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McFeely: A belated Veterans Day thank you

FARGO -- The usual Veterans Day routine goes like this: Open the doors to the home-office closet, pull down the box filled with Dad's military papers and mementoes, shut the office door, page through the stuff, wipe away a couple of tears, feel g...

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FARGO -- The usual Veterans Day routine goes like this: Open the doors to the home-office closet, pull down the box filled with Dad's military papers and mementoes, shut the office door, page through the stuff, wipe away a couple of tears, feel guilty, put the items back in the box, place the box back in the closet, then live another year before doing the same thing all over again.

It has been this way for several years now, since my mother gave me some boxes from her apartment and said, "You might want some of these things. You can go through it and decide. Some of it has Dad's military papers and stuff from the war. I figured you'd be interested in that."

The war was World War II. Stuart W. McFeely of Minneapolis was 19 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he wasted no time enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps. This was the predecessor of today's Air Force.

Stuart earned his flying wings at Victorville Army Flying School in southern California in early 1942. He was trained as a bombardier on B-17s, the famed workhorse bombers of the 1930s and '40s known commonly as "Flying Fortresses."

Young Stuart (known by most everyone as Bill, because his middle name was Willis) eventually ascended to the rank of first lieutenant and flew 30 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe between Jan. 4, 1944, and May 19, 1944. He was a member of the famed 8th Air Force, 8th Bomber Command, 3rd Division Wing, 100th Bomb Group (H), 350th Bombardment Squadron. His B-17 was named "Alice From Dallas."

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He went through the war unscathed. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. Eventually, Stuart was honorably discharged from the Air Corps and reserves and moved back to Minneapolis, where he met Olga Mihokanich. They married in 1951. He became a union printer in the Twin Cities area, the couple bought a house in the suburbs and raised four kids. The last, a little genius named Michael, was born in 1966.

None of this makes Dad particularly special. Millions of American men of that Greatest Generation went off to war, saved the world, returned home, went to work, started families, turned the U.S. economy into the strongest the world has known, made America the greatest superpower in history and then acted like it was all no big deal. To get most of these guys to talk about what they did was akin to extracting Shakespeare from a beagle. No chance.

I recall asking my father one question about the war when I was quite young: "Did your bombs kill anybody?"

The answer: "I suppose maybe they did. I never really thought about it."

End of conversation. End of my questions about Stuart W. McFeely in World War II, although I did once get mouthy about his unwillingness to buy Japanese-made products (this was in the late 1970s when many products on American store shelves were still stamped "Made in Japan.") Essentially, my message was: "Get over it."

His response: "Learn your history. Go read about the Bataan Death March."

I did. Never chided him about buying a Toyota again.

The information I've gleaned about Dad's war exploits has come exclusively from the papers Mom gave me. And that's where the guilt comes in. One of the great regrets of my life is that I never sat down, man to man, with Stuart W. McFeely and asked him about the war. Or about much of anything, frankly. Dad died in 1988, when the little genius Michael was 21 years old and much more worried about where the next case of Pfeiffer was coming from than anything else.

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When Stuart was 21, he was flying missions over places like Kiel, Elberfeld, Frankfort, Brunswick and Berlin. He was taking out ball-bearing plants and rocket installations.

One of the documents included in his papers was a mission-by-mission diary of his 30 bomb runs.

"8. February 25, 1944 -- Bombed Messerschmitt at Regensburg, Germany. ME 109 made pass at group on our right near Saarbrucken and shot (B-)17 down. Saw 8 chutes. Saw another 17 blow up in mid air. No chutes. Very heavy and accurate flak at target. B17 next to us had tail shot off and No. 4 engine shot out. FW's and Mess attacked stragglers all the way back to France. Shot down one in front of us, saw 6 chutes. One straggler got 3 fighters before he was shot down. Lost Sam McClain on this mission."

That was my dad, man. I've watched probably 100 documentaries and read dozens of books about World War II so I could learn about it. And right there in my living room for 21 years was a guy who lived the history, who was the history, and I asked him one stupid question. What an idiot. What a waste. What a loss for me and his seven grandchildren.

There is guilt, too, because I never had the opportunity to say "thank you." He deserved that from me, as all veterans do from all Americans. Especially today, Veterans Day. When called, they've served. The lucky ones, like Stuart W. McFeely, came home. More than a million others, like Sam McClain, did not.

My dad was no more special than any other veteran of any war, except to me. Stuart W. McFeely flew 30 missions in a B-17 over Nazi-occupied Europe and helped defeat Hitler to save the world for democracy. He wasn't the only one, by far, but that's pretty cool.

Allow me say now what should've been said many years ago:

Thank you, sir. You are my hero. And I'm honored to be your son.

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