Garl McHenry observed something recently about the three pieces of German flak he brought home from World War II after finding them near where he sat in a B-24 Liberator.
“They’re getting rusty now, I noticed,” he said.
At 88, McHenry knows he doesn’t have much time left himself, which is why the New Carlisle veteran wanted to tell his story for Ohio’s War Era Story Project.
The state departments of aging and veterans services last summer called for and collected the written testimonies of nearly 300 World War II veterans and family members, and are steadily releasing them online in batches.
McHenry’s story of flying 31 missions over France and Germany as a radio operator and gunner on a B-24 was released last week as part of a new installment to commemorate Memorial Day and the 69th anniversary of the June 6 D-Day invasion.
The project can be accessed at www.aging.ohio.gov/news/storyprojects, with a plan to eventually share it with the Library of Congress, said John Ratliff, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Aging.
“The purpose of the project was to capture Ohio’s story of World War II in the authors’ own words,” Ratliff said. “We didn’t provide much guidance. We wanted them to tell us what was important.”
The department isn’t officially accepting new stories, but also isn’t turning them away, he said.
The World War II project is a follow-up to the department’s 2009 effort to gather firsthand accounts of the Great Depression.
Ratliff has read all 284 stories, and they make for impressive reading.
“I am humbled,” he said. “Humbled and amazed. What strikes me the most is the humility.”
McHenry, who grew up and received his draft notice in the small town of Markle, Ind., admittedly didn’t talk much afterward about his wartime experience — but for simple reasons.
“When we first got out of the service,” he explained this week, “no one wanted to hear about the war. They were tired of the war. When we’d go to high school reunions, women would say, ‘No war stories.’
“So we didn’t talk.”
Then there was the fact that so many men and women of his generation served. In all, 16 million Americans served during World War II, and 405,399 died.
“Everybody was in it,” McHenry said. “Everybody has a story. Some of their stories are better than yours.”
Now, however, younger generations are eager to hear the stories, but there are fewer World War II veterans each day.
“The veterans are disappearing at a rate of about 1,000 a day,” said McHenry, who still lives in the A-frame he built himself just outside of New Carlisle in 1962, and is still married to his high school friend, Ruth.
He was inspired to permanently record his wartime story after speaking to students.
Once, he recalled, when he told the students he was a radio operator on a B-24, “One gal asked, ‘What kind of music did you play?’”
McHenry was almost happy to be drafted in March 1943. A year out of high school and driving a dairy truck, the wartime rationing of gas made travel outside of Markle difficult.
“It was getting to be a boring life,” he said.
Even so, “I didn’t know I was going to end up on a bomber,” he said.
McHenry became part of a 10-man Liberator crew assigned to the 445th Bomb Group’s 702nd Bomb Squadron based in England. The retired engineer maintains a website with the crew’s history at garlswar.com.
“At our first orientation,” he writes in his narrative, “we were informed that by the end of our tour, half of us would be dead, prisoners of war or disabled.”
During the D-Day invasion, as they flew overhead to bomb German big guns, he could see the landing craft headed for the beaches.
“It really looked good,” he said. “But, you didn’t realize the dangers those guys were headed into.”
“The Channel looked like it was just a parking lot there were so many big ships out there,” he added. “I don’t think the Air Force did much good that day.”
He said flares were supposed to mark targets, but when they finally got overhead, they couldn’t see them, leaving crews unsure where to drop their bombs.
Other images have stuck with him forever, like the sight of damaged aircraft on fire and men jumping from them without chutes.
“That’s a memory I have in my mind I just couldn’t get rid of,” McHenry said.
Perhaps in part because of that experience in World War II, the 88-year-old McHenry has tackled his own mortality head on.
He and his wife will one day be buried back in Markle, he said. Not only does he have a cemetery plot, he personally installed his own headstone.
“It’s a little cheaper that way,” he said.