Veterans reunite after decades apart

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comJune 5, 2013 

— Tom McKelvey and Bob Jenkins still talk about moments from the trip they took – snapping pictures, overlooking the ocean from many thousand feet, doling out nicknames – like they happened a month ago.

“No, they happened about 70 years ago,” said McKelvey, 93, a resident at Lake Wylie Assisted Living.

Jenkins, 89, made a week of Memorial Day when he and several family members flew Thursday from Illinois to visit the former pilot at Wylie. The pair hadn’t graced the same room in 25 years. A hard fact to tell by listening to them.

“I’ve been blessed with families,” Jenkins said of various life stages, including Navy service where the pair met in 1944, “and it doesn’t get any better than that.”

McKelvey spent two weeks stationed at Pearl Harbor before and during its infamous attack, but much longer flying a plane of “photo flash bombs” over the Aleutian Islands. Jenkins enlisted just after Pearl Harbor and his high school graduation. The pair helped protect the country’s northern flank, photographing nearly uncharted areas in search of enemy installations or weapons.

“We knew we had a good pilot, one of the best in the squad,” Jenkins said. “He always brought us back home.”

McKelvey has a folksier recollection of his flying prowess.

“None of us wanted to land in that cold Pacific water,” he said.

Members of their unit once met every couple of years, throughout the country. Fewer and fewer remain. One died earlier this year, another the Saturday before Memorial Day. Fewer opportunities to reminisce is one reason Jenkins made the flight to see McKelvey. Another is the idea that without McKelvey’s skill at the controls, they could themselves be the ones remembered on holidays rather than the ones doing the remembering.

“He wanted to come and say thank you to his pilot,” said Mary Rice, one of two daughters accompanying her father from Illinois. “That was the one thing he wanted to do.”

After their time in Alaska, McKelvey went to Seattle for his next assignment. He flew over Berlin and Midway, among other spots in a long service career. Jenkins stayed over the Aleutians a little longer, then went back to school and a career in dentistry.

The pair and five more World War II-era veterans at Lake Wylie Assisted Living easily chatted service appointments and missions like not a day passed since. One veteran ran an assault boat at Normandy and “came back alive.” Another flew in the Korean War and Vietnam. Still another learned he’d been living just beside a fellow fighter in the Aleutians.

Several spoke about watching battles from the sky, or seeing sailors lose their lives. One spoke of a man who took his place on a mission and didn’t return. They figured Memorial Day week a good time to share those stories, but certainly not the only time. As years pass, Jenkins said, any opportunity is worth the time, or in his case the trip.

“There just aren’t as many of us anymore,” he said.

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