You can still get breakfast, lunch or dinner at the '50s Diner on Broadway in Depew. Years ago, when I owned the place, it was called Robert's Diner. I purchased and managed the small restaurant for many years after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Upon our arrival in England, I was assigned to replace our bombardier, dropping bombs and being the nose gunner on our B-17 for my missions over Europe. We bombed rail yards, factories and munitions plants while facing heavy anti-aircraft fire and fighter planes. Once, we hobbled back over the English Channel with only two of our four engines working.
These are the types of war stories most people remember and speak about years later. But I was destined to meet someone at my diner who reminded me of my most unique bombing mission.
Mentally and physically, World War II was far behind me that afternoon as I entertained my customers, enjoying friendly and personal relationships with my "regulars." Some ladies sat down and I could tell by their accents they were tourists, so I struck up a conversation. When they mentioned they were from the Netherlands, the name of that country triggered a memory, a flashback if you will, from deep in my mind.
"The last time I was near the Netherlands was during World War II," I told them. "We dropped food on your country because your people were starving."
A woman in the group screamed with delight, jumped up and hugged me in a tight embrace.
"I was a recipient of that food!" she cried. "You saved our lives."
As conditions worsened during the war, food shipment to Dutch cities was cut and the winter of 1945 became known as "Hunger Winter." Prince Bernhard of the Dutch royal family approached the Allies and asked for help in negotiating a temporary three-day truce so food could be air dropped over the western Netherlands. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower referred him to Winston Churchill, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered no objections. Eisenhower was given approval to reach out to the enemy and tell them that Allied bombers would be coming on a mission of peace to deliver food.
On April 29, 1945, calling their efforts Operation Manna, the Royal Air Force's Lancaster bombers, flying at low altitudes, began relief flights on a trial basis. The next day, American B-17s joined the effort. We called it Operation Chowhound and doubled the amount of food reaching the Netherlands each day. In three days, 10,680 tons of food were delivered.
I remember flying three "mercy missions" over safe open areas like parks and race tracks where we could drop heavy cargo without injuring people. We stripped our B-17s of all guns and armament, reducing our weight so we could carry extra food. Flying fifty feet off the ground, we dropped the food without parachutes.
Several years later, those grateful people who were starving to death in their homeland were enjoying a meal in my restaurant.
"My mother used to send me out there to pick up those cans of food," the lady added. "I never thought I would meet someone from that time! Thank you, Peter, and thank you America."
When they hugged me and I heard their heartfelt thanks, I realized the battle against hunger was my most satisfying war mission of all.