By William Wolf


(This guest article is by SI LIBERMAN, noted travel writer and journalist)

They‘re not your ordinary tourists.

John R. Lemons, Michael A. Harris, Robert Stokes and George Bruzgis were there before, at times under terrifying circumstances.

They are among the thousands of American war veterans and others who have returned as tourists to what were their overseas battle zones and bases to rekindle memories, share experiences with kindred souls and make new friends.

Lemons, 92, a Dallas retired Mobil Oil Corp. executive and World War II airman whose plane was shot down over Germany, has gone back to Germany and his old air base in England twice. He’s met, been hosted by and befriended by former German Luftwaffe fighter pilots who downed his B-24 bomber and 28 others on a horrific September day in 1944. It was the greatest one-day loss for a single U.S. bombardment group in history.

Harris. a 64-year-old Coos Bay, Ore., contractor, saw action in Vietnam as a Navy radioman/machine-gunner on an armored small riverboat. He‘s returned six times, he says, “to honor fallen comrades” -- most recently last spring.

Stokes is a 73-year-old, Westport, Conn., journalist who was wounded while covering the Vietnam War for Newsweek and other publications. On April 30, the 35th anniversary of the war‘s end, he joined a couple dozen other veteran war correspondents for a three-day reunion in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

“I wanted to see the changes,” he says, “but also to close the circle of those ghosts that have haunted me ever since I left.”

Bruzgis, 79, a retired Haledon, N.J., engineer, was an Army tank crewman who fought in South and North Korea during the Korean War. What he observed upon returning to the Korean peninsula 50 years later was surprising and enlightening, he says.

Lemons recalls that tragic day 56 years ago as though it just happened. His eighth mission as a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber targeting an engine parts factory in Kassel, Germany, was expected to be a milk run. It was anything but.

“Swarms of German planes ambushed us,” he said. “Only four of the 35 bombers in my 445th Bombardment Group made it back safely to our Tibenham, England, air base.” He and eight other crew members bailed out. Lemons and four others were captured and spent the rest of the war in prison camps or hospitals; three were killed by their captors and one apparently died when their plane crashed.

Lemons said he temporarily lost consciousness for lack of oxygen parachuting down from 23,000 feet. Other than a very painful jolt as the chute opened he wasn’t injured. German and U.S. airmen killed in the epic air battle were memorialized in ceremonies in 1990 that drew 500 to a site near Kassel in central Germany where a monument was dedicated and the Kassel Mission Memorial Society formed. Lemons and his tail gunner, Jack Knox of Miami Beach, were among the 45 U.S. survivors and family members who attended.

“Who would’ve dreamed we’d be meeting, embraced by and dining with13 or 14 of the German pilots who nearly wiped us out?” Lemons said. “It was a humbling feeling to think back and to actually be there so many years later.” He’s kept in touch with Germans he met and has hosted one and his wife in his east Dallas home.

On he 60th anniversary of the air battle, Sept. 27, 2004, he returned to the memorial site with two of his four children and again visited his air base in England on that trip. “My son and daughter were stirred with emotion at the memorial site which is a pretty forested area where our lead B-24 went down,“ Lemons said.

It was Harris’ sixth Vietnam visit last spring. “I enjoy revisiting the places that truly affected me when I was 19 and 20 years old,” he said. “When I first returned 20 years ago and on subsequent trips, I likened Vietnam to a rosebud beginning to slowly open. There were many bicycles and very few motorcycles and cars. Now you see classy new cars, vans and motorcycles everywhere. The country has room for additional growth, but the flower is well on the way to full bloom.”

And so is capitalism, he observed. “A five-day private tour of the Mekong Delta area in 1999 with a guide, driver and van cost me $158 altogether. This year a similar tour, using the same guide who took me everywhere I wanted to go cost $100 a day. The most memorable and relaxing part of my 22 days there this time was plying small rivers and canals in sampans, searching for places where we were ambushed and where friends were killed.”

For Stokes, reconnecting with other former correspondents and visiting places with his wife brought back some painful memories during his 12 days in Vietnam. Emotions overflowed, he remembers, when finally, with the help of a guide and just before leaving the country, he found the Navy hospital site where he was confined for a week in 1967. His right arm was torn by shrapnel while covering a medical emergency helicopter mission rescuing and removing wounded Marines.

“As I stood there.” he recently reported in a story for the Asbury Park Press, “I closed my eyes and suddenly I was back there in the moment, reliving that experience -- the agonizing groans and cries of wounded Marines . . . . forcing me to confront their pain and suffering one more time.”

Most surprising, Stokes said, is the incredible wealth of the middle class. “In Danang, where GIs used to go for R&R, there are 4-and 5-star hotels and a casino on the beach where they’re also building one-and two-bedroom condos going for $400,000 to $600,000.

“I was treated like a tourist -- first class all they way,” he added. “There’s no animosity towards Americans, especially among the younger generations of Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh City has one of the largest U.S. expatriate communities in Southeast Asia. They even have a VFW chapter to entertain returning war veterans. “It was an emotional and educational experience. And I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

Bruzgis says nothing looked the same when he arrived in South Korea with a group of other members of the Korean War Veterans Assn. “Seoul was built up -- even areas where there were major battles. We toured museums and other places. You’d think you were in New York or London. Nothing like the rubble I remember 50 years ago. ”

A high point during his seven days there was a tour of the heavily guarded, minefield-laden DMZ and looking across the border into North Korea only to see uniformed North Korean soldiers watching him and others with binoculars.“ … “It was weird,” Bruzgis said.

According to travel agent Steve Cosgrove, president of Dynamic Travel Inc. of South Lake, Tex., Europe -- places like Normandy, France, site of the World War II Allied D-Day landings -- have been the destination choice of many of his war veteran clients. “We’ve sent some there with their grandkids. On occasion,” he continued, “we’ve been able to negotiate military discounts of 15 to 20 percent with tour companies.“ He’s looking forward to the day, he said, when he’ll be able to help war veterans retrace their steps in a welcoming Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Si Liberman, a retired editor of the Asbury Park Sunday Press, was a WW II airman who’s revisited his old English air base twice.)


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