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Twilight for War Stories
These are men who, for years, never talked about what they saw, what they did in the war. Some couldn't. Some didn't think they could ever make anyone understand. And there, they can walk into the room, and they don't have to say a thing. Everyone knows. They know what it's like to be at general quarters, aiming at enemy dive bombers overhead or submarines surfacing from below. They've watched ships sink and friends die.
They all know to look away when the eyes water or the voice gets hoarse when one of them sees someone from their gunner's crew for the first time since the war ended, 61 years ago. That's what happened to Lloyd on Thursday night.
There's the "Wild Bunch," the dozen or so members of the Jordan family who come from Indiana every year with or without their father. It was in such hotel rooms that, among his shipmates, their father finally told them his story. "He never talked about it when we was growin' up," said his son Keith.
And then there's Robert "Tommy" Thompson of San Diego. His 80-year-old blue eyes are clouded with cataracts, and a stubbly white beard covers his face. At one of the round linoleum tables, he sits down, and with machine-like precision can tell you how he enlisted in the Navy at 16 the day after Pearl Harbor, where he trained, which ships he was assigned to and the routes they took. And how, on July 5, 1942, at 8:10 a.m., the SS Carlton was torpedoed by a German sub and sank, and how, adrift on a lifeboat, he was captured as a prisoner of war.
He spells the names of the German cities and POW camps where he was taken and paraded through the streets. He talks about burying the dead Russian POWs of Stalag 11 in a trench and the nightmares he still has about them, as well as the story of his double pneumonia, pleurisy, body lice and malnutrition that left his 5-foot-8 frame weighing 97 pounds.
It's only when he gets to the part about the British 3rd Army coming to liberate the camp that he stops. His eyes fill, and he holds his hand up. "This'll take a minute," he says.
It is in a room such as this that these men can look at one another and appreciate how close they came to never making it out of their twenties.
It's the same for any vet, any unit, however diminished, at any reunion.
That's why Ed Molloy, 81, of Melbourne, Fla., is spending so much time defying fate and organizing next month's Atlantic City reunion of his own unit, the 82nd Engineer Combat Battalion. Of 650 men at the start of the war, about 170 are alive. Only 25 still show up at reunions -- one blind, two deaf, two on oxygen and several others with walkers, canes or wheelchairs.
"I would not have reached 19 years old without them," Molloy said. "Whoever in life we owe things to, we owe each other more than anybody else."
Joe Boller of Amityville, N.Y., who organizes the Anzio Beachhead Veterans of World War II Inc. reunion, spent his 19th birthday in a foxhole on the beach in Italy. It would be four months and 34,000 casualties later that Allied troops finally broke out and moved beyond the beach. He knows that vets are dying and that those remaining soon may decide to have their last reunion. But he can't bring himself to do that quite yet.
"Anybody that survived on that beachhead," Boller said, "there's a closeness that only those who were there can understand."
And so it is that 81-year-old Eugene Lafferty, all the way from Ramona, Calif., taking 3 1/2 minutes and breathing heavily, makes it up two flights of stairs Friday at the Air and Space Museum.
Just below him, as a docent rambles on about the P-38 Lightning, using a penlight to point out the engines on the World War II plane, Jeff Haselden, 82, of Lugoff, S.C., looks off into the distance. Children and school groups noisily scamper around the planes, swirling past what can only seem like an ancient man, hands in his jeans pockets, funny baseball cap on his head.
How could they know that Haselden, standing near the friends he still calls "boys," is back on a beach in New Caledonia? The war in the Pacific is going badly. And the old Army transport he has been assigned to guard has run out of oil. All that the despondent Marines headed for Iwo Jima and the Navy Armed Guard crew members like himself can do is walk the beach until a supply ship arrives.
And then one morning on the beach, a P-38 flies low, just over their heads. It pulls away straight up into the air and flips into a joyous barrel roll. Returning to the museum, Haselden's eyes fill behind his bifocals. "Oh, man, it was something to see," he said hoarsely. "That's when I knew, we was gonna win."
Haselden never talked to his wife, who died four years ago, about the war. Nor his children. "They know I have stuff around the house they can read." He knows this is the last time he'll be with the people he can talk to. "This is one of the few things I do to get out," he said as his group follows the docent to the shiny aluminum Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Without the reunion, he said, shrugging, "I'll stay at home."
And with that, Haselden walked away, gently, into the dying of the light.