WWII veterans share history and now a friendship

ARLINGTON — Art Unruh asked his new friend William Nugent, Jr. if he wanted to see his war room.

Nugent followed Unruh on Wednesday afternoon into a small room filled with his personal collection of World War II memorabilia.

“What position were you?” asked Unruh, 89.

Nugent, 88, said he became a B-17 pilot after enlisting in the United States Army Air Forces in November 1942. Unruh served as a waist gunner on B-17s. Although in 1944 the two men were both part of the 301st Bomb Group, 32nd Bomb Squadron, based at Foggia, Italy, they didn’t know one another then.

They met for the first time Wednesday after Nugent’s daughter, Mary Kay Rockenstire of Everett, introduced them.

“I thought, ‘We can’t miss out on an opportunity to connect them,’ ” she said.

Rockenstire first heard about Unruh from a neighbor. She eventually contacted Unruh and learned he was part of the same bomb group and bomb squadron as her father.

Nugent’s family planned for him to visit the state from Grafton, N.Y., so he could meet Unruh. Rockenstire and her sister, Helen Hemendinger, of New York, listened Wednesday as the two men spoke like long-time friends about their training, flying with the Tuskegee Airmen and some of their missions.

One picture frame that hangs on the walls in Unruh’s war room contains his Order to Report for Induction dated Jan. 25, 1943. He spoke about his 11 months of training in locations throughout several different states, including Yucca, Ariz.

“It was 127 degrees and we got out of barracks to fly one hour a day,” he said. “The rest of the time we got a big wool blanket soaked in water hanging up over the windows trying to get by. If there’s a place in the world that’s a lousy, crummy place to put a base, they’re going to find it.”

Nugent, who spent 18 months in flight training before his first mission, laughed and recalled some training exercises while in Biloxi, Miss.

“We were used as target practice for the Navy,” he said. “About a 100-foot windsock was towed behind us and we’d go fly by and they’d be shooting at the windsock.”

They shared fond memories of the Tuskegee Airmen, the country’s first group of black military aviators.

Unruh pointed to a poster he got at an Arlington air show with pictures of the B-17s of his bomb squadron and the P-51 fighter aircraft. It was signed by five Tuskegee Airmen.

“We loved to see those guys up there,” he said. “It was a good feeling.”

Nugent agreed and spoke about a time in early 1945 when he and one such airman relied on each other to get to safety. He was piloting a plane that had been knocked out of formation, he said. The plane was alone and Nugent knew that enemy fighter planes could be nearby in the northern mountains of Italy.

“All of a sudden, I hear the engineer behind me start his turret and an old P-51 was coming up behind us,” Nugent said. “He got lost from the formation, too, but he didn’t know where he was. I said, ‘I’ll get you home if you keep the fighters off of me.’”

In all, Nugent is credited with completing 25 missions and Unruh is credited with 50 missions in several European countries. Both received awards for their service.

Unruh received the Silver Star for valor during his final mission. The bomber in July 1944 was hit at least 600 times in an attack by Nazi fighters. Nugent also received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. He was shot in the shoulder while on a bombing run in April 1945 over the Brenner Pass, a mountain pass in the Alps.

The men enjoyed meeting each other and plan to stay in touch.

“It’s so ironic that we never met and all of sudden, here we are together,” Unruh said. “It’s so unreal.”

Nugent joked about their next meeting being in New York.

“I’m trying to get him back to New York to help pay the taxes I owe,” he said.

Unruh said he was in New York once before, in 1944 when he and others who had been overseas came home aboard the USS General T.H. Bliss. He remembers pulling into Staten Island.

“We went by the Statue of Liberty… If you don’t get a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye after that something is not right,” he said.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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