BANGOR, Maine — World War II veterans who fought with the 5th Armored Division held their last reunion in Bangor over the weekend.
The group has been gathering annually since the end of WWII, but as the decades passed, members have aged and many have died.
“We’re too old. I’m as young as anyone in the outfit and I’m 86 years old,” said Galen Cole, who served as a private with the 5th Armored in Europe and lost half of his squad to a German shell.
He founded the Cole Land Transportation Museum on Perry Road, which hosted the reunion and has an extensive military collection that includes several WWII monuments, memorabilia and vehicles, including Jeeps.
“Most of them are in their 90s,” Cole said. “We’ve been meeting for 66 consecutive years and they [the 5th Armored Division Association] decided that this was going to be their last year. When I found out, I asked if it could be conducted in Bangor. They had such a great time in Bangor previously that they said yes,” he said.
Cole said that last weekend’s 5th Division gathering was the third held in the Queen City. Bangor also played host in 1984 and in 1995, when the group held its 50th reunion.
Among the highlights were free tours of the Cole Museum, speakers, concerts and a banquet.
Fifteen members of the 12,000 who served in World War II’s 5th Armored Division in Europe attended the reunion, but more than 300 people turned out for the banquet honoring the division and all World War II veterans Saturday evening at the Bangor Auditorium.
The 5th Armored members came from around the country, bringing as many as eight to 10 family members with them.
The Victory Division’s commander, Gen. Lunsford Oliver, died several years ago, but 10 family members attended, included son Dr. Thomas Oliver of Rapid City, S.D., himself a WWII hero who spent three months MIA in Yugoslavia after his plane was shot down.
Also making the trip to Bangor was Constant Goergen, past president of the U.S. Veterans Friends-Luxembourg, and his son Jean-Nicolas Goergen.
Constant Goergen leads the group which on Memorial Day lays a rose at the grave of each of the 5,076 American service personnel killed in WWII who are buried at the American Military Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg.
On Saturday evening, Goergen told those assembled how the 5th Armored Division had liberated the country of Luxembourg twice during the war.
In a moving address, he spoke about the bravery and sacrifices of the 5th Armored Division and how they fought to free Luxembourg, despite freezing cold and being overwhelmingly outnumbered by the German enemy.
“Luxembourg has not forgotten. Luxembourg will not forget their sacrifice and their suffering,” he said. “And so each Memorial Day in Luxembourg, when we lay a red rose to each of the graves, has become for Luxembourg and its citizens, young and old, likewise a day of commemoration and thanking,” he said.
”From the depths of our hearts, we made ours the noble words of President Abraham Lincoln: ‘We highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. It is for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they, who fought here, have thus far so nobly advanced.’”
Closing out the last official activity of the 5th Armored Division Association, which included the traditional candlelight ceremony remembering some 1,000 division members killed during the war, was retired Col. George C. Benjamin, 96, of Auburn.
“I was always so proud of my men,” Benjamin told the veterans and families. He also praised the veteran interview program at Cole Museum, which has involved some 40,000 Maine students at the museum in the past two decades.
“They have learned firsthand that war is terrible,” he said, “and that freedom is not free.”
The reunion’s grand finale was a free air show at Airport Maintenance next to the Maine Air Museum. The show was performed by the Texas Flying Legends, which brought to Bangor some its vintage WWII planes, including a B-25 bomber, a P-40K Aleutian Tiger, a P-51 and a Japanese Zero. The Houston-based group acquires, restores and flies WWII aircrafts.
An estimated 500 people watched the show from the Airport Maintenance hangar and Maine Avenue. Hundreds of others saw it from farther away.
Larry Van Peursem Sr., 91, of Bangor and Brewer was one of three WWII veterans chosen to ride in one of the Texas Flying Legends planes — namely a B-25 bomber like the one he flew while delivering fuel to Burma for the 1st American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, according to his daughter, Peggy Van Peursem of Brewer.
The former WWII pilot’s unexpected flight delighted his family members and led to an impromptu reunion that included, among others, his nephews Bill Van Peursem, a lieutenant with the Bangor Fire Department, and Steve Van Peursem and great-granddaughter Cierra Van Peursem, who are visiting from Colorado.
Bangor Daily News columnist Roxanne Moore Saucier contributed to this report.