We have traveled many miles to fight this war
And the skipper says we'll travel many moreWe sit dreaming by the hour
Of clean clothes, a shave, a shower . . .
- A song verse written by a 7th Bomb Group airman while on a sea transport during World War II.
It was a homecoming of sorts when 460 former members of the 7th Bomb Group came to Salt Lake City this week.
The men first met at Fort Douglas as young pilots and aircraft crewmen in 1941. More than four decades later at the Marriott Hotel, the men - with graying hair, slowed by age and some holding canes - swapped stories of heroism and wondered who would sip from the "last man bottle" of Carew's Blue Ribbon Gin still bearing its vintage India label.
When reunion organizer Richard Young of Snohomish, Wash., was asked why he attends the yearly reunions he said, "Esprit de Corps. We were the closest of any organization. We have the greatest respect for fellow members."
Young said no one will ever know how many of the group lost their lives in war. Of the 3,600 members, only 1,074 have been located since World War II.
Many of the members of the bomber group were stationed at Fort Douglas before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In fact, several of them were to land their B-17 bombers in Hawaii en route to the Philippines the same morning the bombs fell.
"One crew landed its plane on a golf course," said Sidney Birdsley, a Salt Lake doctor and bomb group member, noting that none of the planes had guns or bombs. Other planes were warned of the attack and returned safely to California.
Victor Poncik, from Carrollton, Texas, and an ad-hoc historian for the group, said he was a pilot fresh out of flying school when he first arrived in Salt Lake City in May 1941. Although he says he won't write a book, he could fill one with the exploits of his buddies of the 7th Bomb Group in the Pacific.
He recalled the first bombing
raid ever made by U.S. forces. The attack on the Japanese stronghold at Manado on the Indonesian island of Celebes was carried out by planes in the bomber group. He said the bomber group airlifted Gen. Douglas MacArthur from the Philippines while the country was being invaded. The bomb group was only stationed in Java for two months before being forced to Australia and India.
"It was too little, too late. We had inadequate supplies and poor field facilities," Poncik said. "We serviced our own planes."
He admitted that the tales of battle may become a little "better" over the years as memories fade. But he said the men, most of them retired, looked forward to the reunion.
"It's just like a fraternity of brothers," Poncik said.
The reunion even drew some children of the group's original members. Glen Spieth came to the reunion hoping to get support to salvage a B-17 that crashed in a swamp in New Guinea in 1942. His late father flew the plane that remains in good condition despite four decades in the tropical area. The plane was first assigned to the men stationed at Fort Douglas, he said.
"It is the second oldest B-17 that is still intact," Spieth said. He wants to bring the craft to a museum at Travis Air Force Base in California.