Chris Rosenblum: Veterans’ talks help collate memories

Before the age of 20, John Homan survived 34 combat flights during World War II.

As a B-24 bomber co-pilot in the Eighth Air Force, he flew through flak bursts peppering the sky, knowing the next dark blossom could rip apart his plane.

He raced low across the Netherlands, “on the deck” below 500 feet to drop supplies to beleaguered paratroopers instead of the usual payload from up high.

Another day, he nursed his struggling Liberator bomber over Germany, one engine shut down from overheating, dropping behind and quickly becoming easy prey — until two P-51 fighter escorts came to the rescue.

Given all he faced, one might think a presentation would be nothing. But the Foxdale Village resident is working up his nerve for this latest mission: to share his story in public.

“Might be a little hairy,” he said.

Homan, now 91, will discuss his war experiences Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg. His talk, part of the Richard Koontz Memorial Lecture Series, is titled “Remembering World War II, A Pilot’s Journey.”

“I haven’t done this for a long time,” said Homan, who recorded an oral history interview for his alma mater, Rutgers University, in 2004.

“Most veterans don’t even talk about it. I did write something just for my family, and have have written something else up. This is the first time I have done a public talk.”

Next month will bring another World War II airman to the museum. On April 18 at 1:30 p.m., Bob Baker, of Mapleton, will recount his experiences as a B-17 Flying Fortress flight engineer and gunner, and then a German prisoner of war, in his talk “Air War: A First-Hand Account of Combat and Capture.”

Both events present rare opportunities that become rarer each day.

Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. On the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, about 855,000 remain.

We’re losing them daily, almost 500 of a brave generation that dropped civilian lives to fight — and paid dearly — when a nation called. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that by 2036, nobody will be left to tell how it really was during one of history’s most pivotal junctures.

“Approximately every three minutes a memory of World War II — its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs — disappears,” the National WWII Museum in New Orleans reminds.

Factor in that time has ravaged some memories, and any chance to hear recollections, to transfer them into our minds so that they may live on, becomes even more precious.

Already, most Americans get their World War II history from movies, such as “Fury,” “Unbroken” and other recent additions to the canon. Some draw from true experiences; others are pure Hollywood.

Even the best of them, though, are interpretations, filtered through the modern-day sensibilities of screenwriters, directors and actors. They may pay scrupulous attention to detail, through careful research and consultation with veterans, but invariably, they take narrative liberties. They’re realistic, not reality.

“People are getting the context of history through that,” said Joe Horvath, the Pennsylvania Military Museum educator and a Navy veteran, who helped arrange the Homan and Baker talks.

“What most people — under the age of 40, I would say — are forgetting, all the great stories and all the great books and all the great documentaries are based on the stories of individuals like these two guys. This is where our history comes from. ... It’s truly living history when they talk.”

Homan lived through several perilous months in 1944.

For his presentation about life as a first lieutenant with the 489th Bomb Group in England, he plans on three parts.

The first will explain a typical mission’s routines and procedures, starting with crews checking the squadron bulletin board to see if they were slated for missions the next day. In the pre-dawn hours before flights, cold-water shaves were a must so that faces would not be rubbed raw from six hours of wearing oxygen masks.

Secondly, Homan will recall a few of his missions, such as the one supporting Operation Market Garden, the failed campaign to invade Germany by crossing the Rhine River through the Netherlands that was chronicled in the book and movie “A Bridge Too Far.”

Homan’s crew was trying to supply 101st Airborne Division soldiers fighting to capture bridges near the German border. At low level, his four-engined bomber presented a large target.

“We made three passes and got clobbered pretty good,” he said.

Two engines were hit, and the hydraulic system shot out, as his plane had to veer into Germany to approach a tiny drop zone. Homan and his pilot managed to wrestle the riddled B-24 back to England for an emergency landing.

“They were hitting us with ground machine guns,” he said. “When we circled into Germany, we saw farmers shooting at us with rifles.”

Lastly, Homan will discuss some of the hazards common to every mission: mechanical glitches, unpredicted bad weather, the fog of war. Errors could be as lethal as the enemy. On one run, the formation’s lead plane didn’t turn properly toward the target approach, causing squadrons to stack up rather than be staggered.

Some bombs that day also rained down on Americans.

All of it was part of Homan’s war — the real thing, nothing scripted or romanticized. Kudos to the museum for inviting Homan and Baker, for recognizing the value in passing on their stories before it’s too late.

And thank you to the veterans for their willingness to share their hard-earned memories.

If we’re wise, we’ll accept the gift, fill the seats in the audiences and soak up the details. We’ll hear what it was really like to fly in cramped quarters, sheathed in heated suits, four miles high and hundreds from safety.

We can ask questions, shake a hand and, for a brief spell, be connected to a past suddenly not as distant.

The time is coming when we won’t have a choice.