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Our Continuing Loss of World War II Heroes

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Joe and Bud live just about twelve miles apart but they've never met. That might not be a big surprise if they weren't among a vanishing breed of surviving U.S. WW II veterans. 180 years of living done by just two guys who served in the US Navy -- and not just the navy -- in the Pacific. Both were on ships torpedoed by the Japanese. Both survived Kamikaze attacks. It's a small world but not small enough to make them cross paths.

Joseph C. Flory, born this week 85 years ago, grew up on a farm and never ventured more than three miles in any direction until his dad took him to enlistment. It was March of 1944 -- three weeks before his 18th birthday.

Joe's not really sure why he enlisted. He'd had all the schooling available to a farm boy in the 1940's by the time he was about 14. His local school only went to 9th grade and that was enough for him. By the time he'd hit 17 many of his friends who were just a little older than he had already gone off to the war -- so even though he didn't know what he was getting himself into -- he knew it was the same thing his buddies had gotten themselves into.

Joe's dad never said much. Consequently, on the afternoon Joe asked his dad to sign for him to go into the military early, he wasn't all that surprised that his dad didn't respond. Later that evening at the dinner table -- after they had come in from getting a field ready for planting -- Joe got his answer. His dad nonchalantly informed him that he'd "better wash up" for their trip to town.

When they got back from town, Joe's mom asked how it went. His dad spoke again, "his eyesight's a little bad but if he eats his carrots he'll be o.k."

Joe never remembers being scared of dying. Maybe it was because of the casual attitude that his parents exhibited about him going off to war or the fact that he felt comfortable with his assignment, "I had faith in my ship." And what a ship it was. Joe's navy orders made him a "plank owner" on the U.S.S. Missouri. A plank owner is the nick name given an original crew member of a newly commissioned ship.

Joe stepped off his farm and into the history books.

As a seaman first class, Joe was just a gunner manning a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun. It took five guys to operate it. Joe figures he got to be gunner and not range finder, gun loader or one of the other specialists attached to his 20 mm because growing up in rural farm country required similar skills. "I went to gunner's school because I must've been pretty good at hitting my target."

When asked how many planes he'd shot down he couldn't answer. "We shot five planes down in one day I remember, but I don't know if it was me who shot them." Joe humbly explained that there were many guns firing all at once when they were under attack. And it could have been any one of them that saved the ship.

When he wasn't at his gun he was swabbing decks or standing look out. It wasn't until a general alarm was called that everyone would run to battle stations and stay there; prepared for the Japanese Zeroes that were headed for the Missouri.

When asked how he felt about suicide missions that caused the Kamikaze attacks he endured, Joe explained, "We know they were desperate. They had to do what they had to do." One day, one particular Kamikaze pilot was headed right toward Joe, his gun and his mates: headed right for the fantail. The ship was designed with a metal barrier around the 20 mm guns. This barrier kept the gun from being lowered too much. If the gunner pointed the gun too low it could hit another part of their own ship.

As the Kamikaze came barreling for the ship, the barrier kept Joe from aiming the gun low enough to take out the plane. The Zero was so low that Joe knew for sure that he couldn't stop him. Somewhere at the helm of the ship other Missouri Plank Men were doing their jobs. And suddenly the ship turned just enough to deflect the Kamikaze who grazed off the side of the metal barrier that had kept Joe from aiming low -- but because of the ship's maneuver -- saved his life.

Guys died that day, but Joe wasn't one of them.

One of Joe's fondest battle stories was of a rugged man who had come to work on his gun. He wasn't with the original crew so he hadn't experienced the recoil and blast of the 16 inch gun that went off directly above them. Joe told the new guy to run for cover when the 16 inch went off. The new guy refused because he said he could handle the blast from the bigger gun. Joe cautioned him, "Take cover or the recoil will suck the clothes right off of you." The man refused.

Joe said that after they fired the gun, the new guy was standing there and his uniform was gone.

On September 2, 1945 -- while Bud was back state side watching the city of New Orleans come apart with joy -- Joe was positioned in the crow's nest of the Missouri serving as look out. With his binoculars trained not on the skies but on the table below him, Joe witnessed the Japanese Surrender. Joe recalled how the Allied Pacific Fleet completely surrounded the vessel that brought the Japanese delegation, "There were so many guns pointed at that Japanese ship that if they made one false move, she'd have been blown out of the water."

Joe offered his sympathies for the agony the rolling earth quakes, tidal wave and nuclear calamity are causing the Japanese people. Joe felt that long ago it was time to, "forgive and forget." All he sees when he looks at pictures of the folks in Japan are innocent victims.

Additionally, Joe's voiced real disappointed that the war they fought to set the world right didn't really change all that much. After WW II Joe explained, "I thought everything was going to be honkey donkey, but then we had Korea and Vietnam."

Joe's biggest concern now isn't terribly global. He worries whether he and Anna, his wife of 63 years, will be able to stay in their home. Joe says he's got a "bad heart" and isn't sure how long his strength will last. If Joe gets to the point where he can't take care of her and his home he's got a place in a Veterans' Home. But they won't take Anna. And he doesn't want to go anywhere without her.

Read part two of the story of Bud and Joe here.