In early October, some 14 men, ages 86 to 93, gathered at a Philadelphia hotel. On their blue caps were the words “9th Bomb Group, Tinian Island, 1945” superimposed on a silver B-29. They came together again, joined by some 20 family members and friends, for one more reunion — probably their last.
For two days, the veterans toured Philadelphia and nearby Princeton. In the evening they retold their stories of what they saw and did some 67 years ago, reliving the time when they were very young, tanned and flying 14-hour missions to Japan and back. Reminders of days past were seen in photographs of planes and crews, in maps of the island and combat missions flown.
One pilot recalled that he had been ordered to shoot down a B-29 circling Iwo Jima — that volcanic hunk of rock and ash halfway between Japan and Tinian where more 2,000 B-29s, damaged or low on fuel, found safe haven during the last few months of the war.
The circling B-29, a danger to air traffic at Iwo, was empty — but strangely kept flying. Minutes earlier the entire crew, except for the pilot, who had been killed in the explosion that ripped off half the nose, had bailed out safely near the island. At the last minute, a nearby P-61 night fighter was given the task of shooting down the B-29, much to the relief of the B-29 pilot reluctant to shown down one of his own.
The reunion was a reminder of the relentless passage of time. Nearly 16 million men and women served in our armed forces during World War II. A scant 1.5 million remain today, their numbers shrinking daily by about 800.
In returning to civilian life in 1945-46, veterans were anxious to restart their lives. Many on the home front were puzzled that few returnees felt comfortable in talking about their wartime experiences, especially those who had been in combat.
Veterans found that only when they talked to other veterans, particularly those with whom they had served and who also had seen combat, would talk about “the war” come easily.
Some kept in touch with those with whom they served. A few even met at times with their fellow comrades. Not until the 1970s, however, and particularly the 1980s when retirement gave more time, did veterans begin to organize and hold reunions.
For three or four days, they and family members would meet to take tours, to be entertained and most of all to enjoy one another’s company. It was also a somber time to remember the true heroes of the war, those who did not return to parents, wives and children.
Reunions stir memories. On Nov. 11, 1918, the Great War (1914-18) — as it was then called — ended with the signing of an armistice. The war left 10 million dead and many more with shattered lives. Optimists had called it “the war to end all wars.”
No such optimism marked the end of World War II, despite the celebrations when Japan finally surrendered. The harvest of death, at least 60 million, was too recent, too destructive to be forgotten.
Soon afterward, conflict resumed in then-French Indochina, in the Middle East, in what was to become Indonesia, and in China. A Cold War followed, as the United States and the Soviet Union girded for future battle. And just four years after the end of World War II, the Korean War began — and a few of those who had served in World War II found themselves once more in combat.
To honor those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice in the first World War, President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 designated Nov. 11 as Armistice Day. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name to Veterans Day as additional veterans were added to the nation’s honor roll. No end was in sight, however, to the list of those who had served their nation in war.
America soon found itself engaged in a long and exhausting war in Vietnam. A pause, then the brief Gulf War in 1991, followed by the much longer and more costly wars in terms of lives and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Let Veterans Day be a time of solemn acknowledgement of the world’s inability to settle disputes and reach agreements. Wars have been thrust upon us, as at Pearl Harbor, or engaged in to repel aggression and provide military support to maintain world peace. But whatever the reason or cause of war, the results are the same: Those whom we ask to serve bear the burden of tragedy and trauma, of death and of injuries both physical and emotional that continue long after the last shot is fired.
Rest in peace, all those who lives were snuffed out in all our wars, regardless of cause. Let us also remember, in word and deed, those who survived and in particular those who came home with lasting injuries and never-ending memories. To them, we owe our gratitude and a heartfelt prayer for healing of mind and body.
Phil True served as a B-29 navigator in World War II and flew a number of combat missions over Japan. He lives in Glen Allen and can be reached at
I did not get this page created before Veteran's Day, but this holds true for EVERY DAY. I always stop and thank a veteran when I see them out in public wearing anything that identifies them as veterans. You would be surprised at how many of them have NEVER been thanked personally before. Don't be shy - offer them a "Thank You" and a hug or a handshake. -Sallyann