Turn back the clock to 1944. The United States is at war. It is training soldiers, sailors and airmen as rapidly as it can, and is rushing them into combat.
Our attention centers on a 10-man bomber crew that is given about six weeks of what passed for overseas training. By October of '44, the crew is shipped off the Italy.
After a dozen missions over Germany, our guys are declared to be the "most outstanding" crew in the 456th Bomb Group. Their prize for winning the competition is to be a week of leave in Cairo, from Christmas through New Year's Day. There is great jubilation among the men. But on Dec. 11, during mission 18, two weeks before Christmas, their plane is shot down over Germany.
"We were lucky, "Bob Bollard of Silver Spring says in retrospect. The men spent Christmas in a German prison camp instead of in Cairo. But they were intact. Nobody had been shot, nobody had been injured, nobody was missing.
During the six months they spent in the prison camp, they learned how unusually good their luck had been. They didn't encounter another crew that was intact after being shot down.
Life was difficult in the prison camp. Twenty-four men lived in a single room that measured 20 feet square. Most were in their early 20s, one was only 18, but they grew up fast. "In six months," says Bollard, "we matured six years. Living in such crowded conditions we learned something about human relations."
After VE day, the crewmen were liberated by Soviet forces. They returned to this country in July and went their separate ways.
Bollard made repeated efforts to organize a reunion that would take the place of the Cairo celebration they had missed. But somehow things never panned out. One man, for example, had emerged from the prison camp with a nervous disorder that to this day makes travel impossible for him. But Bollard continued to urge the others to hold a reunion.
On Saturday, he succeeded. Nine of the original 10 gathered in Independence, Mo., at the home of their old crew engineer, who lives near the Truman home. Last night, they moved on to the crew navigator's house in Overland Park, Kan.
When I phoned them on Saturday, they were whooping it up so energetically that I could hear the merriment in the background. All nine men were there with their wives. All nine were hale and hearty, despite the 35 years that had passed since they were shot down. They had, just 10 minutes before, completed a conference call to the man who can't travel, and he was "just delighted" to talk to them all.
Eight of the nine men were there with their first wives. The "kid" in the crew, who had fibbed a little when he said he was 18 and old enough to fight, had married too early. That marriage ended in divorce, but later he remarried, and his second wife attended the reunion with him.
All nine couples had planned to drive to Independence, but eight of the nine decided against it when gasoline became scarce. They traveled by air instead. The one man who chanced driving is a partner in a Ford agency in Athens, Georgia. He told me he had trouble getting gas in the large cities en route, but encountered few problems in small towns.
Some of the crewmen now have incomes of $75,000 a year, some "hardly have two quarters to rub together." But they're all grateful that the good Lord has watched over them and kept them well and happy through the years. The airmen didn't quite make it to Cairo, but they did get to Independence -- where one of their first actions was to visit the Truman Library and pay their respects to an old artilleryman.
It's a pity Harry couldn't join their party in person, but I suspect that he was there in spirit -- perhaps even in spirits, such as bourbon and branch water.