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thedrifter
10-07-03, 07:42 AM
World War II veterans' thinning ranks bringing an end to some reunions


By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, October 7, 2003



CHICAGO - The USS Ommaney Bay survivors came from Seattle and Long Island, Appleton, Wis., and Mexia, Texas, to affirm for another year the bond they forged aboard an escort carrier now resting at the bottom of the Sulu Sea.

But this reunion, for a group whose ship was crippled by a kamikaze attack and finally sunk by a U.S. destroyer in the Philippines in January 1945, likely will be the last.

Only 34 of the 82 survivors who attended the group's first reunion in 1978 made the trek to this year's event, which ran through Sunday in Naperville, Ill. Five of the original survivors have died since June. The chaplain who was to preside over Sunday's memorial service had a heart attack recently and could not attend.

It's a reality faced by a number of World War II veterans groups who try to gather regularly, a poignant epilogue to the compelling stories of the Greatest Generation as its members reach their 80s. About 1,500 World War II veterans die each week, according to veterans groups. By 2020, their numbers are expected to be about 212,000, down from 4.2 million alive today.

"As their numbers diminish and as the World War II veteran gets older, for obvious reasons, it's harder and harder for them to make these reunions," said Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "But I expect that some of them will hang in there until the last man is standing."

It remains difficult for many of the Ommaney Bay survivors to give up the reunions, even though all the stories have been told and retold, even though they still disagree on what type of plane struck the ship, even though the infirmities of age make the trip increasingly difficult.

"I don't know," said Hank Henderson, 80, a pilot aboard the Ommaney Bay, as he fought tears. "I was in a lot of different squadrons after this, and I've been to one or two other reunions and I don't ever go back. This one is different. We lost so many guys."

Commissioned in February 1944 and named after an Alaska inlet, the USS Ommaney Bay was one of 123 escort carriers, each about 500 feet long, or half the size of a conventional carrier. They carried fighter planes and torpedo planes and, in the Ommaney Bay's case, a crew of 1,012.

The ship headed for Pearl Harbor in June 1944, then to the Philippines to provide cover and support for a troop landing. While moored at Manus Island for repairs, the Ommaney Bay was attacked by a kamikaze - explosive-laden planes piloted in Japanese suicide attacks late in World War II - about 5:15 p.m. Jan. 4, 1945.

In the precise, devastating crash, the plane plunged through the wooden flight deck. Its bombs exploded below, near the hangar deck, where fueled planes burst into flames and thick, black smoke billowed and churned throughout the ship.

About a half-hour later, the captain ordered his crew to abandon ship. By 7:30 p.m. a nearby destroyer torpedoed the Ommaney Bay to expedite its sinking. Ninety-two men were killed, 164 were wounded and many of the survivors scattered, losing touch with their shipmates.

Then, in 1978, two of those sailors, John Mitchell and Howard Fisher, who had been corresponding over the years, organized a reunion in Land O'Lakes, Wis., Mitchell's hometown. A total of 82 survivors came and brought about 120 relatives.

"When these Wisconsin National Guard planes did a fly-over," said Dick Delaney, 86, of Naperville, who organized this year's reunion, "there wasn't a dry eye in the place."

Mitchell and Fisher have died, but the Ommaney Bay survivors meet once a year or every other year, whenever they can pull together all the details. They've reunited 17 times, in San Diego and Cleveland; Mobile, Ala., and Minneapolis; Denver and Charleston, S.C., among other locales.

"When you greet somebody here, you get a hug," Delaney said. "It's a sense of remembrance. You find some comfort in this. To some extent, it's a remembrance of what was and what you want to maintain."

Tolbert Bain, 79, of Mexia, Texas, hopped in his pickup with his wife, Louise, on Sept. 28 and made it to the reunion Wednesday afternoon. He's only missed one of the gatherings.

"There was a time when we rehashed all the things we did," he said, chuckling. "It has now moved on to where we compare surgeries and illnesses. We all pulled out our nitroglycerin once and somebody said, `You know, we got enough nitro here to blow this place up.' "

They hung a banner at the back of the lobby, but for the most part, the survivors of the USS Ommaney Bay kept a stooped profile at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Naperville. Above hearing aids and glasses, many of the survivors wore blue baseball caps, a few sported lapel pins, with the name of their lost ship embroidered in gold. They dressed casually with comfortable shoes well suited for mall walking and were accompanied by a spouse or son or daughter to help them navigate.

On Thursday, the group toured the Museum of Science and Industry. On Friday, they had the women's luncheon. Saturday called for the annual meeting and election of officers and a formal dinner.

A simple memorial, always the most moving part of the reunion, was set for Sunday morning on Naperville's Riverwalk. It may have been particularly emotional this year. Time has exacted a toll on these reunions.

Delaney said the group simply is running out of men able to coordinate all the details of running the gathering.

"The only reason I took it is because nobody else would," he said of his role as host. "I didn't want to see it end at this point."

But Delaney will be 87 in November. This year is his last as host, and no one else has volunteered to take over that duty. That leaves the Ommaney Bay survivors with few options. Other groups have come up with innovations to deal with the inevitable.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, for example, is creating The Sons and Daughters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors, which will receive $350,000 from their elders to provide scholarships.

Survivors of the USS Indianapolis, a group who were adrift for three days in shark-infested waters after the ship was torpedoed in July 1945, has started Second Watch, an organization of their offspring, to ensure that ship's story is not forgotten. And some smaller reunions have folded their groups into the gatherings of larger, related military organizations.

But Ommaney Bay's meager numbers and modest get-togethers make it unlikely it would create, let alone fund, a group of survivors' offspring. In addition, Ommaney Bay's survivors expressed the fear they would lose intimacy and camaraderie if their group were folded in with a larger one.

"It's totally dullsville," Ommaney Bay survivor Eugene Darby, 79, of Montgomery, Ala., said of a larger reunion he attended years ago. "There were hundreds of people. You had nothing in common. Except for two or three guys, you didn't know anybody. Here, we're more of a family."

Their best hope to preserve their history may rest with Raymond Gensler, 79, the group's unofficial historian. An extra bedroom in his Appleton home overflows with the work he has compiled for the book he's writing about the Ommaney Bay.

But he's been working on it for more than a decade, and his health is faltering.

In the end, the Ommaney Bay survivors may be left with a ritual, the Last Man Standing, that VFW officials at the national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., have heard discussed.

It's a simple ceremony: The veterans design a beer stein and keep it in a hallowed place. When their ranks thin to just one, that survivor's duty is to fill the stein, raise it and toast his comrades.

http://www.estripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=17941

Sempers,

Roger
:marine: