Dedication a reunion for veterans
WASHINGTON — It mattered not that 60 years separated Bob Brennan from his buddy and former POW Lowell "Slats" Slayton. "I looked at him and I knew, ‘That’s him, I know that’s him.’"
The two were reunited Friday night for the first time in six decades, and are the sole remaining survivors of six men held prisoners of war by the Germans for 13 months during WWII.
They call themselves the "Fridgeon’s Pigeons," named for the pilot (whose first name Brennan could not recall) flying the B-17G "Flying Fortress" bomber shot down over Germany on Feb. 22, 1944.
To Brennan’s surprise, the two vets compared stories of that incident, reliving the horror that robbed him not just more than a year of his life, but a chance to fight in the Pacific against the Japanese, the 80-year-old gunner said Saturday while attending the dedication ceremony for the WWII Memorial.
The bitterness subsided as he spoke instead of the honor he felt attending Saturday’s ceremony. "This makes me feel like I did something worthwhile, to see all these patriot Americans here," he beamed. "But I feel sorry for the boys in Iraq, they should be here too."
But the with the memorial closed to the public Saturday, Louis Clark said he’ll leave the nation’s capital without seeing what he’d come to cast his "ancient eyes" on. "I’m disappointed that I couldn’t go over and see it," said the Barnsville, Ohio, resident, who arrived in Washington late Friday and planned to leave at the end of Saturday’s ceremony. "I suppose if I want to see it, I’ll have to catch a bus out again, whenever that might be. I’m getting old.
"There are 4 million of us left, and they tell me 1,100 of us are dying a day. This should have been done 30 years ago."
For his 80th birthday this year, Clark treated himself to something a little, well, radical for his age, he said.
"I can’t grow a beard. And heck, my hair’s falling out, so I can’t grow it out. So I pierced my ear," said the former rifleman who served with the 399th Infantry Regiment in Germany during World War II.
"I don’t have anything to prove, I just wanted to be modern," he chuckled, flicking the diamond stud in his left ear.
"And I wear it proudly here today."
William Schaufele could not have been prouder than to attend the dedication ceremony with the woman with whom he’s shared the past six decades as the pair strolled hand-in-hand, said the WWII veteran who turns 85 on Friday.
"Why do we hold hands? To hold each other up," he said.
His wife, only mildly amused, supplied another, more correct answer, she jested back.
"We’re just grateful to still be together after 60 years, and grateful to be here," 83-year-old wife added. "We don’t know how many more years we might have left, and we’re grateful we made it this long to see this."
Mel McMullen, 78, of San Bernardino, Calif., A relative youngster among the veterans, McMullen was "sworn in on April 1, 1943, but they gave me a six-month deferment to finish high school."
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a B-24 nose gunner in missions in the Far East.
McMullen and his wife of 58 years, Jennifer, were anxious to see the memorial "up close and personal." The two met when Mel arrived home after the war, and Jennifer was renting a room from his mother.
"The family joke was," he said, "I married her to get my room back."
Harley Babb, 78, of Fountain Inn, S.C., was an infantryman with the 3rd Infantry Division and served in Italy, France and Germany.
Babb was wounded three times, including nearly losing a leg in Augsberg, Germany, an injury that put him out of the Army and gave him a lifelong limp.
After the war, Babb became a watchmaker.
"I had to do something where I could sit all day. They sent me to Bulova School of Watchmaking. Uncle Sam helped me get on my feet."
He offered these words to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: "Continue to give a good fight for God and country; that’s about the best thing you can do."
Tony Testaverde, of Gloucester, Mass., served in the Navy aboard an LST, a Landing Ship, Tank — or as Testaverde called it, the long, slow target — served in New Guinea and the Philippines.
"We dropped off the ammunition and equipment, and picked up all the women."
His take on the monument?
"I was in the airport in Boston, and got sick. The firefighters wanted to put me in the hospital. I said, ‘I’ve waited 60 years to see the WWII monument, I’ll die in D.C. if I have to."