VMB-423, the second of eight PBJ squadrons in the Marine Corps, was commissioned in September, 1943, at Cherry Point, North Carolina. This reunion is the squadron's 14th. Our first reunion was held in Philadelphia in 1969. Since then we have met in Washington, Niagara Falls, Milwaukee (twice), Hollywood (Florida), Hershey, Philadelphia (again) Pensacola (twice), Charleston, Jacksonville and Quantico.
This time we are meeting in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at the Landmark Resort, a14-story hotel located right on the beach.
There are about 55 squadron members in attendance. That number represents close to 10% of the manpower of our old squadron while at full strength. Most of us are accompanied by our wives. Also attending are several widows of deceased members and several sons and daughters of members and even one or two grandchildren of members. Among the members present are pilots, navigators, radiomen, gunners, a photographer, mechanics, tinsmiths and engineers. We are all in our 70s and 80s but we're still capable of having one hell of a good time (albeit a quiet one) when we get together.
Our commanding officer, Norman J. Anderson, is here. He was a Lt. Col. in 1944. He stayed in the Marine Corps and rose to the rank of Major General. He has a quick wit and a pleasant word for everyone and it is obvious that he enjoys these reunions. It would be difficult to overstate the respect, admiration and affection in which he is held by all of us.
The ladies are a vital part of this meet. They are the socially adept. They lend grace, beauty, charm and civility to these events. Not only that, they are the practical ones who, in many cases, share the responsibility for the success of this and other reunions.
The Hospitality Room
The Landmark Resort Hotel has provided us a ballroom-sized area for our hospitality room. Here, on the first day, we are issued name tags, brochures from the Chamber of Commerce and a list of tips from members who live nearby on what to see and do. Each of the ladies is presented with something special: an exquisite miniature rose lapel pin with a tiny USMC emblem on the stem.
At all of our reunions, the hospitality room is the center of attraction. For one thing, this is where the bar is, tended by our own volunteers. It is also where we hold our two or three all-hands meetings. Most importantly, however, the hospitality room is where we look for that special person we want to talk to, and while looking, we invariably meet someone else, or we are flagged down by someone who is looking for us. Individuals gather in small groups, chat about anything and everything, and move on. Some sit around a table and listen to an account of something that happened 55 or 56 years ago. Others are deciding what restaurant to go to, or are planning to meet in the morning for a walk on the beach or for a round of golf. Old photos are produced and shown around. They generate a lot of interest and comment. Everyone doesn't show up here at the same time unless there is a meeting scheduled. People come and go all day, but every day, sooner or later, everyone shows up at the hospitality room.
Paul Schell, squadron photographer, continues to ply his trade at these reunions. Wherever the action is, that is where Paul is, getting candid shots as well as posing groups for best effect. His photographs of combat missions of all types as well as of individuals and groups at reunions have become treasured keepsakes.
From time to time each one of us, I believe, surveys the room and marvels at what a great gathering this is. So much time has passed but we have stuck together. Old friendships are constantly being renewed and new ones forged, even after 55 years. We enjoy each other's company very, very much. We were together for a relatively short time but it was a momentous period in our lives. We revel in being with the group again and, looking around, feel very fortunate to be here. The feeling is a blend of camaraderie, pride in the Marine Corps, pride that we accomplished what we did, and unabashed patriotism. Perhaps it is this feeling that keeps us coming back.
Two walls of the hospitality room are lined with tables where items are set out on display. In one section, albums and books and memorabilia are arrayed for members to browse through. There are photographs taken during the war by our squadron photographers and other squadron members. They are of friends, the islands, aircraft in flight, the flight line, bomb drops, outdoor theaters, tents, a clubhouse, the make-shift showers, Sydney, etc. There are albums of letters sent by members to the various reunion hosts through the years, books about the B-25, books about the Pacific war and books about the Marine Corps. There are V-mail letters and shoulder patches and there is even an oxygen bottle with flow meter and mask.
In the second section along the wall, photographs are spread out that anyone can have for the taking.
In the third section, items that have been donated for auction are displayed on tables. Members have donated Marine Corps or squadron memorabilia: hat and lapel insignia, photographs, hats, uniform jackets, a flight jacket, shoulder patches, a pith helmet, sergeant's chevrons, two inscribed swagger sticks of presentation quality (one with a dagger insert), books, squadron Christmas cards and many other items. It is a silent auction, the brainchild of Marty Greenberg. Proceeds will go to the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.
Two other fund raisers for the MCHF are being held. Eight unique swagger sticks made of mahogany and 50-caliber brass by Ned Wernick in his home shop are on display and are being raffled off at $10 a ticket. Also, $360 in profits from the sale of a book of recollections by the members was donated. In total, some $1,360 was raised for the MCHF.
At an all-hands meeting, Ted Eckhardt leads us in singing a tailor-made version of Bless ‘Em All, then mock awards are presented by Ned Wernick and our in-house MC-comedian, Pete Dunne, to our mechanics and other ground personnel in appreciation for their contribution to the squadron's mission. Each mechanic is presented with a Dzus fastener with a red, white and blue ribbon threaded through it and a Certificate of the Order of the Dzus. Part of the ceremony includes a reading of the history of the inventor of the Dzus fastener. Another award is made to our tinsmiths, the Order of the Clecko Pin, similarly attached to a red, white and blue ribbon and accompanied by a Certificate of the Order of the Clecko. Everyone knows that although the awards are mock, the appreciation is genuine.
At another meeting, the question is asked: "What about the next reunion? Who will host it, and where and when will it be?" As for the "who" and the "where," Bill Woolman comes forward and tells us he knows people in the business of arranging military reunions in Branson, Missouri, near his home. He will try to make the necessary arrangements and will notify everyone. As for the "when," a show of hands indicates the majority want it to be one year from now, instead of the usual two. Bill says he'll shoot for October, 2001, and confers with Ned Wernick to learn some of the ins and outs of hosting a reunion. For 2002, consideration is being given to consolidating ours with the MCAA reunion to be held September 12 -15 in Norfolk, Virginia.
At another meeting, Ned Wernick praises the book of recollections, "Remembering VMB-423," consisting of stories contributed by some 55 members of the squadron. He states that several members who didn't contribute to the book have said they would like to do so, and several others who did write something would like to add another story. Linda Henley, daughter of PBJ mechanic Chuck Gardner, addresses the gathering, appealing to everyone to write a recollection for a second book. "There is not one of you who doesn't have a memory, or a whole lot of memories, that your friends and families would like to read and to show to their children and grandchildren," she said. "They deserve to have it. Please, when you get home, sit down at your desk and write it down, a little at a time, perhaps, or dictate it to your wife or tape record it. The hardest part is getting started, then it will be easier. Please do it soon, while you still can, and send it in."
Rudy Inman, ex-turret gunner, rises and addresses the meeting. He states that during the war he and most other airmen routinely boarded their aircraft in a nonchalant manner, fully confident that the airplanes would fly, with not much thought about the hard work, long hours, skill and conscientious commitment that went into keeping the fleet in perfect flying condition. He goes on to note that these mechanics did not have the privilege of trips to Australia, or the better quarters and better chow enjoyed by the flight echelon, and were not offered medals as were the airmen. They did, however, fly on many a mission and sweat out the return of every plane that took off and they grieved every loss of a crew. He makes a motion that we offer a salute and a vote of appreciation to these men. The motion is carried unaminously, enthusiastically and with prolonged applause.
On Friday night, we board buses and head for a nearby theater, Alabama. It is a musical revue performed by a talented and energetic group of musicians, singers, dancers and one very funny comedian. It seemed to be enjoyed by all.
On Saturday, just before the banquet, by one's and by two's, we all have our pictures taken for a booklet to be mailed out later.
It is Saturday night, the last night of the reunion. We are having a dinner-dance in the banquet room and are seated at our tables, dressed in our best. We are told to rise and face the entrance door. Exactly on schedule, four Marines in dress blues, marching abreast, enter the room. A Platoon Sergeant carries the American flag, a Gunnery Sergeant carries the Marine Corps flag. They are flanked by rifle-bearing Sergeants. All are young and ramrod straight. We stand at attention, hands over hearts. The color guard marches to the center of the room, executes a precise column left and halts. They face us, standing at attention. We are awestruck by this inspiring spectacle and filled with emotion. We sing the The Star Spangled Banner, then recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I glance around and see tears in many an eye.
The Marines from the color guard join us for dinner. Each has been assigned to a different table. They are besieged by people who want to shake their hand, to hear about today's Corps, to have their picture taken with them. The Marines relax, are good-natured and responsive.
Ned Wernick addresses the gathering. He says an invocation. He brings us up to date on the results of the money-raisers for the Heritage Foundation, which will be used to help build a Marine Corps museum. He reminds us of what it is that brings us together and gives a brief history of these reunions. He introduces General Anderson.
General Anderson asks us to join him in thanking Ned and Sue Wernick for all their efforts on behalf of the squadron members in hosting this reunion and other reunions in the past. They receive our thanks in the form of applause and hurrahs. He then says that his speech will be short "because Ned has allowed me only four minutes of time." He makes three main points. First, he praises the book "Remembering VMB-423" that has recently been printed and distributed. Second, he suggests that we may be interested in supporting the MCAA, an organization devoted to Marine Corps aviation. The association publishes a wide-ranging and timely quarterly newsletter, The Yellow Sheet, and actively promotes and supports an interest in all aspects of Marine Corps aviation. Third, he expresses appreciation for our fund-raiser for the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and he asks us to think about the importance and the significance of the MCHF. He tells us that the word Heritage in its title does not mean history, or certainly not history only, but rather the preservation, and the handing down from one generation to the next, of the Marine Corps' essence: its unique spirit. It is that spirit that the MCHF seeks to perpetuate with the creation of the Heritage Center. The Heritage Center will be used for multiple purposes, but in all its activities it will convey to its visitors the fine traditions and the unique spirit of the Marine Corps.
An awards ceremony follows. Ned Wernick reads citations for the awards and General Anderson performs the pinning. All recipients were radio-gunners. Tom Wallimann is awarded eleven air medals and two distinguished flying crosses, Martin Greenberg is awarded seven air medals (in addition to three previously awarded), Pete Dunne is awarded six air medals and one distinguished flying cross, Joe Mahaney is awarded five air medals and one distinguished flying cross. The four men are roundly applauded.
Following these events, dinner is served. After dinner, there is dancing. The DJ knows his audience and is prepared. He plays the best music there ever was, the music of the forties.
People start to say their goodbyes. It takes a long time.
The reunion is over.
Till next time.