Fading generation of World War II veterans

May 28, 2012

Memorial Day gives us reason to pause for those who died fighting for their country.

For war veterans who survived combat,  reflect on their battles.  But there is now an entire generation of war veterans who are fading away. 

In honor of our veterans we are rebroadcasting a special story that WGRZ-TV senior correspondent and WBFO & AM-970 news contributor Rich Kellman produced telling the story of some local World War two veterans.

Buffalo businessman Jerry Kelly never heard his father tell war stories. Lt. Col. Robert Kelly was shot down in a B-17 bomber while doing reconnaissance for D-Day in 1944. Jerry was just two. "My brother who was five does remember him a little bit, but I didn't..." He pauses to regain composure. "But I never knew him. Yeah."

It's one of those rare sunny days at the Buffalo Naval and Military Park. Of the 16-million or so servicemembers who survived World War II, only about 2-million remain. And some of them are here today as volunteers, as docents, to tell about the War through their own eyes. ". "Oh, I like it," says Fred Moorhouse. "I like talking to people and they like talking to me." I met Fred Moorhouse just over a year ago at the Naval Park He walks with a cane nowadays. He was in the submarine service during the war.

Nelson Graves' story had a different twist. He commanded enemy submarines right after the war. It was his duty to bring Japanese  submarines back to Pearl Harbor, the site of what happened on the "day of infamy," as President Franklin Roosevelt described December 7, 1941, where they were sunk. Nelson had a chance to talk with the Japanese captain of the submarine that sank the USS Indianapolis just before the end of the war. She was a floating city, had a crew of over 1100. Three-hundred-sixteen survived the torpedoes and the sharks. "I was told by Hashimoto, who was the skipper of the Japanese submarine, " says Nelson, "he fired six torpedoes, three of them were regular torpedoes, and three of them were human torpedoes. Kamikazes. 

"The first suicide bombers that we know about."

Right, that's right," he says, "and we see that kind of thing today in the Middle East."

The USS The Sullivans is docked at the Naval Park. It's named after the five Sullivan brothers who served together and died together when their ship went down at Guadalcanal in 1942. Legend has it that they always stuck together and want to do so when assigned to the USS Juneau. Not so said Navy veteran Joe Long. "Trouble is," he says, "they wanted to split, they realized how bad it would be if they all went down, and they never got around to it."

"You could never get five brothers, much less even two, on the same ship now," says docent  Jim Egan. But he's not in Buffalo, and still knows the story of the Sullivans very well. The Palm Springs Air Museum in California has a 12-foot long cutaway model of the Sullivans.. "Guys who served on the ships come through. they say, 'that was my bunk over there, and that was my duty station and that was my battle station.'" 

The Air Museum has more than two-dozen World War II planes, all but two of them flyable, with two of them made in Buffalo.  The Curtis P-40, with its painted-on sharks mouth, was best-known as part of the volunteer Flying Tigers group The Bell P-63 is also here. It never made it into combat under the US flag, but it was used by the Russians against enemy tanks.

The planes here are dazzling. but the docents have the memories and stories to tell. "We made it home on one engine,"  says veteran Jerry Korman. He was a radioman on the B-17, the same kind of plane that Jerry Kelly's father was on during his last reconnaissance mission before D-Day.  "The average life of a combat crew was six missions," says Jerry Korman. 

"And you flew 25," we say.

"I flew 25, and I'll always be thankful"

Genevieve Cindrich is a facilities manager at the Air Museum. She's only 22, but feels a close bond with the veterans of World War II. "They lived it," she says. "I really admire them, I respect them and that's why I'm here. I want to keep history alive. They're like my grandfathers. I love them"

The Museum was co-founded by businessman and World War II Navy flight instructor Robert Pond. He built the hangar that houses the Museum and bought more than a dozen of the planes that are on display. Pond died in December 2007. "The docents are so valuable," says widow Jo Rose Pond. "And we need to keep the museum healthy, so that generations to come will know how generous this generation was to this beautiful country we live in." can appreciate the generosity of this generation to preserve "

Jerry Kelly of Buffalo and his wife Barbara visited the Air Museum in California recently. And there it was, the B-17.  "The tour guides were very helpful in telling us, and I explained about my father's role," he says.  Jerry climbed inside. He sat where his father might have sat back then. "I felt in a way like I was in his shoes." Greg and Samantha Jennings were visiting the Museum from England. "The waist gunners were completely exposed," he says of the B-17. "he gunner underneath, a tiny, tiny hatch for him to get in." 

Samantha says, "It's planes like this that helped us win the war and have the world that we've got."

Jerry says, "We owe a debt of gratitude to these people who put their lives on the line so that we could live in a democratic society." "

So whether here at the Buffalo Naval and Military Park, or out in California, the veterans are on a new mission. "A lot of these are kids who, maybe their grandparents or somebody like that served in the service, but they don't have that much knowledge about what went on from '41 to '45."

They know that time is slipping away. "I can't put it out there enough for people to come and see us," says Air Museum docent Gary Frey.

 "Right, absolutely," says Buffalo docent Nelson Graves with a smile.   "And tell them to come down soon." 

Unfortunately, Nelson Graves and Joe Long died last January within weeks of each other. Joe was 84, Nelson was 85. They were part of the Vanishing Generation, but they live on today in memory, through the stories that they told.