World War II veteran Ernest Bugaj is 94 years old, but the memories of his time with the 492nd Bomber Group that he shared at the St. Rose of Lima Veterans Day dinner are still crystal clear.
Drafted to serve and selected for the Air Force because of his score on an IQ test, Bugaj was stationed at North Pickenham, England, where he flew 67 missions in 89 days over Germany and Nazi-occupied countries. It was in the Silver Witch, a modified B-24 which had a 3,000-mile range, that Bugaj flew 17 of those missions, the last of which was on June 20, 1944. Twelve men were in the group’s lead plane attacking oil refineries at Politz, Germany, when they were shot down.
Leaking so much gas that a return trip to England was impossible, Bugaj and the remaining crew voted to try and land in Sweden. The plane’s navigator didn’t think they could make it. so he ejected, becoming a prisoner of war. The bombardier was already dead.
The pilot and co-pilot managed to fly the damaged plane by standing and putting all their weight on the rudder controls. The crew threw out everything they could to lighten the load. The Silver Witch made it to a field near the airport in Malmo, Sweden. Because of Sweden’s neutrality, the crew then had to make it to Scotland before they could return home to the United States.
Bugaj was just 19 years old. He says the uncertainty and fear of that time never left him.
“I didn’t know we were going to get shot at every time we went out,” he said. “They blessed us every time we went out and every time we came in.”
Among the 558,000 American World War II veterans still living, few are left from Bugaj’s 2nd Air Division. Those area veterans who are able to attend come to the annual veterans dinner at St. Rose, which the St. Rose Men’s Club organized 10 years ago.
Members of all ages from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as the United States Coast Guard and the United States Army Signal Corps attend the dinner. These are veterans of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, the Somalia conflict, Operation Enduring Freedom and the Iraq War.
“The dinner kind of makes you relax,” Bugaj said. “There’s a lot of respect.”
Event chair Carlo Dechiro said it is a special one for the Men’s Club.
“We get the opportunity to honor those who made great sacrifices for this country and defended the freedoms that we all have today,” Dechiro said. “I find it important for the younger generations to hear the stories and life lessons shared by these heroes and pass them along to their friends and family. We should never forget.”
World War II veteran Jimmy Tamborello, who served in the Pacific in the 41st Infantry, also said he enjoyed the dinner camaraderie. Tamborello served in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan, where his division went after Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb.
“I graduated from high school on a Sunday and left home the next week,” he said.
His job in New Guinea and the Philippines was reconnaissance. Tamborello and a small group would go out at night to find the enemy.
“At night we would pray for the moon to be able to see the foxholes where the Japanese hid,” he said.
World War II veteran Martin Narendorf also served in the Pacific Theatre and was awarded the Purple Heart for his role in protecting and helping a wounded soldier.
Just 18 when drafted, Narendorf said during training he told his superiors that he was not afraid of a gun, thinking of his time hunting rabbits on the farm. He was assigned to the infantry, and his platoon led the way into battle. In addition to the fighting, there were other dangers.
“The mosquitos were terrible,” Narendorf said. “They carried malaria.”
The dinner’s keynote speaker was Naro Mak, the owner of Hartz Krispy Chicken and a proud former Marine.
Mak talked about his early life in Cambodia and later escape from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. At age 17 in the U.S., he joined the Marines and described how the experience shaped him as a person. From having scrambled eggs for the first time at boot camp to learning what it meant to “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome,” Mak said the Marines changed him for life.
“America is the light of the world,” Mak told the crowd. “And you shaped America to be what it is. Thank you very much.”