When Howard Briney was called up to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, it was, in some ways, a relief for the Oklahoma City resident.
Briney, now 96, had spent the first few years of the war working at the Midwest Air Depot, which later became Tinker Air Force Base. He worked for Douglas Aircraft as a sheet metal worker. With a wife and young child at home, and working in an industry critical for national defense, Briney was given a deferment by the War Department.
But the deferment came at a price. When he went out in public with his wife, Aletha, and their daughter, Sue, it was often an uncomfortable experience.
“Daddy would not go anywhere with our mom because everyone stared at him,” his daughter, Donna VanHorn, said. “He thought they were wondering, ‘Why are you still here when my loved ones and friends are already gone?’”
The call eventually would come, and Briney found himself on a troop transport with hundreds of other frightened soldiers from small towns and big cities that would come to define parts of the United States. He was miserable but happy to serve.
“I had lemon drops,” he said. “That’s the only thing that kept me from getting seasick. There were people just as green as gourds hanging over the side of the ship.”
The bulk of Briney’s service from 1944 to 1946 was behind the wheels of jeeps and trucks. He hauled everything from supplies to generals and saw plenty along the way during his travels through France, Germany and Belgium.
It was in Belgium where Briney saw some of the most disturbing images of the war in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge.
“I never saw any combat, but I’ve been to a lot of different places where there was. The Battle of the Bulge was the worst part I saw. I saw a lot of different areas where they had bombed everything but nothing like that. There was nothing left.”
The overwhelming odors of war and death are his most enduring memories of that time.
“There were spots where that battle was that you had to drive with a gas mask on because it stunk so bad,” he said. “Death was everywhere.
“There were animals all over the place that stunk. It was really sad to see what had happened.”
After the war was over, Briney stuck around Europe for a year as the Allies worked to help the countries directly affected by the war recover.
“I was more or less in the Peace Corps after the fighting ended,” he said. “We rebuilt Germany. I stayed there for 13 months before I got out in 1946.”
With the war over, Briney returned home to his wife and daughter, Sue Grace, who is now 72. Donna was born several years later.
Briney continued to work in the aviation industry at Tinker until his retirement in the early 1970s.
He was able to take part in an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., in June. During the trip, he saw monuments and Arlington National Cemetery. He proudly wears the hat and shirt given to him that day. Briney was the oldest of more than 100 veterans who made the trip.
A widower, Briney lives in southwest Oklahoma City with Sue and Donna. Both women lost their husbands over the years and share in the duty of taking care of their father.
“We’re the Three Musketeers,” he said.