Determined, humble man defined ‘hero’

Last week, I received an e-mail from Norene Cox.

She told me that her father, Julian Meyer, 93, had recently died from pneumonia.

I’d met Mr. Meyer about 10 years ago. At that time, Memorial Day was approaching and I’d wanted to write about some of the men who’d fought in World War II.

Although he’d never said much about the war to his family, he sat down with me and related some of his experiences as a B-17 bombardier who’d flown 25 missions over Europe.

The names of the places he’d “visited” during that war would send chills up the spines of anyone who knew the history of the air war in Europe. Regensberg, the poison gas plants in Ludwigshaven, the sub pens at Bremen harbor.

The thing that struck me about him, though — as it does with many other veterans I’ve spoken with — was his humility. In our conversation, he mostly mentioned the humorous incidents he’d experienced.

An excerpt or two follow:

“They were all 7 to 10-hour missions with temperatures down to minus 52 degrees. It was so cold that the relief tubes froze solid. We used condoms when we had to go. Later, we just added them to the bomb load over Germany.”

He also told me that Clark Gable once joined his crew on a mission. He then stopped for a minute, laughed at the memory, and said: “He was always Clark Gable.”

Quieter moments came when he showed me his diaries — one section noting that he’d earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. This was the second highest medal given by the Army Air Force for valor. He’d refused the Purple Heart he’d earned, saying simply that “he was still alive while others weren’t.”

This “quietness” and unwillingness to make anything of their experiences in that war seems to be a characteristic of that generation. “Just doing my job” is a phrase they commonly use.

Some job.

As a group, they came of age during the “Great Depression” and, just as things seemed to be improving, along came WWII. Most were in their late teens or early 20s when they signed up to stare down nations whose ideas of governance still beggar the imagination.

What they faced was daunting. After we went to war with Japan, Hitler declared war on us and the world, basically, went up in flames. In the weeks that followed, the free world suffered a string of defeats that gave new definition to the word “gloom.”

In the Pacific, we lost Wake Island, Hong Kong, Borneo, Guam and the Malay Peninsula. We lost Bataan, Corregidor, the Philippines, Indochina and Burma. Attu and Kiska were occupied, as were the Solomon, Marshall, Mariana, Gilbert and Caroline island chains.

In Europe, France had surrendered. Italy had sided with Germany. Belgium and Holland had been overrun. Norway was occupied. England hung by a thread, and the Russians were being chewed up.

It took several years to end that war. It also took the backbone and grit of men and women like Julian Meyer who basically spit on their hands, hitched up their pants, and, then, went out and set things right. Many never returned. Those who did — having “done their jobs” — just wanted to get on with their lives and, thereafter, seldom spoke of what they’d been through — namely, hell.

Quiet and humble, perhaps, but they were a determined lot.

I recently read that the Chinese have successfully landed an unmanned vehicle on the moon. The men and women of what’s been called “The Greatest Generation” sent men to the moon more than 40 years ago — just to show the world they could. Took on polio and smallpox, to mention a few other things.

I wish that I’d have gone back to visit Mr. Meyer, but I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy.

The word “hero” would’ve probably made him cringe, but for as long as terms like courage, nerve and sacrifice define that word, he will wear that title.

Julian Meyer — a true hero and a man to be admired — died recently.

And so, very quietly, a short farewell: “Here’s to him and those like him. Too few left.”

They will all be missed.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to: larrysim@comcast.net

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