Bill Strapko and Roscoe C. Brown Jr. shook hands and grabbed each other’s shoulders.
They’d never met before, but these veterans knew each other – perhaps in a way only they could understand.
They had stared down death together and come out World War II heroes.
Strapko, 95, of North Tonawanda, was a B-17 Flying Fortress first pilot during World War II, helping lead some of the United States’ most famous missions. He received recognition for his role in the 1945 bombing of Berlin on Saturday at the Return of the Red Tails gala in Horseheads.
The event was hosted by the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who escorted Strapko and the other American bombers into enemy territory that day.
Brown, 92, the Airmen’s flight leader for the bombing, delivered Saturday’s keynote address.
For Michael Joseph, chairman of the Return of the Red Tails Gala, witnessing the veterans greeting one another was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“The fact that you had them there is amazing,” Joseph said. “They’ve gone through wars and here they are, captains of their mission 69 years ago, and they’re still here and still speaking and sharing their stories with their fellow Americans.”
Strapko met six other Airmen on Saturday, as well. All seven are between the ages of 88 and 93.
Strapko jokes that he first met Brown at the library, where he read about his conquests. The Tuskegee pilots were America’s first black military airmen. Brown graduated from the Tuskegee Flight School and became a flight leader of the 100th Fighter Squadron in the 332nd Fighter Group.
They and the Air Force bomber pilots formed an extraordinary team.
The mission that day in Berlin set seven World War II records, including the tally for most German jets destroyed by one bomb group on one mission (six) and the mark for the longest escorted bomber mission over Europe.
“No one has anything close to that in the whole war,” Strapko said.
He recalls coming in for a briefing and seeing a rolled-down wall map of Europe. When the presenter pointed to Berlin, the room started buzzing excitedly. The hype only increased when the soldiers heard the Red Tail Tuskegees – so named because of the color of the stabilizers on their planes – would be their escorts.
“We knew it was historic because it was Berlin,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “We anticipated there would be some opposition, but we didn’t know it’d be the German jets. I told my group to drop the fuel tanks and follow me, and we chased them away.”
The Airmen had a nearly flawless day, suffering only a few casualties, even though the Germans fired just about everything they had in their arsenal.
At a Tuskegee Airmen gathering in 2008, Corning businessman Daryl Denning told Joseph, “Were it not for the Airmen, I would not be married to my wife. On one of the most dangerous missions in World War II, my father-in-law was escorted by the Airmen and probably would not have survived if the Airmen were not on that mission.”
It is Strapko. So when this event was slated for Horseheads, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Buffalo, Joseph gave him a call.
“I didn’t expect to be invited – why me?” Strapko said. “But when you see all” the records from the Berlin mission, “you know why.”
Strapko completed 20 missions in one month before the war ended, none more publicized than that at Berlin.
Inside Strapko’s home, his medals are arranged neatly next to a scrapbook on his coffee table. Flip the book open and the first page reveals a handsome couple in their early 20s.
“That was my beautiful wife,” Strapko says, his eyes welling with tears. “She passed away about two years ago.”
Strapko takes a journey through the pages of the book, a collection of laminated memories from World War II. A black, hard exterior bookends newspaper clippings that detail wartime achievements.
As Strapko shares his tale, his white hair is parted immaculately – a straight-up military man to this day – and he sports glasses reminiscent of basketball coach John Wooden. Most striking, however, is the effervescence in his blue eyes, which both light up and grow heavy when the topic shifts to his late wife, whom he married in 1941. The former Irene Chodacki passed away unexpectedly in September 2011.
He clings to memories of his wife and World War II.
Strapko stood out at classification in Nashville, Tenn., where Army Air Forces cadets underwent testing and were split into different sectors. That was after basic training in Atlantic City and 10 weeks of classes at Indiana Central College, where he studied geography and aerodynamics, “things pertaining to flying,” he said.
He later became a bomber pilot in Columbus, Ohio, where he received his wings and commission to second lieutenant.
Before joining the military, Strapko was a standout athlete at North Tonawanda High School. He was one of the first people inducted into the Lumberjacks’ basketball hall of fame and turned down a football scholarship to St. Bonaventure University.
For a physical specimen, transitioning to the Army Air Forces seemed natural. He also had a mental edge, having learned all his life from his father – an immigrant who found ways to provide food and shelter for his family throughout the Great Depression though he couldn’t find work.
“God, I learned a lot from him,” Strapko said. “Boy, he knew how to take care of his family.”
Strapko seemed bred to be a leader, and he fulfilled such prophecy throughout his military career.
He is not pleased, however, with the way he has been treated by government officials since it ended. For more than a decade, he has sought a Distinguished Flying Cross, for which he was recommended after the Berlin mission.
One photograph in his scrapbook shows Strapko, a moment after stepping off Big Yank at the end of that mission, being greeted by reporters and photographers there to cover his recognition.
He didn’t know why they were there and didn’t find out his supervisor had recommended him for the award until 40 years later by happenstance. He has since applied for it and sent letters to numerous politicians, but he has only received the Air Medal, a lesser award.
“They all give me a lot of baloney and hot air,” Strapko said. “It just kills me because I earned it; I should have gotten it.”
Though he has not received the Distinguished Flying Cross he believes he deserves (he’s still fighting for it), Strapko did accrue a lifetime of lessons during the war, lessons he carries with him today.
He shares so many stories – like that of the deadly Memmingen mission, or the time he was so exhausted when his group reached Wales that he slept for 28 hours – that a Cliff Notes version couldn’t do his military career justice.
Yet the many dangerous adventures he experienced during World War II didn’t rattle him.
“A lot of the guys, they get stressed out, they break down, they go nuts and everything else,” Strapko said. “It didn’t affect me at all. Not one bit. For my age, I’m not nervous, I’m not trembling.”
Strapko’s time as a bomber pilot didn’t hurt his health, but it did impact his outlook and the lens through which he views the world.
“You go on one of those missions and believe me, it’ll affect you your whole life,” he said. “I learned about myself – that I could face things that I thought I could never face before.”
Reliving the World War II years gives Strapko vigor.
“Bill, when he arrived, he seemed to be very frail,” Joseph said of Saturday’s Return of the Red Tails event. “But as night wore on, he seemed to grow stronger. He was thriving on this.”
That evening, Bill Strapko was right where he wanted to be – surrounded by fellow veterans, reliving the war, shaking hands and sharing stories that have aged 69 years but have not diminished in significance.