DAYTON, Ohio – Paul Young rarely talked about his service during World War II — about the B-25 bomber he piloted, about his 57 missions, about the dangers he faced or the fears he overcame.
"Some things you just don't talk about," he said.
But Susan Frymier had a hunch that if she could journey from Fort Wayne, Ind., with her 92-year-old dad for a reunion of his comrades in the 57th Bomb wing, he would open up.
She was right: On a private tour at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, amid fellow veterans of flights over southern Europe and Germany, Young rattled off vivid details of his plane, crewmates, training and some of his most harrowing missions.
"Dad, you can't remember what you ate yesterday, but you remember everything about World War II," his daughter said, beaming.
When Young came home from the war, more than 70 years ago, there were 16 million veterans like him — young soldiers, sailors and Marines who returned to work, raise families, build lives. Over the decades, children grew up, married, had children of their own; careers were built and faded into retirement; love affairs followed the path from the altar to the homestead and often, sadly, to the graveyard.
Through it all, the veterans would occasionally get together to remember the greatest formative experience of their lives. But as the years wore on, there were fewer and fewer of them. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, just a little over 1 million remain. The ones who remain are in their 80s and 90s, and many are infirm or fragile.
So the reunions, when they are held, are more sparsely attended — yearly reminders of the passing of the Greatest Generation.
—When veterans of the Battle of the Bulge gathered in Kansas City this summer, only 40 came, according to organizers, down from 63 last year and 350 in 2004.
—Of the 80 members of Doolittle's Raiders who set out on their daring attack on Japan in 1942, 73 survived. Seventy-one years later, only four remain; they decided this year's April reunion in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., would be their last, though they met Saturday for a final toast in honor of those who have gone before them.
—A half-century ago, when retired Army First Lt. Frank Towers went to his first reunion of the 30th Infantry Division — soldiers who landed at the beaches of Normandy and fought across France and Germany — he was surrounded by 1,000 other veterans.
"Now if I get 50, I'm lucky," said Towers, who is working on plans for a reunion next February in Savannah, Ga. "Age has taken its toll on us. A lot of our members have passed away, and many of them who are left are in health situations where they can't travel."
So why persist?
"It's a matter of camaraderie," Towers said. "We spent basically a year or more together through hell or high water. We became a band of brothers. We can relate to each other in ways we can't relate to (anyone else). You weren't there. These guys were there. They know the horrors we went through."
As many as 11,000 people served in the 57th Bomb Wing that flew missions over German-held Europe from North Africa and the island of Corsica during most of the war. Hundreds survive, according to wing historians and reunion organizers. Only nine veterans made it to this fall's event.
George Williams, 90, recalled earlier reunions with his comrades, "having a great time yukking it up and talking about things." No one else from his squadron came to this one.
"All of a sudden, it's lonesome," said Williams, a native of Visalia, Calif., who moved after his wife's death to Springfield, Mo., where his son lives. "All of the people you ran around with are on the wrong side of the grass. You wonder why you're so lucky."
But in a Holiday Inn hospitality suite with patriotic bunting, bowls of pretzels and chips with soft drinks at their tables, the stories flowed easily.
Williams remembered the tension of his first mission, his hand ready at the tag that would release him to bail out if necessary. It went without incident, and upon their return to base, a flight surgeon measured out two ounces of whiskey for each crewman. "Sixty-nine to go," he said then, because 70 missions was considered the tour of duty. Sometimes on later missions, he would pour the two ounces into a beer bottle to save up for a night when he needed numbing.
Robert Crouse, of Clinton, Tenn., is 89 years old, but he remembers as if it happened yesterday the time a shell blew out the cockpit windshield ("you could stick your head through it"), disabling much of the control panel. Another plane escorted the bomber, its pilot calling out altitude and air speed as Crouse's plane limped back to base, riddled with holes.
Young recalled flying a damaged plane back to base, hearing his tail gunner's panicked yells as Plexiglass shattered over him. "You could feel the plane vibrate; you fly through the smoke, you smell the smoke and you hear the flak hitting the plane like hail on a tin roof."
Not all the memories are bad ones. There was the late-war mission when they hit a spaghetti factory instead of the intended target ("Spaghetti was flying everywhere," recalled Crouse, chuckling). There was Williams' first Thanksgiving meal overseas: a Spam turkey, spiced and baked to perfection by an innovative cook.
"I still love Spam," he said.
Then there was R&R in Rome, hosted by the Red Cross. Young men not long removed from high school toured the Colosseum and other historic sites they had read about. They visited the Vatican; some met Pope Pius XII. Williams got a papal blessing of a rosary for his engineer's fiancee.
"It was pretty good," Williams said of his war experience, "except when they were shooting at us."
Some of the veterans fear that their service will be forgotten after they are gone. Crouse and others have written memoirs, and many of the reunion groups now have websites, magazines and other publications in which they recount their stories.
"You just hope that the young people appreciate it," said Young. "That it was very important, if you wanted to continue the freedom that we have."
Their children remember. Some are joining them at the reunions; others keep coming after their fathers are gone.
At this year's reunion, Bob Marino led a memorial service and read the names of 42 members of the 57th Bomb Wing who died in the past year. A bugler played "Taps."
Marino, 72, a retired IRS attorney and Air Force veteran from Basking Ridge, N.J., helped organize the gathering. His Brooklyn-native father, Capt. Benjamin Marino, died in 1967 and left numerous photos from the war, and Marino set about trying to identify and organize them. To learn more about his father's experiences, he corresponded with other veterans — including Joseph Heller, who was inspired by his wartime experiences with the 57th to write his classic novel "Catch-22."
"He never talked about any of this," Marino said, turning the pages on a massive scrapbook as veterans dropped by to look at the photos. "Once in a while, something came out. I wish I had sat down and talked to him about it."
This was precisely the gift Susan Frymier received at the reunion in Dayton.
She watched as the father who had long avoided talking about the war proudly pulled from his wallet a well-worn, black-and-white snapshot of the plane he piloted, nicknamed "Heaven Can Wait" with a scantily clad, shapely female painted near the cockpit.
She listened as he described German anti-aircraft artillery fire zeroing in on his plane. "I had to get out of there. All the flak ... they were awfully close." He described "red-lining" a landing, running the engines beyond safe speed. His voice suddenly choked.
"Oh, Dad!" said his daughter, and she hugged him tightly.