At its peak, the World War II 349th Troop Carrier Wing numbered about 1,500. Now, the number of veterans attending the annual reunion totals just five.
When they gathered Saturday night for the commemorative dinner in an Inner Harbor hotel, they were almost, but not quite, outnumbered by the three guest speakers, though with the veterans' wives, children and grandchildren, the reunion total came to 38.
FOR THE RECORD - An article Saturday about the death of Sgt. 1st Class Bradley Bohle listed his military assignment incorrectly. He was a medic serving in the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
Capt. Ernie "Stormie" Earle, 87, made it from Midlothian, Va., with the help of a cane and the memory of his own grandfather, who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Sgt. Ross Gwin, 86, flew in from St. Cloud, Fla. As he disembarked from the commercial jet, he told the pilot, "Real airplanes have propellers."
Sgt. Bill Hughes, 86, lives much closer, in Greenville, S.C., but he carried some precious baggage: a so-called "dollar roll" of foreign currency from each country where the squadron had landed, and the dog tags that his father wore in the first World War.
Sgt. Elmer Parks, 85, of Dillsburg, Pa., remembers how proud he was the day he received "the famous postcard from the draft board saying, 'Congratulations, you've been selected.' "
And Lt. Bill Branham, 86, of Medford, Ore. - the only actual pilot in the group - took a moment to honor the memory of his older brother, George, who also fought for his country, but didn't make it back alive.
So it's not at all clear whether it was good luck or bad that the five were assigned to a unit that saw little actual fighting. The 349th trained paratroopers and glider groups, helped to liberate occupied Norway and Denmark, and evacuated troops and former prisoners of the Germans.
Betsy Stoutamire, who served as a nurse in the war, remembers the way her late husband, Frank, described the liberation of Copenhagen in May 1945.
"The Germans were still walking around Copenhagen, and they still had guns," she says. "Sometimes, their planes would buzz our troops, but they didn't shoot. The citizens were just thrilled to death to see the Americans. Frank wound up in some doctor's apartment, sitting on the floor and giving his 12-year-old daughter her English lesson."
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the 311th Squadron was detached from the rest of the carrier group and was sent to Hawaii, where a long and anxious waiting session began.
"Basically, we were put in position to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines in Japan," Branham said. "That would have been a very, very difficult invasion. The Japanese were fanatical fighters. But, [Gen. Dwight D.] Eisenhower decided to drop the bomb. We didn't invade, and that saved thousands and thousands of lives."
After the war, the five got on with their lives. Earle finished school, where he studied to be a chemical engineer, Gwin became an accountant and Hughes took a job as an insurance broker. Parks was a sheet metal worker and janitor, and Branham went to work as a printer. Between them, they fathered six sons and five daughters.
Though the five all served from roughly the same time - from 1942 through 1946 - they were assigned to different squadrons, and so didn't know one another until the carrier group held its first reunion in 1992.
Last year's reunion included 10 veterans. "The people still living have different physical abilities, and we have gotten to the point where we don't plan outings or trips during the reunions," Earle says. "We have a nice dinner, a place where we can talk."
Nonetheless, he says, plans for the 19th annual reunion, in 2010, already are under way, for Gettysburg, Pa.
"We're going to join the re-enactors," Hughes says, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.