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.
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 get together to remember the greatest formative experience of their lives. As the years wore on, there were fewer and fewer of them. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, just a little over 1 million remain. The ones who remain are in their 80s and 90s, and many are infirm or fragile.
The reunions, when they happen, are more sparsely attended — yearly reminders of the passing of the Greatest Generation.
When veterans of the Battle of the Bulge gathered this summer, only 40 came, organizers said.
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 would be their last, though they met Saturday for a final toast.
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. 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].”
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 made it to this fall’s event.
George Williams, 90, recalled earlier reunions with his comrades, “having a great time.” 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.”
Some fear that their service will be forgotten after they are gone. Robert Crouse, 89, of Clinton, Tenn., 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.”