They served in flak-filled skies or on battlefields of Vietnam, England or wayward Pacific islands, but there’s often one place they meet to reconnect decades later.
Thousands of veterans travel across the country every year to attend reunions at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson.
In a typical year, the museum may count about 75 reunions and more than 3,000 veterans who plan a stay and others who spontaneously show up unannounced, a museum official says.
And, often, they bring their families.
“I think sometimes the museum is the place we pay the bill to recognize our veterans,” said Teressa Montgomery, chief of the museum’s special events division.
Bringing in more than a million visitors a year, the world’s largest military aviation museum has a yearly economic impact of $37 million, based on National Aviation Heritage Alliance figures.
“It’s big business (for those) who want to put people in hotel beds, but it’s also great for our communities,” she said.
“There are two really popular aviation museums in the United States, and this is one of them,” said Tony Sculimbrene, NAHA executive director, citing the other as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “There isn’t a place like this anywhere in the country in terms of the assets that we have.”
The Air Force museum has 70 veteran reunions set in 2015, with Vietnam-era veterans’ groups — 13 this year — the most common in recent years, Montgomery said.
September is the start of the busy reunion season. This Labor Day weekend, five airmen from the U.S. Army Air Force’s 345th Bombardment Group of World War II landed at the aviation museum for their final reunion. Family members who followed them amplified their small numbers to about 100 people.
“It’s hugely symbolic for me,” said Sarah Moore, an author at the reunion who wrote the book “Flying Colors” chronicling B-25 pilot Victor “Vic” Tatelman’s life in wartime. “They’ll be bits of history (at the museum) next to living history. It’s a remarkable place.”
In 2015, six World War II-only groups will meet at the museum, a big drop from 21 five years ago as the nation loses more and more of the aging veterans now in their 90s.
For some, the reunions mean re-connection and renewal with past lives.
“It’s just so exciting to see all these people,” said Tatelman, 94, of Winter Haven, Fla. “We were so close for so many years. The finality (of the last reunion) is kind of shocking.”
A monument to the bomber group stands in the Memorial Park on the museum’s grounds. The airmen flew combat missions in New Guinea, the Philippines and the southwest Pacific. They planned to rededicate the monument over the weekend.
“I wouldn’t miss it because it’s a chance to see all the guys that are left,” said Lincoln “Linck” Grush, 92, of North Jay, Maine, who arrived with his wife, Gloria, 89. He was a B-25 Mitchell pilot with one of the group’s four squadrons. “Every year, it’s a smaller and smaller group.”
“It’s just very special,” said Gloria Grush, who has traveled to several reunions with her husband in their 68-year marriage. “It’s sad to think it’s the last one.”
“You just feel you’re with a lot of good people that you didn’t know for a long time,” said former tail gunner Edward J. Smith, 94, of Surprise, Ariz.
Only about 35 of the original 750 airmen are still living, said Frank Dillard, 92, a B-25 turret gunner from Marion, Ill. “There were some wonderful, wonderful people that didn’t survive the war,” he said.
In recent years, international media attention focused on the museum with reunions and the final toast of the Doolittle Raiders. In April 1942, the 80 airmen in 16 B-25 bombers attacked Japan in the first U.S. strike against the Japanese homeland since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In April this year, the Raiders were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in a museum ceremony.
“… It takes a lot of work to put those on,” Montgomery said. “Those reunions can morph into maybe 16 events in a three-day period.”