Wartime classmates coming for BHS reunion

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Second World War pulled them apart at the apex of theiryouth, and now it’s bringing them back together during their goldenyears.

During this week’s homecoming festivities at Brookhaven HighSchool, the remaining members of the classes of 1941-1946 willreassemble for the WWII War Years Reunion. Class reunions takeplace throughout the year, but for those who graduated during thatfive-year span of monumental national significance, there’s aspecial honor that comes with graduating during the war years thathas kept them together.

“We’ve always been able to keep up with each other,” saidBrookhaven’s Helyn Bentz East, a member of the Class of 1945. “Thewar bothered us because we could hear all about it, what hadhappened and all the people who left and went away. We tried tostay in touch because they were more or less drafted. They didn’thave a choice.”

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Everyone who grew up during the war years was marked by the war- whether serving in the military or not – and the war and itsremembrance have shaped their lives ever since, East said. It’sthat historic bond that keeps the war years classes so close, shesaid.

The WWII War Years Reunion begins Thursday at 6 p.m. with adinner at Rusty’s, where class members will fellowship and retelland relive their memories and possibly share wartime photographsfrom that heady era.

The reunion will move to the Military Memorial Museum at 2 p.m.Friday for a brown bag lunch, and the event will conclude with ahomecoming ceremony with other classes at BHS at 3 p.m.

Recalling her childhood, East remembered that discussion on thewar, and who from BHS was fighting in it or about to leave formilitary training, was the first news anyone heard in the morningand the last news before going to bed at night.

“All of our boys left at mid-term,” East said. “They did notgraduate with us, they were called into service. It shook us uppretty bad when all the boys were taken. We were glad when it wasover with.”

Barbara Becker Bailey, a Class of 1943 graduate now living inMetairie, La., said the girls left behind at BHS wrote lots ofletters to their former classmates fighting the war and did lots ofpraying. She remembers Victory Gardens and government-enforcedrationing.

“Every mother’s little boy went away,” she said. “I call themlittle boys, but they were fighting the war. I think they didn’thave their youth. When my grandson was 17, we were upset over himdriving a car. I thought, ‘My heavens, the boys my age were drivingtanks.’ They grew up quickly.”

One of those “little boys” was Paul Jackson, a member of theClass of 1943 who had to forego graduation and serve in the 644thTank Destroyers Battalion, battling across France and into Germany.He had to complete his diploma after the war.

But he doesn’t care about his own exploits. Jackson said heenjoys the WWII War Years Reunion because he hears the stories ofthose who stayed behind.

“There’s not an awful lot of historic stuff going on at thosemeetings – just the fact we have a supper and discuss old times,the things that happened during the classes and the years we werein school,” he said.

Jackson pointed out that time is short for the group journalistTom Brokaw famously named “The Greatest Generation.” Few members ofthe classes of the 1940s remain, he said, and other World War IIvets like him are dying at the rate of 1,000 per day.

The declining numbers is one reason why the WWII War YearsReunion was formed, Jackson said. Combining the classes of1941-1946 last year resulted in around 60 familiar faces at thereunion.

“Our class had enough to put on a meeting before most of themdied, but we’ve only got about 12 members left out of the Class of1943,” Jackson said.

BHS Homecoming Production coordinator Tiffany Brooks said theFriday event will run from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and featurepresentations of the music, media and local history from the”nines,” from 1939, 1949, and so on.

The WWII War Years Reunion class members will no doubt rememberthe music of 1939, released on the eave of the coming war. BHSstudents will perform “When the Saints Go Marching In,” GlennMiller’s “In the Mood” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”