Priceless legacy: One man's story of his World War II experiences captured and preserved for the many who didn't return

Rich Fahey

About 1,500 priceless stories are dying daily, many of them to be lost forever.

That's the number of America's 1.8 million World War II veterans who die each day, according to a non-profit group called the Greatest Generations Foundation.

Some of these stories have been carefully preserved by veterans or their families, others survive via the media, such as Ken Burns' recent documentary series on PBS.

Thankfully, one of those stories that survives is that of Thomas J. Fahey Jr., 82, of East Bridgewater - my father. Unlike many who found their war experience too painful to talk about, he has never been shy about talking about it - even the time he was shot down over Yugoslavia and had to be smuggled by the Partisans back over the mountains to safety in Italy.

Tom Fahey was a right waist gunner in a B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber, a member of the 342nd Bomb Squadron of the 97th Bomb Group, which flew 483 missions in three separate theaters of war beginning Aug. 17, 1942.

Eventually, 980 members of the 97th were eventually killed or listed as missing in action.

He was only 18 in 1944, when he was assigned to the plane of Lt. Dick Esser, based in Amendola, Italy. The pilots were the graybeards of the group - usually all of 21 or 22. Dad was to fly 30 missions in all.

A few years ago, we talked about finding a way to save his memories of the experience. One day, he showed up at my house with about 45 pages of hand-written notes, which he and I crafted into a 5,000-word document. Later, that allowed him to stand up and proudly tell his story at a meeting of other veterans.

The story has since been e-mailed to children, grandchildren, anyone who had an interest.

Two of my sisters - Rosemary Fahey-Burlingame of Cotuit and Amy DesRoches of Mendon - have also compiled an oral history that encompasses the earlier years of the lives of my father and my mother, Rosemary, and includes his war experiences.

Tom Fahey faithfully attended the biennial reunions of the 97th for the past 25 yours, but due to the dwindling members, the last reunion was to be held in St. Louis in 2005. Then it was decided finally, there would be one last reunion in Washington, D.C., in October 2006, to coincide roughly with the dedication of the Air Force Memorial, and to give the vets a chance to see the World War II Memorial.

At the time of the last reunion, my dad was, at 81, one ||of ||the three youngest men in the group, along with Tom Gully, 81, of Tampa, Fla., who ran many of the reunions, and Mike Modica of Reading, also 81.

Along with his wife, Rosemary, he had a convoy of my five sisters: Rosemary Fahey-Burlingame of Cotuit, Lisa Fahey of Marshfield, Ellen Ciabattoni of Prior Lake, Minn.; Amy DesRoches of Mendon; and Leanne Meader of Plymouth and her husband Rob.

The 97th was the first bomb group allowed to put a wreath on the Air Force Memorial, which had been dedicated just the week before. They also held another moving ceremony at the World War II Memorial.

"It really was a sad and happy time," said Tom Fahey about the weekend. "I don't know if I'll ever see some of these guys again," specifically mentioning such good friends as Jack Grundel, 91, of Levittown, N.Y.  John Vasquez, a left waist gunner from Irvine, Calif., was the only other person who flew with my dad to attend the reunion. The other surviving member of his B-17 crew is Sam Piso, a retired colonel who lives in Mandeville, La.

Tom Fahey, with his female "groupies" in tow - my mother Rosemary and my five sister - was the envy of all at the reunion.

And the last reunion was just as memorable for my sisters.

"Dad and Mom were so proud to have us there with them; and we are so glad we went," said Fahey-Burlingame. "The reunion did have a bittersweet feel to it.

You could tell that the veterans and their wives were very happy to see one another; but they were equally mindful of the fact that there would not be another formal reunion in the offing.

Dad's friends also seemed quite moved that so many of his children were able to join him at the reunion. They told him what a lucky guy he is."

"There was a sadness in the air when they all said goodbye to each other," said my sister, Amy DesRoches of Mendon. "John Vasquez, who lives in California, tried to get a few of the guys to commit to getting together the following year in Vegas, and they all said it was a good idea - but you could see that this was the last trip most of them would take."

Out of that reunion came a wonderful DVD entitled "The Hour Has Come," which was the motto of the 97th. It was produced by filmmakers Ron Stevens and David Sholle from Miami University in Ohio, and it features my dad in several sequences.

My sisters also took some great photos of the weekend. So Tom Fahey's story has been captured, in DVD, no less, as well as in the oral history compiled by my sisters Rosemary and Amy and, of course, in his own words, preserved for his eight children, his 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and for generations to come.

The final paragraph explains why it's so important these tales be preserved: "This has been one man's story, no more, no less. It's dedicated to those I knew who never had a chance to come back and tell their story."

Rich Fahey is a freelance writer who lives in Milton. He can be reached at faheywrite@yahoo.com.