Veterans of 464th Bombardment Group gather to share stories

By ERIN PRATER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: September 23, 2013

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Stillman Harding shouldn't have been at the 464th Bombardment Group's reunion this month.

Then again, he shouldn't have been anywhere but 6 feet under for the past seven decades.

The 95-year-old World War II veteran nearly bled to death on May 10, 1944, when the Germans shot up his plane as he flew to Vienna Neustadt, Austria — his first and last mission.

On Sept. 5, Harding shared the story with his comrades at the Colorado Springs Marriott, where a dwindling number of surviving Army Air corpsman from the 464th had gathered.

Between April 1944 and the end of the war, the members of the Italian-based 464th flew their B-24s on 210 bombing missions against Axis targets. Nearly 140 aircrafts were lost — most due to combat, though some were lost in training accidents and midair collisions.

"I looked ahead and saw a big black cloud of smoke," Stillman recalled. "Then our airplanes started vibrating. The flack was getting to us."

A piece of flack sailed into the plane and took off his thumb. Another pierced his flack vest and hit him in the left thigh. Additional flack killed two of the plane's four engines.

The plane limped on toward its target. All the while, Stillman's comrades argued with him, trying to get him to abandon his position and accept first aid.

Until bombs were away, Stillman refused.

Miraculously, the plane made it safely to a British air base.

Stillman would spend the next 14 months recovering in European and U.S. hospitals.

He never returned to war.

"The mission, to me, was almost sacred," he shared. "When I got hit with flack, the first thing I did was bow my head .."

He paused, bowed his head and sobbed silently.

"And said a prayer: 'Father, please help me.' Immediately, a voice spoke in my ear and said, 'Don't worry, Stillman. Everything will be all right.'

"I never felt any pain."

Stillman was one of 15 veterans who attended this year's reunion, hosted by George Krynovich, 89, of Aurora.

The first 464th reunion took place 60-some years ago in New York City at Mama Leone's Ristorante. It was just for one squadron — the 778th — and only for troops and their wives.

But as the veterans aged and their ranks dwindled, the rules loosened. Eventually, members of all squadrons of the 464th were invited. So were all family members, due in part to the fact that many of the men needed assistance while traveling.

The event was switched from a semiannual affair to annual one after the group's 2006 reunion.

At that reunion in Dallas, "one of our key members from New York attended by himself, and he was 90-some years old," Krynovich said. "I thought, 'If he would make the effort to get here, my, we've got to keep this alive.'

"We elected to go yearly because we didn't know how long we had left."

At this year's reunion, the men and their family members toured the National Museum of World War II Aviation, Olympic Training Center and Air Force Academy.

But for many, the highlight of the five-day reunion was a daylong Saturday business meeting during which veterans are invited to share their wartime stories.

"You've never heard more riveting stories in your life about what happened in the war," Krynovich said.

The men strive to educate younger family members — some as young as great-grandchildren — about what the war was really like.

Krynovich, a former pilot, recalled the austere living conditions the men endured in Italy.

The men lived four or six to a tent on a diet of Spam and powdered eggs, he said.

"The tent didn't have a floor," he said. "Tent didn't have a stove. Tent didn't have a washbasin. Tent didn't have anything except the pole in the middle."

Still, the corpsmen had it much better than the Italians, many of whom were starving. Each tent hired a young Italian boy and his mom, who would help the men with chores in exchange for a bar of GI soap. Because soap could be used to make dynamite, it was scarce in wartime Italy.

Each time the men ate chow, the boys would line up for a chance at the men's scraps.

"Anything we threw away, he'd take downtown and sell or give to his parents," Krynovich said of his tent's boy. "He ate better than any Italian ever did. We took good care of our young Italian boy, who took good care of us. That was our life. That was all we had.

"Americans were considered multimillionaires. We had so much compared to them, even though we felt we had so little."

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