They sat, many in the front row of Milford City Hall, some leaning over canes and walkers and some still spry.
“We can’t all be heroes,” Mayor Ben Blake said to them, quoting Will Rogers, “because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”
These city heroes, nearly 30 of them and all Milford residents, are veterans who fought during World War II.
William Bassler is one. As a young man, he was a gunner on a B-29 bomber that flew 22 missions over Japan from Tinian Island. In a collection of stories recorded by resident Tom Beirne, who organized an event Saturday to honor the men, Bassler shared the terror of one day in words that are calm and without fanfare, almost as if it was all in a day’s work.
On one flight, he said, “smoke started to come from what seemed to be the radar station. It soon filled the plane and our engine No. 4 ignited. We had taken a hit from the anti-aircraft fire. The pilot feathered the No. 4 engine and put us into a dive. We reached a speed of over 400 miles an hour before we leveled off.”
Richard Herman once took a shell in the stomach after it exploded near his jeep. The shrapnel got stuck in his belt: The metal in his garrison belt had stopped it.
John Adams was a prisoner of war. His mother used to mail him Lucky Strikes even though he didn’t smoke so he could barter with the guards for food, toothpaste and whatever else he could get.
“Heat, for what there was of it, came from a potbelly stove,” he recounted. “We tried to escape by twice digging tunnels, but the Germans discovered them.”
John Peregrim was assigned to the Army’s 29th Division, 2nd Battalion, 115th Regiment that landed on Omaha Beach under heavy gunfire.
His eye was injured when a shell dropped and exploded, hitting him with shrapnel and debris. Shortly after that he was captured by German soldiers.
Peregrim later escaped from a prison near the Czechoslovakian border. He escaped while being force-marched from the prison and, weighing only 95 pounds, he finally made it to the American soldiers’ lines.
Their stories are moving and haunting. Former Mayor Alan Jepson recounts watching a young man who had just learned he was going to be a father being swept away into the ocean while refueling the destroyer he served on.
Roy Worman was a marine during World War II, and he jokes that he still carries a piece of Japanese shrapnel in his leg, even after surgery to remove the metal.
Larry Argraves joined the Navy when he was 17 and was trained to pilot an amphibious boat that would land marines on the Japanese mainland. During one of his workdays, a ship alongside his was suddenly hit by a torpedo from a submarine, and it sunk.
“We were able to pull the crew onto our ship,” he said in the collection of war stories.
The stories in the packet entitled “Milford Salutes WWII Veterans” are short, Argraves agreed, because to tell everything would have filled a book, for each man.
But they are poignant, he said, and a meaningful part of the tribute held at City Hall this past weekend.