Four veterans gathered around a table in Stephens City recently to talk about what they saw and heard as the guns of World War II fell silent 70 years ago.
Germany and Japan were beaten at last, but they did not go down easily. Doug Butler of Winchester, John Neggia of Witherbee, New York, Louis Lepore of Stephens City and Marshall Golliday, also of Stephens City, were among the millions of Allied service members who did their part in finishing off the regimes that had wreaked unimaginable havoc on the world.
They talked about their experiences in a room filled with World War II memorabilia and military artifacts collected by Phil Fravel as part of a private museum he created at the former Sandy’s Implement Service. The museum at 811 Fairfax Pike will be the site of a weekend long event on June 6-7 commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Hours are 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Fravel said he would be especially pleased if World War II veterans attend.
Re-enactors and vehicles from the era will be part of the living history on display, but there are still some people around for whom World War II was anything but a re-enactment.
Butler lived and survived the war in the skies above Europe during its last months. He was among the lucky ones in his bomber squadron stationed with the 15th Army Air Force in Torretto, Italy. He flew 35 missions as a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber that hit targets in Vienna and German cities.
The B-24s flew at a minimum elevation of 23,000 feet. Crew members wore electrically heated suits to cope with temperatures of 20 or 30 degrees below zero, but it didn’t always help.
“We lost many flyers to frost bite on their hands and toes,” Butler recalled ruefully.
Heavy flack from anti-aircraft guns on the ground also took its toll. Only about half of the aircrew members in his bomber squadron survived the standard 35 missions, Butler said. The casualties would have been even higher without fighter escorts flown by the Tuskegee airmen, the first black aviators to fly in combat for the United States.
“They were real good,” Butler said of Tuskegee airmen who flew with his squadron.
Butler, 90, came from a family that sent several brothers into the conflict, one of whom didn’t make it back home. Born and raised in Winchester, he returned after the war to manage an agricultural chemical company.
John Neggia, 89, had a grueling experience as an infantryman with the 3rd Army as it advanced through northwest Europe in the winter and spring of 1945. The war seemed to be winding down to those who weren’t in it, but survival was a day-to-day proposition for soldiers like Neggia as the Germans fought on relentlessly.
“We were in combat for 47 straight days without showers,” Neggia recalled. “One day they took us back to a rest area for three days only, then they put us back in the front lines.”
“You are afraid. You are scared,” Neggia added. “When you’re in a foxhole at night guarding, you can’t see your hands in front of you. It’s so dark. You are scared. The tears come in your eyes. You are so cold from the freezing weather that you shivered. And it seems that the more and the harder you shivered is what kept you warm.”
Neggia said finding a way to remain positive in the midst of so much death and destruction was often the difference between those who survived and those who didn’t.
“You had to remain positive if you wanted to make it out of there,” he said.
Neggia took a job with a steel manufacturer after the war and then worked as a plumber until his retirement. He lives in Witherbee, New York, but happened to be visiting his daughter in Stephens City when Fravel asked him to join the other veterans at the museum.
Louis Lepore, 88, of Stephens City comes from a family that made a distinctive, maybe unique contribution to the war effort. He comes from a family of 15, 11 brothers and four sisters. Among the brothers, Lepore was one of six to serve in World War II, all of whom survived.
Lepore, who is originally from Pennsylvania, was with a field artillery unit in the 3rd Army. He landed in France in December 1944 and quickly found himself in Belgium where the Battle of the Bulge was winding down.
“We were there for the cleanup,” Lepore said.
Lepore said his unit fired “a few rounds” but wasn’t heavily engaged in the few months remaining before Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945.
His most vivid experience in the war came in its aftermath when he unexpectedly encountered one of his brothers near Aachen, Germany. Lepore’s unit was overseeing a camp for displaced people who needed food and a place to stay until they could return to their homelands.
Lepore recognized a truck from his brother’s unit driving down a street, followed it and eventually made contact with him.
Lepore ended his military service with a stint in Korea between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean conflict. He returned to the United States and took a job in the aircraft industry before joining the Federal Highway and Transit Administration where he worked until retirement.
Marshall Golliday, 97, of Stephens City, didn’t serve in the war but he saw the horror of its aftermath while serving as a flight instructor with the U.S. Army Air Force in occupied Japan. Golliday flew over the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not long after the dropping of an atomic bomb on each of those cities.
“All you saw was concrete blocks,” Golliday said of what remained. “Everything else was gone.”
Golliday faced considerably less hardship by the time he arrived for the occupation than those who engaged the Japanese in years of brutal fighting leading up to the surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.
“All we did over there was patrols,” Golliday said. “We just patrolled the island to see if there was any mass gathering of people who were going to rebel or something.”
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com