BY IVAN FLORES
On August 30, 70 years after the Second World War, a handful of surviving veterans gathered at the Ann Arbor Veterans of Foreign Wars Post to commemorate the end of the conflict. It was a happy occasion; people were greeted by the Washtenaw County Honor Guard as they flooded the small building. Refreshments, swing music and even Miss Michigan awaited the guests inside. The air was buzzing with conversation as the veterans traded memories.
First Lieutenant Dale Burgess was among them. He was 19 years old when he was called up to serve in 1943. He flew a P-38 Lightning – a twin engine fighter –with the 432nd Fighter Squadron in the Pacific.
“I only got to shoot at (an enemy fighter) in the air once,” Burgess said. “We were protecting the leaders’ tails and they got most of the shooting.”
Burgess’s missions included strafing, dive bombing and mainly escorting.
The escorts were the most dangerous of the missions because of weather and mechanical malfunctions.
“They say the P-38 flies great with one engine, but when the second one quits you have a problem,” Burgess said with a chuckle.
The missions were long, thanks to the expertise of Charles Lindbergh, who flew with and trained with Burgess’s fighter group.
“(Lindbergh) always came back with more fuel than anyone else,” Burgess recounted. “He taught us to save fuel and fly on one engine. But thanks to him we had 900 mile, six and a half hour missions. You get tired of sitting in one spot for six and a half hours.”
The long duration of the flights meant the pilots had a higher risk of being exposed to unforgiving weather. On April 16, 1944, the Fifth Air Force, to which Burgess’s squadron was attached, lost 37 out of 300 aircrafts in the sea off of New Guinea, in what became known as Black Sunday, according to PacificWrecks. A lot of veterans have problems returning to civilian life, but Burgess had a relatively smooth transition.
After the war, Burgess went to Michigan State and got a degree in chemical engineering. He then worked for the state health department for 35 years. He married his fiancée upon returning; during the war they wrote over 1300 letters to each other. Their marriage lasted until Betty, his wife, passed away after a ten year battle with Alzheimer’s. Burgess remained in the Air Force reserve until he turned 60. However, he did not fly again after the war.
Ken Rogge, an Airman and member of the Washtenaw County Honor Guard, was also there to honor his fellow veterans. When asked about the “Greatest Generation” – the generation that fought WWII – Rogge was quick to point out the role women played in the war.
“With all the manpower going off to war, somebody had to do the work,” Rogge said. And the women of the United States stepped up and said, ‘We’ll do it.’”
Wars slip into history books, but the people who fight them do not.
“I would wish that the American politicians would realize that there is a cost to war,” Rogge commented. “Not just in dollars and cents, but in human lives.”
When people sign up for the military, they are in essence writing a blank check, he said. This is true now like it was true in 1941, 1861 and 1776.
One of the many veterans on WCC’s campus, Corporal Stephen Miller, understands Rogge’s words in a way most civilians don’t. He served in the Marine Corps and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.
“I don’t think a lot of people do understand what it entails or means to be a veteran… It’s something every veteran feels, something you don’t have to explain to another one,” Miller said.
It’s not just the training, he said. It’s missing out on family and things you’d like to do because you’ve made a commitment. Speaking about the vets who came before him, Miller said, “I give the utmost respect and gratitude for those guys. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do now.”
His advice to civilians: say “Thank you.”
“When someone you don’t know comes up to you and says thank you or shakes your hand… I’ve always thought that was pretty cool. It makes you feel welcomed,” Miller said.