World War II vets host an annual luncheon to share their memories of being on the front lines.
By Jonathan Friedman/Special to The Malibu Times
On Feb. 13, 1944, a B-17 aircraft co-piloted by Al Buckner was shot down over the English Channel. The former Malibu resident, who moved to Camarillo after his home burned down in the 1993 fires, marked the fiftieth anniversary in 1994 of his war memory by sharing it with his wife, Betty, his friend Jerry Jackson and his wife, Carol, over dinner. Since that time, the nostalgic session has become an annual tradition, with other World War II veterans joining the group to share their stories.
Last Thursday, Buckner gathered with four other World War II veterans and Jackson at a Camarillo restaurant for lunch. Jackson is an Air Force veteran, who was stationed at Okinawa in 1958 and 1959. He was also a war correspondent for the San Fernando Valley Times during the Vietnam campaign. He has a great interest in military history, especially World War II, having visited many of the battle sites.
Buckner began his story with he and his crew on a life raft in the middle of the English Channel, after their plane had been shot down. About two hours later, an English World War I seaplane, called a Walrus, arrived to rescue them. It landed on the water, and a rope was thrown toward Buckner.
“I grabbed hold of the rope and then all of a sudden, bang!” Buckner recalled with a passion as if he were describing it for the first time. “The thing was tied to the aircraft and I just flew out of there, and I started porpoising through the water.”
Eventually Buckner let go of the rope for fear he would drown. He was left alone in the water while wearing his heavy uniform. Buckner attempted to tread water while dealing with a malfunctioning life vest. A person usually can survive for only about 20 minutes in that water, before the bitter cold of the English Channel becomes too much. Soon, the Walrus returned to the water, landing about 10 feet from Buckner.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s a snap. I can swim over to that.’ The only problem was he (the pilot) stopped the aircraft downwind of me, so every stroke I took, the wind would carry the aircraft a little further from me.”
The Walrus’ engines were then restarted, it came back around, and a rope was once again thrown to Buckner. He grabbed it with what he called a death grip. After that, he passed out. Although the rope slid through his hands, a hook at the end of it caught his palm.
“They pulled me out of the water like a fish,” Buckner said.
Buckner would later learn that the crew on the Walrus were conducting their first ever rescue attempt.
“I was the guinea pig, and he (the pilot) made every mistake that a guy could possibly make,” Buckner said, laughing at the follies of the ordeal.
Malibu resident George W. McLean, former Navy chief petty officer, shared his war memories with the group, as he described his experience in the Pacific Theater. His stories ranged from the excitement of seeing a Bob Hope show to the frightening encounters with Japanese kamikazes.
“That was in the later years of the war,” he said. “Those were the worst parts.”
McLean’s ship, the Orestes, was part of a 50-vessel fleet that battled with the Japanese off the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. They were in constant combat for three days. At one point, a Japanese suicide plane crashed into an ammunition-carrying ship located next to the Orestes.
“It left a crater in the water that you can’t believe,” he said. “We went down into that crater and came up the other side. It was a sickening feeling.”
During a brief interruption of fighting, McLean and his crew were able to get some sleep. But they were soon to be awoken, as a Japanese dive-bomber headed straight for their ship. The crew quickly got prepared, and managed to strike the plane. But it continued toward the side of the ship in the form of a ball of fire. The plane contained a 500-pound bomb that went straight up the inside of the ship. It instantly killed 50 men located in one area, and the explosion continued toward the bridge where McLean was located.
“Men were killed all around me,” he said. “And I was the least wounded on the bridge. I was very lucky.”
Former Air Force Staff Sgt. John Katuzney shared his memories of his two years spent in a German prisoner of war camp in Austria. While there, he volunteered at a hospital. But he did much more than that.
“There were two things a POW was supposed to do, try to escape and harass the enemy,” Katuzney said. And he did a little bit of both. Katuzney also smuggled items such as radio equipment into the camp. Each time he would reenter with the illegal items, Katuzney would have to go through German checkpoints. They would search his whole body except for one area.
“I hid the items in my athletic supporter,” he said. “That was the one area they never checked.”
As for the current state of affairs in the world, Buckner and McLean said they support how President Bush is handling the War on Terror. McLean said he doesn’t pay attention much to the antiwar protestors, but he’s glad they are expressing their opinions.
Buckner called it unfortunate that many young people today do not have the same respect for the military as they did in his generation.
“In fact, I used to wonder if we ever did get attacked, who was going to defend us?” he said. “There are just so many young people who don’t want anything to do with the military. They hate the military. They don’t understand that it’s the military that keeps us free.”
Many more stories were shared. At the conclusion of the luncheon, Jackson thanked the men for their heroism and invited everybody to return next year.