WWII vets' 62nd reunion looks like the last for them

WWII vets' 62nd reunion looks like the last for them


The men who once repaired and ran the broken railroads of Luzon sat in their hotel yesterday, talking about accepting reality.

These reunions used to draw dozens of World War II veterans of the Army's 749th Railway Operating Battalion. More than 100 gathered the time they met in Las Vegas, but that was a long time ago.

The reality is that only eight made it to this week's reunion in Dublin.

Every year, there are fewer living. The baby of the group is 84 years old, and he can't muster the same kind of enthusiasm for these gatherings since his wife passed away in 2000. She always came with him.

So the veterans have decided that the 62nd reunion, which ends Saturday, will be the last.

"Travel is just too difficult," said Don Gothard, the 84-year-old, who lives on the Far West Side.

Of course, they've all done their share of hard traveling. The 749th left San Francisco for the Philippines in January 1945 and spent 39 days aboard ship. It took them so much time because they took a zigzag path to avoid enemy submarines, said George Scott, 94, who spent most of his life in Athens County and now lives in Columbus.

They debarked at Luzon island under a red sky: Manila was burning. The Japanese had occupied the capital for much of World War II until American and Filipino forces liberated it in early 1945.

Manila was an important distribution point for American supplies, but the railroads were ruined. The 749th's job was to help open them back up, said Gene Farrow, 89, of Seymour, Ind.

They rebuilt bridges, laid track, dispatched trains and supervised the restringing of communication wires. They worked as firemen, shoveling coal, on steam trains. They moved prisoners of war. Most had railroad experience before the Army, and many spent the rest of their careers working with trains.

The members of the 749th don't have war stories the way some other veterans do. Other than the occasional sabotage, they weren't bothered by an enemy.

The story that Winston Johnson, 87, of Lincolnton, Ga., told yesterday was about being invited to a Filipino home for dinner. He had to take his shoes off, he said, and they sat on the floor. Three meat dishes were placed in front of them. He was told that one of them was dog.

"I ate a lot of fish over there," he said.

The soldiers spent about a year in Luzon, beyond the end of the war, and then were transferred to Korea, from where most were sent home.

The first reunion was in 1948 in St. Louis.

The group tried to make the "749th Railway Veterans Club" a family affair from the beginning, Gothard said.

Myra Lyon, 56, of Plainfield, Ind., attended her first reunion when she was 6, accompanying her father, Jack Swinford. She kept coming with her mother after her father died in 1991. Her mother couldn't make it this year, but Lyon did.

"I've grown up with all these people," she said.

William Bearfield, 70, of Tonawanda, N.Y., made it, too. His father, Isaac Bearfield, died in 1986. He said he feels these are family reunions without the bickering.

Bearfield and Lyon and some of the other "kids" have been talking. The veterans don't plan to meet anymore, but that doesn't mean the families can't. Tennessee sounds like a good spot for next year, Bearfield said.

The 749th might live on after all.


GRAPHIC: Photo, (1) TOM DODGE / DISPATCH , The eight veterans at their final reunion are, from left, Gene Farrow, Bob Kern, Winston Johnson, Don Gothard, Ernie Buttice, Dick Likens, George Scott and Forrest Jenkins. , (2) Don Gothard, left, of the Far West Side, talks with Dick Likens of Hudson, Ind., at the 62nd reunion of their Army battalion. The gathering runs through Saturday in Dublin.

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