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Hockessin Community News
  • Living history: Trio of Country House vets recall roles in WWII

  • Three World War II veterans - now residents at Greenville's ACTS Country House - reflect on serving as members of the Greatest Generation.
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  • Jim Bercaw, Katherine Spitz and Ray Wilbur insist they don't talk much about the war.
    "They're old stories, now," Bercaw chuckles.
    Besides, at a retirement village like Greenville's ACTS Country House, everybody's got old stories.
    Seated side-by-side inside a small lounge at the sprawling senior community off Kennett Pike, the trio of World War II veterans look on with some combination of modesty and suspicion.
    Then Spitz, 92, charmingly but directly turns the tables.
    "Well, what do you want to know?" she asks. Because despite the trio's humility, there really is so much tell.
    You just have to ask first.
    At war
    Spitz, a member of the Army Nurse Corps who was working in a 1,500-bed hospital in England on D-Day, recalled what it was like to work as a woman in the service, where the only thing more divergent than the roles of men and women were the salaries each were paid.
    "There was less pay, but we received the same respect," Spitz said.
    Respect was palpable in the room among the three contemporaries, who hung on the others' stories, often interjecting their own questions or anecdotes. The trio was united by their service, but each had a very different wartime experiences.
    Wilbur, a lieutenant in the Navy, served on submarine chasers before a stint on the USS Alabama battleship in the South Pacific. He was a stability officer, where his charge was to monitor the ship's balance, literally keeping the boat level should it ever be attacked or begin sinking.
    "You were able to keep the ship level by counterflooding one side or the other by opening these valves," Wilbur said. "But we never had to do it."
    He recalls Kamikaze attacks on the boat and some gunfire battles, but a lot of the work was protecting U.S. aircraft carriers from submarines and Japanese airplanes.
    The ship was about 70 miles off the coast when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
    He said there was no noise, no flash on the horizon; nothing that suggested what had just taken place.
    "There was no warning, not even for us," he said. "Nobody had a warning."
    It was in the skies above the USS Alabama that Bercaw, a B-51 fighter pilot, could be found. A first lieutenant in what was then the Army Air Corps, Bercaw was among the first generation of fighter pilots.
    "Our missions were one of a kind because nobody had flown fighter plane missions at that time," he said.
    Berkaw, 89, was involved in both successful and tragic raids at Iwo Jima and on mainland Japan in his plane, dubbed "The Honorable Mistake" after he fired at a cluster of portable toilets he mistook for a Japanese anti-aircraft installation.
    Page 2 of 3 - Of the three, Bercaw seemed most comfortable talking about the ugly side of the war. He also experienced more of it than the others.
    He spoke of indoctrination training, where U.S. servicemen were shown films of Japanese committing unspeakable atrocities. Those videos successfully dehumanized the enemy, Bercaw said.
    "I know we were killing people," he said bluntly. "But I viewed them more as things than human beings back at that time."
    And it all seemed justified.
    "How do I remember the war?" he said. "I thought we were fighting the last war."
    Bercaw said it used to be more difficult to recount the horrors of war, but said that all changed several years ago when his granddaughter asked him to speak to her history class, and he saw how his message resonated with the young students.
    Better times
    But there were happy stories too.
    Spitz met her husband in a European hospital, where he was on the mend for a broken arm.
    "The hottest romance in the ETO," Spitz quipped.
    And it was during the war that penicillin and plasma became widely available in medical care – advancing health care leaps and bounds for soldiers and civilians alike, she said.
    Bercaw remembers coming upon a refrigeration unit that had been left behind by a U.S. ship, meaning he and his unit had the coldest booze in the Pacific theater – until the unit was discovered and sent along to the hospital where it was supposed to go in the first place.
    And Wilbur, 90, fondly recalls the war's "last battle," when, as the USS Alabama and USS South Dakota came into port in Washington State to be decommissioned, the sailors were paid a visit from the Wenatchee Apple Queen.
    "She got up and she said 'I just love sailors…and I bought Wenatchee apples for all of you,'" Wilbur recalled.
    It didn't take long before a food fight ensued – with apples being hurled back and forth between the two boat decks. Truly the final fight.
    Honoring vets of today and tomorrow
    As the nation prepares to celebrate Memorial Day (a holiday Spitz thinks should be returned to May 30, the day the White House chose after the Civil War because it was an optimal date for flowers to bloom), this trio of veterans finds itself grateful they survived a war in which so many others perished. But they also said they think about those that served in subsequent wars.
    Unlike their return to civilian life, when they were greeted as heroes and afforded the benefits of the G.I. Bill, veterans of more recent conflicts have had a more difficult time.
    Page 3 of 3 - "There was never a doubt in my mind that every American was behind me," Bercaw said. "But others have basically been dissed when they come out of the war."
    "That's really important," Spitz added. "It's a time to honor the people who gave their lives, [but] also the people who are serving today."

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