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Ancient history from just yesterday

A few veterans remember the jobs they did.

By John J. Rooney

Before World War II, there were seven of us who palled around together. We met mostly in front of or inside Salvatore's family grocery store, on Fox Street below Hunting Park, fooling around and figuring out what to do for some fun that evening.

During the war, like most guys our age, we joined up: Phil, Frank, Salvatore, and Joe with the Army, Jimmy and I with the Navy, and Bill with the Marines.

After the war, I went back to college. The others returned to old jobs or found new ones. We married, bought homes, and raised families. We didn't get together much during those years; we were all so busy.

About 20 years ago, after the funeral luncheon for Frank's wife at Kelly's on Welsh Road, the four of us who remained from the original group decided to get together once a month for lunch. We called ourselves the Four Romeos - Retired Old Men Eating Out - and the name stuck.

My wife asks, "What do you talk about with the Romeos?" I say, "Anything that comes into our heads." We talk about the old Swampoodle neighborhood where we grew up, the "cinder bowl" where we played football, the big-band music we danced to, our old girlfriends, what the grandkids are up to, and, of course, the war.

When one of the Four Romeos, Phil, died a few years ago, the other three stood at attention among the other mourners beside his flag-draped coffin while a bugler sounded "Taps." At lunch afterward, at Halligan's Pub in Flourtown, we reminisced about Phil.

As an Army sergeant, Phil landed in France shortly after D-Day to take over a unit whose sergeant had been killed. I recalled Phil saying that when some of the men griped about his orders, he told them, "Look, I didn't ask for this job. The Army gave it to me. I'm gonna do my job, and you're gonna do yours."

Later, as part of Patton's Army, Phil came across some men from his brother Victor's outfit. They told him that his brother "had had it."

Joe and Salvatore were in the infantry in Europe, too. Joe ended up a prisoner of war, and he woke up one morning to find the German guards gone. Allied troops were approaching, and local Czechoslovakian families helped the prisoners until they arrived.

The seven of us got through the war unscathed. Salvatore, who became a prison guard after the war, was the only one wounded. "Just a scratch," he said. "Not enough to put in for a Purple Heart."

Jimmy, who was on a destroyer in the Pacific, felt he wasn't contributing much. His job in battle was manning a searchlight.

Frank, who had worked in a foundry, said his job as an antiaircraft gunner wasn't very different from his civilian life: eat, sleep, work.

Others we knew didn't make it. Bud was a gunner on a B-24 that flew supplies from India "over the hump" to China; I still have the letters he wrote. Johnny was a neighborhood kid who turned 18 shortly before the end of the war that ended his life. Herb, a friend I went through Navy flight training with, died when his plane hit a tree.

Now Bill and I hold our monthly meeting with Frank at the Buckingham rehabilitation facility where he lives. We've known one another since we were Boy Scouts in Troop 22 at St. Columba's, at 23d and Lehigh.

Bill says, "I know I told this one before, but I enjoy telling it, so bear with me." Frank looks over at me from his wheelchair, his red Phillies cap perched jauntily on his shaved head. "Hey, Jack," he says, "this guy's really on a roll today." And he is.

We exchange a few more stories; have some more laughs. "You know, I was thinking," Bill says. "Remember when old Mr. Diehl used to dress up in his uniform from the Spanish-American War? He'd sit there on the step and wrap those puttees around his legs, getting ready for Memorial Day?"

Of course we remembered. We used to kid him about it. "Well," Bill continues in his deliberate way, "at that time, that war had been over for 40 years, and to us it seemed like ancient history. Now, World War II has been over for 65 years, and it seems like yesterday."

It does. I remember as if it were yesterday what Bill's mother said when he and his brother Joe enlisted in the Marine Corps: "We don't want any heroes in this family. Just do your job." And they did their job - in the Pacific with the Fourth Marine Division.

Memorial Day, formerly Decoration Day, began as a day to honor those who died in the Civil War. Today, we remember a lot of military men (and quite a few women) who have served over the decades - our fathers and uncles in World War I; our neighbors, friends, and relatives in all the wars since; Americans of all backgrounds, just doing their jobs.