If you managed to live through a time in your life that was hell on earth — a time when your friends were being killed or maimed all around you — would you want to talk about it?
According to the Veterans Administration, every three minutes a veteran of World War II dies, taking with him or her memories of the war.
That’s 555 a day. Sixteen million Americans served in the war; today, there are just more than a million. The VA estimates that by 2036, there will be no living veterans of World War II left.
There has been a strong push in recent years to save their stories. Nonprofit groups such as Witness to War have been preserving the stories of combat veterans.
Not every survivor wants to talk about it. Some never have — the memories are just too painful. My dad, Thomas J. Fahey Jr., formerly of Randolph and Milton and now of East Bridgewater, recently celebrated his 89th birthday. He manned a 50-caliber waist gun on an Army Air Corps B-17 in Europe during the war. He did want to talk.
And so we learned that as an 18-year-old member of the 342d Bomb Squadron of the 97th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force, his B-17, nicknamed by its crew “The Flying Flak Hole,” cruised at altitudes between 27,000 and 30,000 feet, and the temperatures in the drafty plane got down to 60 below — and lower, since that’s as low as the gauge went.
He flew 30 missions from September 1944 to April 1945, when the bombing stopped in the European Theater. It was during his 18th mission, on Feb. 20, 1945, that his bomber was hit while flying above a mountainous area 30 miles southeast of Zagreb, Croatia.
The crew bailed out, and my father had a face-first encounter with the side of a tree while going 30-35 miles per hour, costing him, among other things, all of his upper teeth.
My grandparents received the telegram no parent of a serviceman ever wants to get. Their son — Staff Sergeant Thomas J. Fahey Jr. — was missing in action.
Meanwhile, though, Yugoslavian partisans smuggled him and other crew members over the mountains and back behind Allied lines in Italy.
My father was one of the lucky ones. His original crew all survived the war, with the exception of the copilot, Lieutenant Edward Thomas Cullen of San Francisco, killed in action on March 16, 1944. Cullen’s daughter was born two weeks later. The bomb group lost 104 planes and my dad lost countless friends who had trained with him in Dyersburg, Tenn.
While we knew bits and pieces of his story through the years, it wasn’t until eight years ago that we asked him to write his full story as he remembered it. He eventually came back with 45 handwritten pages, which was edited to 8,100 words, and distributed to family and friends.
Since that day the journal has become a living, breathing document, as new stories are recalled or unearthed. My sister, Rosemary Fahey-Burlingame, added some new information recently and will be sending an updated version to family members.
And then there are those who chose not to talk. My dad had a very close friend who grew up with him in Milton and has since passed away.
“He was on a three-man Navy bomber based on a carrier in the South Pacific,” my dad recalled. “They were shot down by the Japanese and picked up by an American destroyer. Later on, the carrier was attacked by the Japanese, and he lost a lot of friends. He would never talk about it. He said, ‘I want to forget it. I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
You may have a veteran in your family, or a neighbor or friend who has never talked about his or her experiences. Perhaps they never will. But you might want to ask, before another priceless story slips through the cracks, and the day comes when there are no more stories left to tell.
At the end of his journal, my dad penned the following dedication: “This has been one man’s story, no more, no less. It’s dedicated to those who never had a chance to come back and tell their story.”
Rich Fahey can be reached at email@example.com.