"I'm no hero--I'm a survivor," retired Brigadier Gen. Erle Cocke Jr. told an audience gathered at the Fort Myer Officers' Club last week.

Cocke, a World War II veteran, was wounded and captured three times and once "executed" by a German firing squad, but survived. He went on to a prominent career in international finance in Washington and elsewhere and served as national commander of the American Legion.

The men in the audience knew what Cocke was talking about. Most of them were veterans of the famed U.S. 8th Air Force, which flew bombing raids from England into Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, at a heavy cost in men and aircraft.

Cocke spoke at the invitation of the National Capital area chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, where many members have their own stories to tell.

For example, Byron Schlag, president of the chapter and a resident of Gaithersburg, was the tail gunner on a B-17 sent on a bombing raid to railroad marshaling yards near Koblenz in the spring of 1945. His plane was suddenly split in half by a collision with another B-17, which had taken a direct hit and lost control.

After safely parachuting to the ground, Schlag was captured and eventually ordered to be killed.

An elderly German guard whom he had befriended tried to shepherd Schlag to safety, but they were stopped by a Waffen SS officer, who ordered the guard to execute the American. Schlag prayed as he felt the cold barrel of a pistol on his temple.

But just then, an artillery shell from the advancing U.S. Army landed nearby, and Schlag and the German guard were able to escape in the confusion.

"We're all survivors," Schlag noted at the end of Cocke's talk.

Paying Tribute, Putting Out the Lights

The lowering of the U.S. flag in front of the headquarters of the Annapolis Laboratory of the Naval Surface Warfare Center on Sept. 25 brought an end to nearly a century of naval history at the facility.

About 1,100 people, many of them former and current employees of the lab, filled the main circle in front of the headquarters building during a day of tribute to the lab, which was established in 1903 and was involved in a host of naval innovations.

The lab was selected to be shut down during the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), part of an effort to cut defense spending.

"Our goal was to pay tribute to the 96 years of accomplishments here," said Linda Dulin-Rodriguez, a 34-year employee of the lab who helped organize the tribute. "We'd looked at BRAC for five years and it was dead, done and gone. We decided instead of a funeral, we wanted a celebration."

With the Pride of Baltimore II firing in salute, a Marine Corps color guard, assisted by midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy, lowered and folded the flag and presented it to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D).

A short time later, a memorial to the lab was dedicated, and Owens returned the flag to be raised over the memorial site.

A time capsule also was buried, containing photographs, laboratory newspapers, videos and a history of the lab.

"This is closure," Dulin-Rodriguez said. "It's over, done. It'll be easier now for people to move on."

Ownership of the property is being transferred to Anne Arundel County, which will use the land for a high-tech park.

Proving Their Worth Saves Jobs

Almost 600 workers at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds have been granted a reprieve. A decision earlier this year to turn their jobs over to the private sector has been reversed on appeal.

The initial decision in May was the result of a garrison-wide "commercial activities" study begun two years ago. It was aimed at trying to cut defense spending by analyzing whether certain jobs could be done more efficiently by the private sector.

Under the program, government employees would have the right of first refusal for jobs turned over to the private sector.

The reversal, announced in September, is based on revised cost estimates demonstrating that it would be cheaper to do the work in-house than to contract it out to the private sector bidder, Aberdeen Technical Services.

The contractor is now given the opportunity of appealing the reversal, according to installation officials, and the matter may end up in federal court.

Web Site Highlights Achievements

A new Defense Department Web site is making stars out of some of the residents of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington.

The new "Home for Heroes" Web site, produced by the American Forces Information Service, will feature profiles of veterans living at the home as well as at the U.S. Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss.

The Soldiers' Home, established in 1851, is home to nearly 1,300 veterans, many of whom served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The first resident to be highlighted is John "Jack" W. O'Donnell, 85, a World War II veteran who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day with an Army ordnance company and swept through Europe, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and much other fighting before ending up in Czechoslovakia on VE Day.

On the Web site, O'Donnell tells the story of how his unit ended the war with a pleasant surprise.

A local man told them they were sitting atop a buried brewery. "When we broke through the roof, all you could see were rows of barrels with the stamp of the German army on them," said O'Donnell. "When Gen. [George S.] Patton found out about it, he put a guard on it and we were rationed beer."

The site is at www.defenselink.mil/specials/heroes/ on the Web.

Military Matters appears every other week. Steve Vogel can be reached at vogels@washpost.com via e-mail.

CAPTION: Former lab employees, from left, Tom Daugherty, George Wacker, Larry Argiro and Harold Nutt place items in a time capsule at the closing of the Annapolis laboratory of the Naval Surface Warfare Center.