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Now and Then: Among the reluctant heroes


To many, they are the Greatest Generation, but the veterans of World War II are also a humble generation, unwilling to brag about their adventures, to display their medals, or wounds, preferring instead to get on with their lives.

When Melvin Schissler left the Air Force after the war, he did what many did. He moved on, graduating from Lehigh University in three years. He started a family and worked in several insurance businesses in Philadelphia before becoming an administrator at the Lutheran Community retirement village, where we meet to talk.

“You just didn’t talk about your experiences unless you had a specific question asked of you,” said Otto Lee Liepin, a Korean War veteran and a friend of Schissler’s for 44 years, who is flush with anecdotes about the lard-laden fish and chips in Piccadilly Circus never finished, and trading American cigarettes for some warm woolen socks in the Irish port of Cobh.

Schissler, who graduated from Quakertown Community High School in 1941, is more taciturn and more matter of fact. He saw his military missions as a job to be done, something to talk about, but not something to dwell on.

When told he would be the ball turret gunner, a position on the belly of the B-17 fraught with risk, he didn’t question it. He did what was asked of him.

“When I enlisted, another one of the gunners was assigned to it, but he must have pulled rank. I was assigned third gunner.”

Still short and slender at 95, Schissler was what his superiors were looking for. For you had to be small to fit into such a cramped area.

He eventually flew in 25 missions, hitting so-called strategic sites in Germany such as munitions factories, enemy bullets fortunately flying by him. He was one of the lucky ones; in one day in October 1943 known as Black Thursday, 65 B-17s never came home.

It wasn’t all smooth flying at 30,000 feet, though.

On one occasion, his plane lost two of its motors; on another, Schissler’s oxygen line broke. “Fortunately, we got back to an English base in time, and they took my hands and wrapped them because of the frostbite. Wouldn’t you know, I had to go to the bathroom and one of the crew members had to help me.”

“Did you keep in touch with them?” I ask.

Schissler says he never saw the crew of the Nola Gail again. Perhaps they too wanted to get on with their lives, close up those wounds of war. “It was all stored up in here,” says Liepin, pointing to his head.

The Lutheran Community at Telford hosts a breakfast for veterans on the first Thursday of the month.