A full 16 million Americans served in World War II. Every day we lose 296 World War II veterans. Today only 325,574 are still with us. On Wednesday, March 3, five World War II veterans shared their stories with The Coastal Breeze News during their first post-COVID get together at Wing South airpark off Rattlesnake Hammock Road in East Naples.
John Marsh, whose mother was a Woman Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during WWII, organizes the get-togethers. Kevin and Nancy Dey host the gatherings in their airplane hangar at Wing South.
Most of the 21 attendees are pilots. Some were pilots during WWII, others like Myrt Rose, who was a wing walker in the 1970s and 1980, became pilots on their own.
Jerry Enders is the kid of the group. He’ll turn 93 in June. He wanted to serve in World War II as a 16-year-old growing up on a farm in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. But his dad would have none of it.
“I was a farm boy,” Enders recalls. “I drove tractors for the neighbors. I drove grain trucks hauling corn. Drove trucks to the stone quarry before I ever had a driver license. I enlisted when I was 17. I wanted to join in 1945, the war was still on, but my dad wouldn’t sign. I was an only child. I turned 17 on June 26, 1945. I wanted to enlist right then. He wouldn’t sign for me. After the war was over, he let me go. But I still got in the slot to be a World War II vet, which I’m very thankful for.”
Enders boarded a ship for Okinawa, where his handyman skills were put to good use when he was made a member of the famous Naval Construction Battalions, known as Seabees of World War II. The Seabees were responsible for building anything, anywhere and under any conditions. Enders was surprised at the skill level of his cohorts.
“Most of them were city guys,” Enders laughed. “Seems like I was the only one who had experience in anything. If it comes apart, I can usually fix it.”
Enders set off for Okinawa just before Christmas. He endured perilous conditions on a heavily laden ship.
“We were out about three days and we got into one heck of a storm,” Enders said. “We were very heavily loaded. In the low deck and above deck, we had school buses and trucks anchored down. We got into a situation in that storm where we were confined below deck – it was so bad. You could stand on deck and look up and see the crest of the waves at about 45 degrees. The prop would come out of the water then go down in the trough (of the waves) and the ship would shudder. Just a few days before Christmas we broke out of it – it lasted a couple of days. There were some very sick people. I never got sick. We had Christmas dinner. The captain announced that evening that if you want to see the lights of Pearl Harbor, be up early. We could see the city lights as they came up over the horizon. We were in Pearl Harbor for two weeks. Tied up by the submarine base. All the ships in the harbor were still there like they were in 1941. It was depressing.”
“It’s an honor to be with all our veterans and our friends,” Enders said.
The group celebrated Bill Kruschel’s 96th birthday with a nice cake and a rousing version of Happy Birthday. Kruschel was a medic during WWII.
“At the end of the war we were all on Okinawa,” Kruschel said. “The First Marine Division, that was the old Guadalcanal bunch. I was a Navy medic. We had no idea what was going on. As a grunt, you really didn’t know what was going on anyhow. So, we all got on board ship and we took several days to go to China in September of 1945. It turns out the whole reason for the Division going to China was to convince the political parties to go with Chiang Kai-shek instead of the Communists. That was what it was all about. And the Division was there until 1949. So, it was crazy.”
Kruschel and a friend commandeered a couple of Indian motorcycles and planned to do a little post-war investigating in China and beyond. Those plans were scuttled.
“A buddy and I found an old warehouse that the Marine Corps had,” Kruschel said. “We found 10 brand new Indian Scout shaft drives in crates. So, we confiscated two of them. Our objective was, we wanted to get discharged there in China and then drive all the way down through China, to India and Italy and end up in Paris. Well, we had to go in front of a new one-star general. So, we walked into his office. ‘I hear you guys want to get discharged here,’ he said. ‘You got any money?’”
“We told him we had $200 apiece. He said, ‘Oh great, do you have a gun?’”
“We told him we had 45’s.”
“He said, ‘You can’t have 45’s, you’re enlisted men. How much ammunition you have?’ We told him, ‘We have a couple hundred rounds.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ So, he goes over and sits behind his desk and tilts his hat back and says, ‘Well, maybe you’ll get six miles out of town before they kill ya.’ Now you can’t believe it, everybody who had relocated was there. Twenty-four hours a day the streets were full of people. So, he said, ‘You can stay here for six months, or you can get on that ship and go home.’”
The sailors decided to board the ship and head home.
Myrt Rose was too young for World War II, but she had the respect of her fellow pilots. Rose was a wing walker.
Wing walking is the act of moving along the wings of an airplane (most commonly a biplane) during flight. It is known as a daredevil stunt. She performed with air show Hall of Famer Walt Pierce.
“I was a wing walker for Walt Pierce in Oshkosh,” Rose said. “We traveled around the country. It was a Stearman airplane. I wing walked from 1975-81. Then 17 years later – here on Marco Island – I did it again a couple of times to surprise my husband.”
Rose became a wing walker when Pierce’s wife decided she was done with wing walking.
“Walt was married to Sandy and she was the wing walker,” Rose explains. “We became very good friends. They used to stay with me in Massachusetts, where I was living. I was selling parachutes. At that time pilots had to wear parachutes. So, we became friends. She had a few instances where she became concerned, and she didn’t want to wing walk anymore. So, they called me and said, ‘Would you be the wing walker?’ I thought, ‘Well if she can do it, I can.’ I was supposed to arrive at Oshkosh two days prior to the show. I had never been up on the wing at all. I would parachute. We both got weathered in, so I never got to practice. So, the first time I wing walked was at Oshkosh. It was interesting. I really wasn’t scared. It was fascinating.”
Jack Babb, 95, who trained fighters during WWII, was impressed with Rose’s bravery.
“See that gal down there,” Babb said, motioning toward Rose. “She used to be a wing walker. They did loops,” he said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t do it. It’s bad enough to go upside down in a plane without sitting outside in the weather!”
Babb was born in Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating high school in 1943 he went in the Army Air Corps and became a pilot. It was his introduction to flying – and airplanes in general.
“I was an instructor in fighter planes,” Babb said. “Which sounds glamorous, but it isn’t. I was 18. We go to pilot school, which takes 40 weeks. I had never been in an airplane before.”
“We found out that if you signed up as a senior and passed an exam, they would put you in the Cadet Corps,” Babb said. “And the only option we had was to get drafted into the Army. A lot of the guys in my class decided we’d go down there and sign up. The problem was, the reason they did that was that in 1941 and 1942, only 40 percent of men had a high school education. There were no pilots when the war started. They were trying to recruit people who had graduated from high school. So that’s how that came about.”
Babb was modest about how he was selected to become a WWII pilot.
“They gave me a test,” he recalled. “It wasn’t really hard. But if you didn’t have any kind of a high school education, I doubt that you would have passed it. Because there was some math in there. So, if you passed it, they gave you a physical. If you were 18, they put you in a Cadet Corps. It was the luck of the draw. They gave you tests. And depending on your aptitude, they either made you a pilot, a navigator, or a bombardier. I think they really just flipped a coin. I think that’s all it was.”
“They just pull you out of a hat,” Babb insisted. “I wasn’t an exceptional pilot, but I was an average pilot. They just said, ‘We need instructors. His name’s right at the beginning of the alphabet, we’ll take him.’”
Babb worked with pilot candidates who had already mastered the basics. He trained them on the new pride of the Army Air Force, the P-51 Mustang.
“The guys I got were in advanced training,” Babb said. “They weren’t beginners. It was the final leg before they get their wings. It was just showing different things, different maneuvers. Things like that. A little instrument training.”
Babb didn’t think the pilot candidates were anything special. He said he never had a pilot fail to get his wings.
“Most of ‘em were just average – some better than others,” he said, matter-of-factly. “When you get that far along, you have to do something drastic to get washed out. Like maybe taxiing into another aircraft. Maybe getting lost, stuff like that. I don’t recall anybody that I showed, which wasn’t long, that washed out. Most of ‘em were about as good as I was at instrument flying. Because they learned it in basic training. In advanced training they got a little more of it. But you have to realize, back then, we didn’t have what they have now. It was very basic navigation. It was quite a bit of dead reckoning.”
Babb said he didn’t have time to think about the peril he was preparing his pilot-candidates for.
“You didn’t think about it,” Babb said. “There were so many going, you know. I really didn’t know where some of them were going. There were so many pilots coming out then. We had almost more pilots than airplanes at that time. You’d have basically five at a time. You’d take ‘em up one at a time. After you’re through with them, you have five more come in. You didn’t get too close to any of ‘em. Sometimes a couple of weeks – sometimes a little longer. Basically, to orient themselves to that type of plane with the instruments. Of course, on the P-51 he was on his own. Just one pilot. You did formation flying with them. Just generally showing them the plane. How to fly. Did some formation flying. Some aerobatics.”
“The aerobatics trained them for dogfights,” Babb continued. “You had to know the limits of your plane, in terms of stalling and climbing. It was not a forgiving airplane. It was a hotrod. Not like the trainer planes. That’s about all I can remember about it. It was a tremendous fighter. For the boys who actually flew it over there, it was the best airplane. Speed. Maneuverability. And with wing tanks, it could go guard bombers all the way to their target and back. When the war first started the fighters could only go so far because they didn’t have the gas. So, they had to turn back. So, then the Germans would just wait for the bombers to leave, then they would bomb the hell out of them. So, when they developed the wing tanks, they could go all the way to Berlin and back and be protected. It was the best Air Force plane.”
“When they graduated, they were putting them in a pilot pool. Stationed you somewhere and you just maintained your flying status. The reason they kept all of us is because Japan was still in it. But when they dropped the bomb, that was the end of it. It was the best thing we ever did.”
Of course, Babb is referring to the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and effectively ended World War II.
“It would have been a disaster,” Babb said. “Because Japan was not going to give up. You hear people say, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t have dropped the bomb.’ Well, it would have cost us over a million people. Because Japan at that time – and we talked about it then, they were militarizing the whole country – preparing for the invasion. Their mindset then was ‘you don’t surrender. You die for the emperor,’ and all that crap. It would have been a battle to the death for the Japanese. And you hear people complain about ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have…they weren’t there then. It would have been horrible. I hate to even think about it.”
Babb said he didn’t recall working with any pilot candidates that were hungry to see action.
“I never heard that,” he said. “There were no gung-ho pilot candidates. When I got my wings, I went to P-51 school. I did want to fly that airplane. So, I finally got a chance. It was so fast and maneuverable that it was the best plane of the war. Originally, they didn’t have a bubble canopy on it. But when they put the bubble canopy on it you could see everything. It was a great airplane. It was a big thrill, and it was free, too.”
Babb got to fly in a beloved P-51 a couple of years ago.
“About three or four years ago I went to Oshkosh and I got a ride in a P-51 – first time in 70 years. It was great. The P-51, the fighter model, had a gas tank in behind the pilot. They just took that out and put a seat in there so they could take us around. This guy that owned it, he was a dirt farmer in Texas, and they hit oil on his land. So, he was taking veterans up for nothing. Really a nice guy. Then about a year ago he crashed. He had a 96-year-old pilot on board, he was taking him around and something happened. A nice guy, a heckuva nice guy.”
Bob Sargeant, 96, had a lifelong love of flying. His family history dates back to the beginning of aviation and the Wright Brothers.
“My cousins were early in flying,” Bob Sargeant said. “Same time as the Wright Brothers. They have two planes at the Smithsonian. One of them is on display and the other one is still in the crate. My mom’s first cousins built their own planes. All planes looked alike in the early development. That was 1908. They were given their second plane, the one they bought at the County Fair, and it’s in the Smithsonian.”
Sargeant had his heart set on becoming a pilot in WWII.
“I was inducted in the Army,” he said. “I wanted to fly because it was in my family. They gave me a bunch of tests and put me in the regular Army. After a month’s training, I said, ‘Hey, I want to fly!’ They gave me another chance and they accepted me. This was in 1943. I had just turned 18 on December 6 of 1942 and they took me in 1943, right away.
Sargeant’s birthday is just one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“I remember where I was exactly,” Sargeant recalled. “I was coming across the Ohio River with my future wife—my girlfriend then. I heard it on the car radio. Didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Sargeant didn’t get to fulfill his dream of being a WWII pilot. It seems General Patton had other plans for Sargeant and his fellow cadets.
“Of course, I was in the Army,” Sargeant said, “and drafted over to the air corps. They had 76,000 cadets where I was for advanced training in San Antonio, Texas. Patton said, ‘I need ‘em over here,’ and they took 36,000 of us in one week. Most of ‘em got put in the infantry. I got to go back-to-back to my old outfit that was call ordinance. Ordinance is not just ammunition; anything that moves comes under ordinance – tank, motorcycle – anything than moves. Our responsibility was to get it up to the front line, and keep it running, so it could be used there. So, I went overseas and ended across the Rhine River under General Patton. Never got to see him or anything. But I was in the same town where he got killed. I was there in Mannheim, Germany, when it happened. There’s stories that he was killed, that it was plotted. I don’t buy any of that. He was in an American vehicle. The crash did him in. He was a liked General. He accomplished more than any of the other Generals. He was a little rough around the edges.”
Sargeant became a pilot after the war.
“I got my pre-flight training in a little tail dragger down in Nashville, Tennessee,” he said. “We didn’t roll, you couldn’t roll a little Piper. But we did tailspins, which was mandatory. That’s where you spiral down, and you’ve got to pull out of it or you’re going to crash. You’re not allowed to do them at all now.”
“I was in the European theatre,” Sargeant said, “did get some things to the front lines. Saw some frozen German bodies. But never got in the live action myself. Did some see some German bodies still around. We didn’t like the Germans, of course. Some of the fellas mistreated the bodies. I didn’t. I didn’t think it was right. But it was because of them that we were there. Some of them took their pent-up energy out on the dead soldiers.”
Jack Bills, 95, has loved flying since he was five years old. He was a pilot during WWII.
“I flew a B-17,” Jack Bills said, “I flew up and down the West Coast. I enlisted. I went in with quite a celebrity, Virgil Grissom, he’s the guy who was going to go to the moon. After he burned up in the capsule, Neil Armstrong took his place. Both of us enlisted together in June of 1944. But I got out and started my airport in 1948 in Indiana. I’m from Salem, Indiana. Virgil Grissom was from Mitchell, Indiana. I got my pilot’s license in 1943. That’s all I dreamed about was flying. I always dreamed about airplanes since I was five years old. By the time I was eight, I’d taken my first airplane ride. My grandpa, in 1932, paid for a ride – it was $2 for a ride in a Ford Trimotor. It was quite a deal. When the war started, I moved to Canada and I was going to get in the Canadian Air Force. I backed out because I didn’t want to get in the water.”
“I promised my grandfather I’d take him up first when I got my license. I come in, and I’d just got my license. I come into land, and there was a ditch right across the runway and I didn’t see it. I hit the ditch and went upside-down in front of my dad and mother. I was hanging upside-down in the plane. My mother about died of a heart attack. They came and got me out. That was my first crash. That was in March of 1943. The next year I graduated high school in June of 1944 and Grissom, and I enlisted. We patrolled up and down the West Coast of the United States. I never got into combat. We normally patrolled from Oregon down to San Diego. We were checking for Japanese submarines. Just patrolling up and down in a B-17. Another thing we did, which was a little different, I was stationed at Las Vegas. I flew gunnery students up and down the Grand Canyon. It was 92 miles from the Grand Canyon to Indian Springs. We’d fly that about 75-100 feet for 92 miles. We’d shoot at targets. We’d be flying about 130-140 mph. We had turret on top, a nose turret, and a tail turret and shoot 50 caliber machine guns out of the sides. Hardly ever used a belly turret. We did that for about a year. That was my first encounter in doing much flying. I got out in 1947. “
As the event drew to a close, John Marsh and Kevin Dey organized the veterans for a few photographs. There were five chairs set up in the front row. Sargeant negotiated his wheelchair into the front row, joining his fellow WWII veterans, leaving one empty seat. No one at the gathering would dare occupy that empty seat. The front row was sacred ground – reserved for America’s precious resource – its World War II veterans.