Time has taken its toll.
They are nowhere near as young and agile as they were 70 years ago in the war torn skies over Europe and the Pacific. But their minds are still sharp and clear when they talk about what those years of service were like so long ago.
Time may have passed, but it hasn't erased the memories of war from the minds of these three men – Ralph Lynn, Bob Withee and Don Block.
Each was a pilot during World War II, part of what journalist Tom Brokaw has called the "Greatest Generation." When their country called, they answered and flew missions against the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific.
"We never really thought of it as a sacrifice," Lynn said of his service. "We were just doing our job. You didn't worry about what was going to happen to you, it was going to happen to somebody else."
Block echoed Lynn's thoughts.
"You really didn't think about it being a sacrifice," said Block. " You never really talked about it after the war. You just went on with your lives. I have no desire to go back to where I flew from. It has changed and I just want to remember what it was like back then."
Back then, these men and women who served in the war efforts represented a cross section of our country.
New York City kids went through boot camp with Southern farm boys. Sons of wealthy families suffered alongside poor children of immigrants on battlefields around the world. Volunteers and draftees all served their country together in combating the evils of totalitarianism. For the first time in American history, large numbers of women made a tremendous contribution within the military by taking the place of men who could then be assigned to combat units overseas.
Lynn, Withee and Block were just three of them.
LIFE IN THE SKY
Lynn, 94, flew the four-engine Consolidated B-24 bomber known as the "Liberator." After graduating from high school in Canfield he joined the Army and went to flight school where he was assigned to fly the B-24. During flight school he kept one secret from the instructors.
"I had flown before the war and had my pilot's license," Lynn said with a mischievous smile. "But I never told anyone as I didn't want them to think I was a smart aleck. I loved to fly. It didn't matter what I flew. It was just a great experience to take any machine up into the air."
In reflecting on the war, one thing still sticks out in his mind. It happened during a mission over Germany.
"We had been hit kind of bad by enemy fire and the pilot and I decided to try and fool the Germans and put the B-24 into a spin," Lynn said. "We were at 22,000 feet and you weren't suppose to deliberately spin a B-24. We called the crew on the intercom and told them what we were going to do. We finally got the plane out of the spin at 10,000 feet. Unfortunately, the front turret gunner didn't get the message and after we returned to England he refused to fly. When that happened everyone thought you were 'chicken' and you carried that as a stigma wherever you went after that. Afterward, I felt guilty I didn't go to him. I never saw him again after that. I wished I had talked to him."
Page 2 of 3 - Lynn also flew two missions on D-Day in June 1944. It was the invasion of Europe and it eventually broke the back of Hitler's war machine.
"I remember looking down at the English Channel and seeing thousands of ships," Lynn said. "At that point, I realized that the Allies were invincible!"
VIEW FROM THE COCKPIT
Withee, 92, flew fighter planes over the Pacific. He started out in the Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk", a plane that gained fame with the famous "Flying Tigers" over China. Later he moved on to the North American P-51 "Mustang," probably America's premier fighter plane of the war. He even managed to fly the British Supermarine Spitfire while flying from a base where an Australian squadron was based.
Originally from Massachusetts, he came to Ohio and attended Case Western University until he joined the Army. After training, he was selected to fly fighters and eventually went overseas to the Pacific.
"I trained with 20 or so other pilots," Withee said." Only a few of us made it through unscratched. And the pilots kept getting younger and younger as the war went on."
Withee saw a lot of action and met some interesting people during his time in the Pacific. One time a pilot flew over the base and began doing victory rolls.
"After a few rolls, lots of people came out to see what was going on because you didn't do this unless you had shot down an enemy aircraft," Withee said. "This guy did seven rolls which upset people until he landed and explained he had shot down seven enemy aircraft. The guy was William Shomo and for that mission he was later awarded the Medal of Honor. I got to talk with him a little after he landed."
Withee himself shot down four Japanese aircraft during the war. This happened on two missions in which he shot down two aircraft each time, though he downplays this since the planes were just taking off.
"After I shot down the second two aircraft I talked with Dick Bong, the top American ace of WWII, who I had met once before," Withee said. "He had just scored his last two victories and was going home."
Withee was also on the receiving end of crashing.
Once he and his wingman collided over the Pacific and he was able to escape but his wingman didn't. He spent several days in a life raft until picked up by a Consolidated PBY "Catalina" flying boat. One of the jokes around MAPS is that Bob feels that the ungainly looking "Catalina" is the most "beautiful" plane is the world since it rescued him.
Later, Withee would cras again, this time to be rescued by a submarine. He spent several days on the sub until they were able to return him to his base.
Page 3 of 3 - "I was lucky to be alive," Withee said, reflecting on his service. "You worried about your friends who were missing or in the hospital. I was lucky and came home but a lot of my friends didn't. It is hard to believe it was so long ago. I wouldn't ever want to go through it again but I will never forget it."
At 89, Block is considered the "youngster" of the trio.
He graduated high school in June 1942. One month later, he enlisted in the Army and eventually went into flight school.
"I went all over the country – South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Kansas – for training," Block said. "I remember going to New Orleans and it was a lot different then. Later, my wife and I went back there … and there were a lot more people and a lot more partying going on."
After going through the early stages of flight school Block was sent to twin engine training. There he was assigned to the Martin B-26 "Marauder".
"I had wanted to fly twin engine aircraft," Block said. "I don't think it really mattered what you wanted, it was just what the Army needed you for that mattered. … But I was assigned to the B-26 which was a really 'hot ship.'"
In Florida, Block picked up his plane and crew. Then began the flight across the South Atlantic for his eventual destination, England. Along the way he had some interesting experiences.
"We were trying to find a field in British Guiana in the rain," Block said. "The directions were a little vague but, suddenly, it appeared out of the rain and I dropped the landing gear and flaps at 200 miles an hour – which you weren't suppose to do in a B-26 – and we made it in. If we had missed the landing we would have crashed in the jungle."
In Marrakesh, Morocco they had to wait a few days to fly north. Finally, they got the go-ahead to head to England.
After getting to England, Block and his crew underwent more training in Scotland. Probably because of that they missed out on the D-Day invasion by a few days.
"We first flew out of Chipping Ongar, an airfield near London, " Block remembers. "I called myself a 'professional wingman' as I felt I was too young to be trained as a flight leader. There was a good chance that I was the youngest B-26 pilot during the war."
During the war, Block's aircraft was hit numerous times by enemy fire but rarely did it cause serious damage. But there was one mission he remembers well.
"We were hit on the side below the cockpit by enemy fire. It hit our twin gun packs on the side of the fuselage below the me," Block said. "It broke off both the machine gun barrels and cut my pilot's controls. The navigator was wounded and it cut my controls to the elevators and ailerons. Luckily, the co-pilot's controls were still working, so we used them to get back to the base."