fair amount of ambivalence" about what the 29th did,
she says. "It's not something you can feel very good about."
But having reported on the controversial
1995 Smithsonian Institution exhibit on the Enola Gay, which dropped
the bomb on Hiroshima, I also understood the other side. The Japanese manufactured
aircraft parts in private homes and sent out kamikaze pilots on suicide missions.
The allies feared an invasion of the Japanese homeland would cost up to a million
"They did what they felt it was necessary
to do to defend themselves and their country," says Allan Pawlikowski, 55, who
chaired last month's reunion to honor his father Fred, 80, a radar operator
who almost died of cancer in August. "As we get older, we mature and are able
to look at the contribution of these men and how much they sacrificed. In the
'60s, we didn't appreciate that."
The curly-haired guy
But I didn't come here to debate history.
I came to find my father. And I did — through a fuzzy black-and-white
photo on a memorabilia room table.
The picture showed the nose cone of
the Madolyn II— my father's plane. The airman in the photo was
Orville Kelley, a troubleshooting engine mechanic who came to the reunion. I
quickly located him and whipped out my photo album. Did he know Dad?
"That haircut. He was standing right
beside me," says Kelley, who recognized my father's thick curly hair. Who would
have imagined that anyone would remember my Dad for his hair, most of which
he lost soon after the war? My sister, a Boston real estate broker, says Dad
blamed the Army for his baldness.
To clinch it, I got my laptop computer.
In it was a digital photo of Dad standing in front of that same B-29. Kelley,
now 83, said they likely were taken with the same camera on the same day in
"When they hung an engine, like your
father would have done, I would have tuned it up," he said. "So there's a good
chance we met."
We got to talking. Kelley told me about
"the New Yorkers" who used to play poker all night in a corner of his Quonset
hut. "You can tell those were New Yorkers, all right," says the Marysville,
Pa., veteran. "They were loudmouths."
Dad actually was a quiet guy, but other
details rang true. He did play poker; the story goes that he won a couple grand
on the troop ship to Guam. He sent the money back to my mother, Florence Stone,
his fiancee who had the same last name. She was a secretary for the federal
War Production Board in the Empire State Building.
Dad also sent love letters. Mom mailed
back cheesecake photos taken on the rooftops and stoops of the Bronx. They married
two months after Dad returned home, on Feb. 24, 1946, his 25th birthday.
My parents would separate years later,
and my bookish and curious father would fail to find fulfillment as a hair salon
owner, insurance salesman and cab driver. So I like to think that in his final
months, Dad recalled happier times during the war.
As diabetes and heart disease took their
ultimate toll, Dad asked for tapes of Hawaiian music. Kelley knew why: the airmen
of the 29th Bomb Group used to listen to the English-speaking Japanese propagandist
Tokyo Rose, who "tried to suck us in with Hawaiian music."
"I wish I had kept my Hawaiian Islands
records," Kelley says. "It makes a tear run down your eye."
With that, I could feel tears welling
up in mine.