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WW II veterans share good fortune

Bob Sadler, right, shares a story with the family of Joe Sackett, his close friend when both lived in Durango. Sackett died in 2005. From left are Sackett’s granddaughter Lindsay Box, great-grandson Tavian Box, 4, and daughter Jan Smith. Sadler and Sackett both served with the Army Air Corps and were greeters at Kroeger’s Hardware. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Bob Sadler, right, shares a story with the family of Joe Sackett, his close friend when both lived in Durango. Sackett died in 2005. From left are Sackett’s granddaughter Lindsay Box, great-grandson Tavian Box, 4, and daughter Jan Smith. Sadler and Sackett both served with the Army Air Corps and were greeters at Kroeger’s Hardware.

You weren’t there, so you don’t understand exactly what they did. And they don’t necessarily want to share all those details, or remember them – it’s been 67 years, after all.

But you know this: Flying low-altitude night missions over Germany to photograph enemy movements during World War II couldn’t have been anything but hairy. These guys, who saw plenty of comrades die in Europe, have trouble convincing themselves that they are heroes.

But we know.

We know because just the thought of doing that sends a little shiver through our souls.

Three veterans of the 155th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, their families and relatives of other squadron members gathered in Durango last weekend to reconnect. Gene Budzichowski, 87, a gunner/observer, came from near Tucson, Ariz. Bob Anderson, 88, a pilot, came from Berkeley, Calif. Bob Sadler, 89, a photo lab technician, came from Kingwood, Texas. All brought their wives.

For Sadler, a former Durangoan for 17 years, it was also a family reunion. His son, Terry Sadler, a local real estate agent, and Terry’s wife Diane hosted the event. Grandkids Becky Gadberry and Larla Brown came all the way from North Carolina and Connecticut, respectively.

And Sadler was in rare form, spinning jokes, sharing gags and blowing a toy train whistle when he wanted to get everyone’s attention during a get-together Thursday evening at the Best Western Rio Grande. But he also got serious when talking about his service in Europe.

“I’m no hero. I’m no coward,” Sadler said, as he always does when asked. “I’m just damn lucky. Anybody that was in the 155th (who survived) was lucky.”

A few statistics, courtesy of retired Air Force Maj. Scott Moore, who acts as the 155th’s historian:

The squadron flew 650 missions, 600 at night. In less than a year, 22 aircraft were destroyed and 27 crew members were killed in action. Moore served in the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, a descendant of the 155th.

Moore served far longer than the World War II vets in the room, but it’s not hard to see that he’s in awe of what they did. He’s written a short history in which he describes the missions, the twin-engine Douglas A-20, and the jobs of the three-man flying crew and the technicians on the ground.

The air crew flew two types of missions, switching as technology changed. The planes had a camera mounted in the tail and a flash unit that would light up the ground. Planes had to fly between 500 and 3,000 feet altitude, making them extremely vulnerable to enemy weapons – even a soldier’s rifle.

The other method involved the use of 10 flash bombs dropped in succession from about 8,000 feet. They’d explode 18½ seconds later, at around 3,500 feet. To do the job right they had to fly straight and level.

When the plane landed, the photo techs took the film and went to work, developing pictures that would show German troop and arsenal movements, bridges, roads, trains and more. At dawn, the U.S. bombers took off to do their job.

“You can see enormous detail,” Moore said, pointing to an old black-and-white aerial picture. “It was very, very helpful.”

And very, very dangerous.

Sadler prompted Budzichowski, a Chicago native, to talk about one of his harrowing tales.

During a daytime mission, Budzichowski watched as enemy flak burst a hole right through the star on the wing. The pilot managed to return the smoke-filled plane to the base at St.-Dizier in northeast France, but it skidded off the end of the runway and smashed into the River Marne.

Budzichowski flew about 20 missions and the most nerve-wracking were when he went out with a pilot he didn’t know or didn’t totally trust.

Anderson took that pilot’s responsibility seriously.

“As a pilot, you have two people whose lives are in your hands,” Anderson said. “And if you felt really scared then you shouldn’t (fly).”

Trying to get them to admit fear is next to impossible. Getting in that plane would scare a normal person to death, right?

“No it wouldn’t,” Anderson insisted. “If you were trained to do the stuff you’re supposed to do, you did it. That’s your job.”

They understood that the enemy on the ground could target them like a flying duck. They mourned their fellow soldiers who went on missions and didn’t return. They attribute their bravado simply to youth.

“In reflecting on it you think, ‘Gosh, did I do all that stuff?’” said Anderson, who made his living as a lawyer. “It was a challenge best handled by those young enough not to really appreciate the risks that were involved. Most everyone thought: ‘It’s going to happen to somebody else, not to me.’”

That’s another thing most of us don’t quite understand: What’s it like to go through life with this thought: If not for some good fortune, that would have been my body interred at Normandy or Lorraine.

World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1,000 or so per day, according to various sources. Unlike when they were 21, these guys understand they’re not invincible. With typical flair, Sadler handles the issue with a sense of humor.

“If He calls me,” Sadler said, “the only thing I would like Him to do is give me a half-hour head start before the devil knows I’m missing. Because, you see, he’s got a pinch of me too.”

johnp@durangoherald.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.