On the wings of memory

Ernie Wirkkala looks at a picture of himself as a young man during World War II. Wirkkala was one of a dozen of the "Airmen of Pacific County" to attend a reunion in Bruceport Sunday. The gathering was sparked by an ongoing series in the Chinook Observer.

Newspaper series draws together the brave flyboys of World War II

BRUCEPORT - Ernie Wirkkala of Rosburg sat by himself on the back lawn, amongst the long shadows stretching out on the grass before him, a hearty wind blowing off the bay.

He slowly took a large framed print out of a manila envelope and gave it a look. It was a picture of him as a young man, painting markers on a fighter plane, representative of how many enemies they had shot down. Slowly he pushed the picture back inside the envelope. Wirkkala was heard later, proudly announcing that this same picture had appeared in the Oregonian - in the 1940s.

Wirkkala served as a P-51 crew chief during World War II and is a member of a group that has been receiving some fame as of late, the "Airmen of Pacific County," a group that held a reunion Sunday 60 years in the making. (See Page C1 for this week's chapter of the Airmen series.)

The gathering was held at the Bruceport home of Cliff Gillies. Gillies, however, who had been the driving force behind organizing a reunion of the fliers, was not there. He died shortly before it came to pass.

Gillies expressed his desire to get a bunch of the guys together to writer/historian Doug Allen, who has been working on a series of articles about the men. Through their many contacts they were able to wrangle up a good turnout - a dozen on hand Sunday, including: Jim McGee, Tony VanRisswick, Bob Harrington, Cliff Smith, Jim Gillies, Bob Beck, Jim Garner, Ernie Wirkkala, Al Haar, Willard Latimer, Bud Burns and Harley Mullins.

"This is so neat. Just the fact of what it represented to them and to get together," said Debbie Gillies, daughter-in-law of Cliff. "When they drove up, they smiled."

Between bites of barbecue salmon and noodle salad, the conversation rarely strayed from their memories and stories, reminiscing about the times they had and the friends who had passed.

"Some of them right away were telling stories, 'Well, I flew here,'" said Debbie. "It makes them feel that what they did was worthwhile, and it was."

Allen puts this into perspective with the introduction to an article he wrote about airmen from the north county who were killed in the second great war. He quotes Fred Rochlin, a B-24 navigator who served with the 15th Air Force in Italy.

"We remember what we want to remember. We deny what we choose to deny. We have become a generation of storytellers, fixed on that period of time when many of us were so young, experienced so much, and were so scared and traumatized."

Jim McGee sat at a patio table, wearing a matching hat and T-shirt inscribed with the logo of the B-24 Liberator, 308th bombing group. McGee was a gunner who spent time at just about every gun spot on the plane at one time or another.

"I never flew on the ball [turret]," he said.

He recounted the terrible living conditions he encountered while stationed in China, noting that the food was a lot better on this day.

"All of water had to be boiled," he said. "All the fruits and vegetables were boiled because they used human dung for fertilizer. Oh, crimeny, yes. I weighed 128 pounds with my clothes on when I got out of China."

Allen noted the significance of holding an event like this, especially since four of the men interviewed for the series having passed on since it began.

"To me it does, and I think for the men too, because when I talk to them, it's like you're talking to a 20-year-old again," he said. "They get invigorated. They're talking about something that happened when they were young, vital guys."

The events of World War II were short, only a few years for American combatants, yet in some cases it shaped the lives of these men for their entire existence.

"To some of them it was a moment of epiphany," said Allen. "Some of them talk about it a lot. There are others who really, although they are proud of it, don't.

"The thing about these guys is, they did amazing things, and they did them when they were babies practically, you know?"

Allen noted that maybe 20 years ago, many of these guys wouldn't have talked about their times in the war.

"But now they're facing the end and they want to talk about it. It's like, 'I'm here and this is what I did.'"

Standing before a display of pictures of the men that will be featured in a calendar Allen plans to publish this year, Bob Beck, a former TBM Avenger radioman, looks to find himself.

"That's me there," he said as he pointed to a black and white group shot of young men in their flight suits. "I forgot I gave him that picture - it's only there and I can't even tell which one is me!"

Beck figures he had just turned 21 when the photo was taken.

"The old man was 25, he's the oldest guy in the picture. I was older than my pilot - I still see [him] every once in a while."

Though most of the men on-hand Sunday don't know each other, having all served in different units in different parts of the world, there is a sense of community there. Among the pictures to be featured in the calendar is one of McGee - young, handsome, holding a large gun from his plane - looking like something that would have been on the cover of Life magazine back then.

As the men gathered for a group picture, you could only imagine what it would have looked like if the same opportunity would have come about 60 years ago. Instead of some of the men being confined to their chairs, they would have been standing tall, with crisp uniforms, young smiles.

On this day, these men got that chance to be their youthful selves again.

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