OWLS HEAD, Maine — The three men grew up in the same small town and now fish for lobsters from the same wharf, but they have never talked about their various experiences serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Until Thursday, that is. Fortified by hot coffee at the Owls Head General Store and with no traps to haul on a rainy November day, 92-year-old Al McNeilly, 68-year-old Floyd Oliver and 76-year-old Roy Rogers sat down together. The Owls Head men swapped stories and learned more about each other than they have during summers spent working near each other at the Ship to Shore Lobster Co. dock. They joined different branches of the military for different reasons — patriotic, pragmatic and economic — but had many things in common all the same.
“I think all of us, when there’s something patriotic that’s done well — we tremble,” McNeilly, who was a navigator on a B-29 bomber that flew missions in the Pacific, said as the others nodded.
McNeilly, a chatty man with bright blue eyes shining from his weathered face, told the group that he and other military recruits of his age grew anxious waiting through the long months of training before they were given their wartime posts. The University of Maine student joined up after Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1941 — but didn’t see action until 1944, the year he had been scheduled to graduate.
“If there was going to be a war, we wanted to get started. Everybody wanted to go,” he said. “Dec. 7, 1941, changed the whole world around.”
He told the other men his plane had been called the “Miss Behavin” until the Army Air Corps nurses decided that wasn’t appropriate. The bomber’s crew, most of whom had New England ties, renamed it the “City of Boston.” They flew 34 missions over Japan, he said, and although two of his crewmates received the Purple Heart after being wounded in combat, they all came home.
“Did you have any nose art?” Oliver asked.
“We had a beautiful babe,” McNeilly said, making a sketch with his hands and smiling. “Beautiful.”
Oliver said that he had a different motive in joining the Navy after he graduated from Rockland District High School in 1964. He was stationed on the aircraft carrier the USS Ticonderoga, and spent three tours of duty in Vietnam from 1965 to 1969.
“When I got out of high school, we all knew if we didn’t sign up, we’d get drafted,” he said. “When you’re young, you’re invincible. But two of my classmates got killed in Vietnam.”
Rogers spent more than a decade altogether in the U.S. Army, going to Korea in 1957, where he helped to keep the uneasy truce that had begun a few years earlier. He’d struggled with finishing high school and went to work in the Maine woods for a while. But facing the draft, he decided he might as well just enlist.
“I joined because there was nothing to do around here,” Rogers said. “I got out in 1959. Got foolish, got married, but I didn’t have a pot or anywhere to throw it. I had the chance to go back in, and I did.”
Talking about some parts of their military experiences were hard. McNeilly said that the City of Boston was damaged under fire and had to land on Iwo Jima to do emergency repairs. At that point, the island had nominally been captured by American troops after heavy fighting and horrific casualties, although there were still many Japanese troops living in underground tunnels.
“The smell of that place was of dead bodies. It was repugnant. Twenty-eight thousand people killed. It was a weary place,” he said. “But it saved our bacon. We got patched up, got a little gas in it, and off we went. I’ve never been so glad to leave a place in my life.”
Rogers said that on Veterans Day, he thinks of the people who didn’t come home. Oliver said he thinks more often of the World War II generation than his own.
“In Vietnam, people really wasn’t behind us, the way they should have been,” he said, adding that it was a political war that nobody understood very well — especially not the boys and men sent off to fight in it. “It’s a waste of human life, it really is. Like these boys coming back now, their arms and legs blown off, and for what?”
The trio said that they all agree that health care and support for veterans is a great thing, and so is the increasing military presence of women.
“Well, the women were in the back of everything. Now, they’re at the front,” McNeilly said. “Damn it all, it’s a good thing.”
“They can do anything we can do,” Oliver said.
“And sometimes better,” Rogers chimed in. “There isn’t much they can’t do.”
As the men talked, a couple eating lunch at a nearby table listened to the stories. Then the man, David Kraner, of Bradenton, Fla., came over to talk. He was a veteran too, having flown rescue helicopters in Vietnam while serving in the Air Force. He grew emotional and told the Maine veterans, especially McNeilly, how much he appreciated their service.
“You guys are just unbelievable,” he said to the World War II vet. “I don’t think most people grasp it. We owe everything to these guys.”