I remember my shock when my husband said, “Those were the most important years of my life.” referring to time spent as a navigator in the 100th Bomb Group in England during World War II. How could they be more important than the 38-plus years of marriage and our three sons?
Those words really hurt. I’d say, “You were an inexperienced kid caught up in all the hoopla about the war. How can you compare that to everything we’ve meant to each other and all we’ve built over the years?”
I began to understand my husband’s feelings at the three Air Force reunions I attended with him. At the first reunion, I felt very much the outsider. I was confused by names: What was a group? A Squadron? A tour of duty? I enjoyed the spoofing, the camaraderie and special events, but was it so different from a convention of middle-aged businessmen? The answer came when I overheard an airman from another group say, “Yeah, that’s the Bloody 100 – they had a lot of casualties.”
I had nothing to say. I spent the war only slightly inconvenienced by rationing and brownouts. No one I knew well was killed. How could I relate to stories my husband told about waving to a friend in a nearby place during a raid as they watched a plane spiral to the ground engulfed in flames?
After the first reunion, we learned that one of the most popular fliers had died of a heart attack. My husband, who hadn’t known him well, was nevertheless inconsolable. One of the “boys” was gone. I, too, was touched because I had a clear picture of him regaling us with wild stories of flying a B-17 over the rooftops of a Scottish town, waggling the wings in farewell to the shocked townspeople below. What crazy kids, I thought. It’s amazing we won the war.
At my second reunion, I was more comfortable and even managed to remember a few we had met before. We had a good time because we became part of a group within a larger group. The old stories were pulled out again and I started to really listen. Could these aging warriors remember the exploits and bombing raids of World War II? Indeed they did in full technicolor: flak mushrooming all around them, fighter pilots desperately trying to keep the enemy planes away from the vulnerable big bombers and the sad tales of the men who were shot down or parachuted into enemy territory only to be pitchforked to death by farmers.
I listened enthralled to the oft-told story of how “Rosie,” the amazing group hero and former command pilot, had duped the German Air Force into believing he was surrendering and then caught them by surprise by evading his escort and flying to safety. To me, this was better than war movies I’d seen. Looking through my husband’s eyes, I no longer saw a middle-aged man with wavy gray hair who stood up to wild applause when they called his name. For a while, I was part of the loving circle and “Rosie” was my leader too.
But I still bristled when my husband continued his talk of those “happiest years” of his life. I granted him the deep love he felt for the men who 45 years before depended on him to get them to the target and safely home. I could even dimly realize that though these 19- and 20-year olds faced death every time they flew a mission, they didn’t reject the war as obscene or crazy. They were held together by an almost mystical bond. They had seen awful destruction, played their parts and survived to meet again at these raucous four-day celebrations of victory over the enemy.
The third reunion for me was held only two years later. Only two years between reunions was tacit recognition that the years were going far too quickly now. There were again the hugs and backslappings, meetings and picture-taking and banquets celebrating old friends and admirers from overseas who knew these men as boys or Yanks. Finally I felt part of their history, though again my husband deferred to his buddies when I would have been happy to dance to the band playing the songs of the forties.
I sat with other wives as five navigators spun their tales of hair-raising adventures that to them had happened only yesterday. Years dropped away along with thinning or gray hair and stockier builds. Their voices rose; one pounded the table; another drew pictures to illustrate a point; and they all brought back the happiest days of their lives.
I’m glad I went. I’m glad I feel part of the group now. After all, those were my years too, dancing to Glen Miller and Benny Goodman bands, singing at the war-bond rallies and listening with nervous tension to all the news from the war front. Now I feel I can travel into the past at the next reunion with more knowledge and a sense of relief. After all, we won the war and I was married to a hero.