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WWII veterans' kids keep reunions, memories alive

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 like Vietnam.

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 many fronts:

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."

    

Battlefield tours. 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 Bomb Group.

Reunions. Veterans groups usually contract as health problems and deaths take their members. But many report attendance steady or even growing as kids and grandkids replenish the ranks.

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.

'Madolyn's' meaning

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 spelling.

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 lives.

"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 1945.

"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.

Aloha, Dad.




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