GREENFIELD — By the time the sun rose this morning, three Greenfield men – all World War II veterans in their 90s – were already an hour into their great crusade.
Howard Broere, Ralph “Red” Wesner and Cecil Lane were up before the sun today to board Indy Honor Flight’s fifth trip to Washington, D.C., flying 70 WWII veterans at no cost to honor their service.
At 92, Broere could be the envy of men two-thirds his age with a light gait, strong handshake and a quick, wry wit.
“I’m very excited about it,” he said of Saturday’s flight. “I’m looking forward to meeting some of the old codgers.”
Indy Honor Flight, one of 130 hubs of the national Honor Flight program formed in 2005, has been flying veterans from central Indiana to Washington since 2011, said IHF chairman Grant Thompson.
Some of the old codgers Saturday might have been blasting with Broere through European skies 70 years ago, when at the age of 22 he was wrestling a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt through the clouds.
Providing bomber escort and close ground support, the prime directive for the Babylon, N.Y., native and his 9th Air Force, 365th Fighter Group counterparts – known as the Hell Hawks – was to “stay alive” in a sky full of flak and German pilots who “were fantastic.”
Aside from the pilots’ obvious personal stake in the mandate, the more important consideration was strategic.
As part of the war’s calculus, men sat behind desks to reckon how many times a pilot could be sent out before he didn’t come back.
“We were losing people at such a rate we had to go about this business of figuring out how many missions you could reasonably expect to survive,” Broere said.
His magic number was 39, and he made it.
After the war, he went to college, got his degree and taught industrial education in Connecticut until he decided it was too expensive to live there.
He moved to Greenfield in 1989, built a house and raised a family.
He wants his children and others to know what he did during the war, but it’s not about him. It’s about understanding the times, what they meant and how important they were.
“I’m not a hero,” Broere said. “I was just a cog in the wheel of air power.”
Broere’s “guardian” Saturday is Greenfield resident Jack Grose, who will make his second IHF flight to ensure the vets concern themselves over nothing.
Grose, a six-year Air Force veteran and a young buck compared to his charges, said the senior soldiers need little encouragement to get going.
“When we pull up at 5:30 (a.m.), we don’t have to knock on the door; they’re standing there waiting for us,” Grose said. “It’s like a kid at Christmas.”
Grose will help shepherd the vets through the Capitol’s major war memorials, Arlington Cemetery and back to Indianapolis where a war-era welcome with more than 3,000 well-wishers and a kiss on the cheek is in store for the returning warriors.
“Red” Wesner, 90, might elect to pass on the kiss given he and wife, Kay, celebrated their 56th anniversary Friday.
Red’s day-long absence will be the longest time the two have been apart, but that’s alright by Kay; he’s earned the day off, she said.
Figuring it was only a matter of time before being drafted in 1943, Wesner joined the Navy that June and was promptly shipped to gunnery school and then stuck behind a machine gun in the back seat of a Curtiss scout bomber.
Operating over the Atlantic, the 18-year-old Palestine, Ill., farm boy spent the war living his “best dream coming true,” searching for German U-boats in the waters below.
“Never did see one,” he said with an ironic smile. “It was kind of boring, looking around for something that wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Landing a piston-driven plane on a pitching carrier deck in high winds and rough seas, however, was excitement enough for the duration. Though he could face the plane’s tail, Wesner said he always looked forward as the deck approached. He didn’t like surprises.
“I always wanted to see that coming,” he said. “Otherwise (a crash) would be a shock to you.”
Cecil Lane, 91, wanted to see the war from the air like Broere and Wesner, so at the age of 20, he and a buddy from Logansport volunteered for the air corps.
Unfortunately, Lane failed something – he doesn’t recall now particularly what – and while his friend was off ferrying bombers coast to coast, “flying WACs and generals, they stuck me in the infantry.”
He spent the war flying low to make the army’s big deuce-and-a-half troop truck a small target to German guns.
It wasn’t easy.
“I’d drive it as fast as they would allow me to,” Lane laughed. “I’d just tell the guys in back, ‘Hang on!’”
He and his truck tore through France, froze in Belgium during the Battle of Bulge and ultimately saw the war end in Austria.
“It was damn cold,” is about all Lane has to say about Belgium and the six-week German counter-attack that took the allies by surprise at the close of 1944.
Lane doesn’t get hyperbolic about the war and his role. It was what it was, and people did what they had to do, whether at the front or at home.
“It was hell,” Lane said. “But so was every war.”
Like Broere and Lane, Wesner was looking forward to the trip, but he wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about.
“In a way, yes,” Wesner said when asked if he was excited. “But I’m surprised they selected me.”
When their day began at 5:30 this morning, the three war veterans were among 70 accepting the accolades of a grateful state for doing things they didn’t see as extraordinary at the time.
They boarded a plane in their 90s to tour the nation’s capital and the monuments erected in their honor.
They will share war stories, shake hands till their joints ache and be treated as the rare nobility they are.
But as the day passes, something else will begin to happen.
Things will subtly change, and there will be a point at which time starts running counter to the laws of physics to double back on itself.
“It’s amazing to watch,” Thompson said. “They start the day 90 years old, but by the end of the day they think they’re 19. “They think they’re Superman again.”