WWII veterans share air war memories at Millville Army Air Field
The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.
MILLVILLE, N.J. — The year was 1945, and 19-year-old Rocky Gannon was flying a B-17 bomber over Germany in the waning months of World War II.
For Gannon, the experience of piloting one of the war's premier bombers was somewhat unusual.
"I had never even driven a car in my life yet," he said.
That memory stays with Gannon, an 88-year-old Ocean City resident who on Tuesday gathered with other aging World War II veterans at the Millville Army Air Field Museum. The veterans — who flew in B-17, B-24 and B-26 bombers and P-51 fighters during the conflict — got to chance to relive their war memories and talk to each other about the events they experienced decades ago.
The veterans also had a chance to tour a B-17 and a B-26 that was on display at the Millville Airport as part of the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom tour.
Charles Wentzell, a 90-year-old Salem resident, said the B-17 brought back memories. Wentzell was a radio operator on a Flying Fortress. He flew 30 missions over Germany, including five raids on Berlin, in the bomber whose number — 7344 — he still remembers.
"This is the reason why I came here today," Wentzell said as he stood in front of a B-17 for the first time in many years.
The gathering of veterans was also part of something else — an effort by the museum to record the oral stories of World War II veterans whose numbers are in decline.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were about 16 million veterans at the end of World War II. The number now stands at slightly more than 1 million.
The statistics show that about 617 of those veterans will die on a daily basis this year. The department estimates that the last of the World War II veterans will be gone sometime in 2036.
"There is a sense of urgency," said Robert Trivellini, vice president of the museum whose staff has spent the last dozen years recording oral histories — the number is up to 96 — of World War II veterans.
That sense of urgency and decline is understood by the veterans.
"I'm a B-26 guy," said veteran Carl May as he introduced himself to Gannon.
"There's not many of you guys left," Gannon replied.
Bruno Melchionni, 89, of Cherry Hill, Camden County, who flew 30 missions as a navigator in a B-17, said the history and memories of the veterans are important to record for young people just learning about World War II.
"They ought to know what we went through for them," he said.
For Melchionni, that included several bombing raids on Peenemude, Germany, where the Germans were developing the V-1 and V-2 rockets that started falling on London in November 1944.
Years later, Melchionni said he worked at RCA with a German who was an engineer at the Peenemude site. The German said that allied bombing delayed the rocket project by about six months.
That meant something special for Melchionni, who said his efforts helped prevent the German rocket project from being completed in time for the possible use on allied troops hitting the Normandy beaches on D-Day in June 1944.
As for Gannon, he wound up serving in the U.S. Army Corps and U.S. Air Force for 37 years. His service record includes flying 387 missions in Vietnam.
He admits his World War II experiences were not as exciting, being limited to five noncombat missions — all flown after Adolf Hitler had committed suicide.
"He knew I was coming," Gannon said.