At 9,000 feet over Germany, with his B-17 in trouble, two crew members dead and two more wounded, 95th Bomber Group navigator Melvin Spencer bailed out. From the roar of engines and machine gun fire, he fell into dead calm.
"The first sensation was one of total silence and peace," Spencer said. "It was the total opposite of what you've just been through on the plane."
Guido Ferlo already had been in Germany for several months serving in the 16th Mechanized Cavalry under the command of Gen. George Patton. Ferlo went to war with his five brothers and all six saw combat. Against all odds, all six made it home safely to their home in Rome, N.Y., after the war.
Combat operations in World War II ended 67 years ago today when the Japanese formally surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri. More than 16 million Americans served during the war. Though their numbers continue to decline, those still living have stories about where they were and what they were doing when the war ended.
The morning of his last mission was frantic for Spencer. He had been transferred to another bomber crew after its navigator was sent to the lead plane for the mission that day. In the early morning rush to get briefed and down a quick breakfast, Spencer left his flying jacket folded on his bunk.
After bailing out, Spencer made it safely to the ground but was picked up by the Germans. He was taken to Frankfurt for interrogation.
"They spoke perfect English," Spencer said of the Germans. "They weren't really that hostile. They were more trying to be your friend or buddy."
After three days in solitary confinement, Spencer was transferred to Stalag Luft 1, a large prison camp for Allied aviators in Barth, Germany. The Mason City, Iowa, native spent about 14 months in the camp, where life wasn't as easy as it was portrayed on the popular U.S. TV show "Hogan's Heroes" a couple of decades later.
"The myth of being able to have good food and in-and-out escapes, none of that stuff happened," he said. "According to the camp commandant, there were over 100 tunnels dug in the compound. There were many attempts, but they were never successful."
Spencer was among the first occupants of the camp, but by the end of the war, there were more than 10,000 there. Early on, he said, life was tolerable in the barracks he shared with other prisoners.
"At first, we would get a huge vat of thin German soup with some potatoes in it and some German bread that was about 40 percent sawdust and leaves. It was solid like a rock, but later it tasted pretty good."
Life wasn't much easier for Guido Ferlo.
As a gunner on an M5 light tank, he worked his way across Europe for the better part of two years.
"We could do 50 or 60 mph on a flat road," Ferlo said of the small but fast tank.
That speed came in handy because the lightly armored vehicle left its crew vulnerable while it spent most of its time on reconnaissance.
"We would go draw fire and get our butts out of there," he said. "You can't stop. You have to keep moving, because that way you're a much more difficult target to hit."
As a gunner, Ferlo had to deal with the cramped quarters of the tank and the ever-present danger of being blown away by the much larger German tanks.
Life in a tank wasn't easy.
"The small space didn't bother me much, but it bothered a lot of GIs," he said. "They used to crack the turret hatch an inch or so. You couldn't do much more than that because of snipers. I took my shoes off and put them on the transfer case to keep my feet warm. I thought that was a good idea."
Ferlo's unit often had several days off between missions. The tank crews would spend their time on maintenance, occasionally wandering into abandoned towns to look for what creature comforts they could find. It was during one of those breaks in the action when Ferlo got the scare of his life.
Sleeping on a balcony of a bombed-out building in a small town in Germany, Ferlo awoke in the pre-dawn hours to the smell of coffee. He no longer remembers the name of the town, but what happened there is seared into his memory.
"I just laid there smelling that coffee for a minute," he said. "It smelled so good. The only problem was we didn't have any coffee. I got up really quietly and listened to their voices. They were German soldiers. I figured there were about eight of them down there" below the balcony.
Ferlo went around to his fellow crew members and woke them up by putting his hand over their mouths.
"I whispered, ‘There are krauts downstairs,' " he said. "I told everyone to keep their guns handy, but it wouldn't have mattered much. (The Germans) had machine guns."
The four Americans sat there for nearly three grueling hours. Miraculously, none of the Germans ever came up the stairs.
"We would have all been dead if they had," he said. "We just sat up there while they had breakfast, which smelled terrible."
By the time of Ferlo's close encounter with the enemy, Spencer had settled in to life at Stalag Luft 1. Prisoners had plenty of time on their hands, he said.
Card games were popular. Cigarettes were as valuable as gold, as were the occasional Red Cross packages the prisoners received.
"There was a group of musicians that formed a band," he said. "There was also a group of POWs that formed a group that called themselves the Table Top Thespians. The stage was a group of tables from the mess hall."
There were few comforts from home, but Spencer was able to communicate through letters. He received a photo of his two sisters and a cousin that he put in a makeshift frame made from a bed slat. He stained the frame with shoe polish and hung it over his bunk.
"It not only gave me a lift, but others in the room enjoyed it immensely," he said.
Some prisoners were able to procure a radio. Its parts where kept hidden at different locations around camp and assembled whenever they wanted to listen to it.
News heard on BBC broadcasts made its way into a camp newspaper. Just a handful of copies were passed around under the noses of the guards.
"The soldiers running the camp weren't SS (German elite troops), which was fortunate," Spencer said. "They were mostly respectful in their treatment of us. There were no atrocities. At one point, Hitler had tried to issue and order that all the Jews be segregated, but our people refused and the Luftwaffe never enforced it."
As the war wound down, conditions worsened. Food was scarce. The soup had been replaced by more sawdust bread, and on some days, nothing at all. As the Red Army closed in on the camp, the commandant was ordered to move it. Allied officers in the camp protested, fearing they would be shot by their own planes.
"The German commandant said, ‘If you don't want to leave, I'll turn the camp over to you and we'll leave,' " he said.
On May 1, 1945, Spencer woke up to find the Germans gone. American prisoners had taken over the guard posts. There was a roll call that morning, and an announcement was made that all of the prisoners should stay in the camp because it was too dangerous to leave.
"That lasted for about two days until the Russians got in there and tore down the fences and burned the guard towers down," he said. "A bunch of prisoners walked away, and some of them were killed in the uncertainty of the situation."
After four missions as a navigator in a B-17 and 14 months in a prison camp, the war was over for Spencer. He returned home on an LST, a ship designed to transfer tanks. With just a 5-foot draft, the seas in the Atlantic were rough.
"I was seasick for 20 days," he said.
When he arrived home at midnight in Mason City, his family was waiting for him.
"We had a mini-midnight celebration, and then I enjoyed a long night's sleep in my own bed," he said.
Despite being spread out all over the globe, the Ferlo brothers were able to stay connected. Guido Ferlo stayed in touch with his five brothers by writing letters.
The six Ferlo boys — Anthony, Joe, Guido, Fiore, Guy and Lindy — were born between 1920-27 an average of 10 months apart in Rome, N.Y. A seventh Ferlo boy, Albert, was too young to be drafted and didn't serve in the war.
His mother, Jennie, died in 1930, leaving their father, Joseph, to raise seven boys and one girl. He supported the family by running a small grocery store.
The first Ferlo shipped out in January 1942 and the last in 1944. Four were sent to Europe, and two went to the Pacific Theater. All saw combat.
"My father never thought we would all come home," Guido Ferlo said. "The fact that we all did is amazing to me even today. I guess the Lord had a time for us, and it wasn't our time."
Guido and his brother, Lindy, nearly crossed paths in Germany late in the war. They had been in close proximity to each other for six days along the Rhein.
"That's the crazy thing ... we were in the same town for those six days and we never even knew it," he said. "It was pretty chaotic."
After finishing his combat tour in Europe, Guido Ferlo was on a ship heading toward the Pacific when he found out the war was over.
"We had it rough in Europe, but you heard stories about what they were doing to Americans in the Pacific," he said. "We were prepared to go, but it was a big relief not to."
By late 1945, the last of the Ferlo brothers had made his way back to the U.S. Guido was discharged in November in Texas and hitchhiked along Route 66 to make his way home.
Their father kept champagne on ice for each reunion. While the brothers were not all immediately reunited after the war, they shared their stories when they were.
"We came home and that was it," Guido Ferlo said. "We talked about our experiences. We were all excited to be home and that we were all in one piece, but we went on with our lives the best we could."
Ferlo found solace in music. He played saxophone in bands that toured in the Adirondack Mountains and nightclubs upstate, as well as in a few Broadway shows in New York.
"I was interested in music before the war," he said, "but when I got back, it was something that I could do that seemed to make me feel normal again. You had to focus on it, and when I was doing that, I wasn't thinking about the war."
He also helped run the family grocery store in Rome. Ferlo's Grocery sold everything from fruit to homemade Italian sausage and pasta. At Christmas, Joseph would give customers a gallon of wine with their groceries.
Ferlo, 89, married his wife, Anne, in 1949. The couple moved to Oklahoma in 1964 when his job working for the Air Force took him to Tinker Air Force Base. He and Anne raised a daughter and were married for 60 years. Anne passed away in 2009, and Ferlo still works three days a week at the Oklahoma Blood Institute doing technical work.
Ferlo still struggles with some of what he saw in the war. He keeps scrapbooks of his time in the war, most shot with his trusty Kodak he carried. He is the last of his unit still alive.
"So many memories," he said, his voice cracking as he flips through photos.
After the war, Melvin Spencer went to college at the University of Michigan, married his wife, Dena, and practiced law in Oklahoma City before retiring.
But, although Spencer had left the war behind him many years before, a part of his past would entice him to make a trip back to Europe.
After Spencer was shot down over Germany, another flyer had taken the jacket Spencer had left on his bunk. And, the flyer wore it for the remainder of the war.
To Spencer, the jacket was lost — until 1995, when he learned the other flyer had donated it in the early 1980s to a museum in the United Kingdom. The jacket was eventually displayed at the Red Feather Club Museum in Horham.
Both Spencer and his son, Dennis, and grandson, Nathan, traveled to England where the veteran was reunited with the jacket he had left behind on that hectic February morning 68 years previously.
"What can you say when you put on a jacket," Spencer said laughing. "It was a jacket, and I put it on. It wasn't anything magic. I didn't have any particular attachment to it. It just happened to be mine."
When looking back at what he lived through, Spencer said the war taught him a lot about himself and life.
"It was a great learning experience," he said. "I learned to value my country, my freedom and our Christian heritage. I was proud to serve in the military and have never regretted for an instant my service."
Though happy to be home and ready for life beyond the military, many veterans struggled. Some just couldn't get started rebuilding their lives after the war while others couldn't stand the thought of leaving the military.
For many soldiers, the war didn't end when World War II was declared over. There was still the imagery of what they had seen and what they had done to stay alive.
They had had to survive in a foreign land while their families had had to wait and pray for their return.
A date in a history book might define a time for a country's surrender or victory, but the battles continued for some like Earl Gonzales.
The war changed Gonzales, like most young men his age. He left to fight at just 17, and when he returned, he found himself struggling to come to grips with what he had seen.
Gonzales served in the Army, assigned to the 935th Field Artillery Battalion. He spent the war pummeling the Nazis with artillery shells. That's what he was about to do in May 1945 when the war ended suddenly. His unit had a full volley of shells ready to fire when they were interrupted by a frantic officer.
"Hold your fire! The war is over!" the officer shouted.
The unit erupted in joy. Several days later, he took a joy ride on a discarded German motorcycle.
"It was beautiful," Gonzales said. "It had camouflage and a sidecar. I used to have a Harley, so I knew how to ride. I said to my buddy, Charlie, ‘Get in that sidecar, and let's take a ride.' "
The pair zoomed off on a German highway traveling up to 190 km per hour, Gonzales said. That was, until they rounded a turn to see what appeared to be an endless column of soldiers marching in their direction. The soldiers were Germans, and they were armed to the teeth.
"You couldn't see the end of it, there were so many of them," he said. "It scared the hell out of me. I turned that motorcycle and shot back to our company to tell the captain."
What Gonzales didn't know was the column of soldiers was coming to surrender. He spent the remainder of his time in Europe guarding prisoners, including a German officer who demanded Gonzales carry his suitcase like a valet.
"I kicked his suitcase and told him if he didn't get off that truck, I was going to blow his head off," Gonzales said.
The end of the war was perhaps the most difficult time in his life. He returned to his native Southern California, living with his parents for a time but never far away from what he saw.
"I was nervous and mean as a rattlesnake," he said. "I didn't trust anybody. I didn't want to be around anybody. I carried a pistol that I took off a dead German private everywhere I went."
Gonzales had become so paranoid he couldn't stand to have people walking behind him on the street. When he went to a restaurant, he couldn't sit with his back to the door. He assaulted a man who simply asked him for a cigarette and a light.
"I said, ‘You want me to give you a cigarette and you want me to light it for you? Do you want me to kick you in the chest to get your lungs going, too?' " Gonzales said. "Then, I just whipped up on the guy."
He also became a drunk, consuming up to a fifth of whiskey a day. If not for the well timed words of his father, his life might have taken a different course.
"I got up one morning and reached under the bed and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey," Gonzales said. "Just about then, my dad peeked into my room and saw me getting ready to take a swig from that bottle."
His father's words were simple and cut him deep.
"He said: ‘Son, you see what you're doing there. That's the first steps to becoming an alcoholic.' He walked out and shut the door. I went over to the sink and poured that bottle out and didn't take another drink."
Gonzales, now 89, eventually settled down and opened several businesses in Southern California. He married and had two children.
When Gonzales' wife, Christine, was diagnosed with breast cancer, the family moved to Oklahoma to be closer to her family. She died at 39, and Earl never remarried.
He ran an upholstery business in Oklahoma City and still lives in the same home he moved into with his wife more than 40 years ago.
"I don't think anyone ever got over what they saw over there," he said. "But, I eventually settled down and made a life for myself."
Art Levine has a lot of false teeth. That might not be unusual for a man in his late 80s, but Levine got them when he was 20 while a member of the 101st Airborne Division.
He was serving in Belgium in 1944 when he was hit from behind by the blast from an artillery shell. The force knocked virtually all of his teeth out and left a pound of shrapnel in his body.
The St. Louis native eventually made his way back to the United States on the ship Queen Mary. While the war was over for Levine, his time in the Army was not.
Levine wasn't thrilled with returning to Europe, but he wanted to stay in the Army badly. He signed a waiver and joined the postwar occupation of Germany. His duties included rounding up officers who were in hiding and hiring German citizens to work rebuilding the country.
He was in Nuremberg when some of the Third Reich's most notorious leaders were tried. But it was confronting the reality of the Holocaust that remains seared into his memory.
"I visited those places, and they smelled from death," he said. "It angered me, and there were times when German prisoners were shot for one reason or another. I used to think we didn't shoot enough of them. I never shot a prisoner, but I did let them know I was Jewish."
Levine got to know many Germans after the war, but he never could get past what the Third Reich had done to people just like him.
"I was single at the time, and my mom told me not to bring any home," he said. "I never did fraternize with the Germans because of what they did. I didn't want to get close or become friends with any of them."
Levine moved to Oklahoma in 1971. He operated a service station in Midwest City for a decade before retiring. He volunteers at the 45th Infantry Museum in Oklahoma City, but it was his time in the Army that has defined much of his life.
"A lot of people wanted to get out and go home and nobody could blame them," he said. "But, I found a home in the Army."
Ada native Juanita Beller knew her husband, Jack, wasn't on a battlefield in Europe, but it didn't stop her from worrying about him. Living in Alameda, Calif., during the war, Beller spent her days at factories, cutting sheet metal that would be used in the war effort. Her second job was at a cannery.
Home was an apartment in a converted laundry that she shared with Jack's parents. The family budgeted four dollars a week for food per person that was placed in a Mason jar.
"We just sort of lived," she said. "It was a very difficult time for everyone."
Juanita didn't see Jack for a 19-month stretch during the war as he spent his time making transatlantic trips ferrying war prisoners to the United States from Europe. The duty wasn't without its dangers. German U-boats were a consistent threat in the Atlantic.
By July 1944, the couple was reunited in New York at Grand Central Station as Juanita made the cross-country trek from California. Jack was home for good, stationed in New York City. The couple lived in a one-room apartment on W 50th Street. Rent was $99 a month.
"I was very happy to see him because, after all that time, I knew he was safe," she said. "We savored the moment."
After Jack was discharged, the Bellers moved back to Oklahoma to be closer to Juanita's family. Jack worked at Tinker Air Force Base until 1978. The couple sent two sons to college. Both became doctors.
Jack and Juanita celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in August.
More than 16 million men and women from the United States served in World War II, but their ranks are disappearing.
Of the 6 million servicemen still living in 2000, there are only an estimated 1.7 million still alive today, according to Veterans Affairs officials. By the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in 2015, it is estimated there will be less than 1 million veterans of World War II.
Their stories have been passed down from generation to generation and are chronicled in museums throughout the country, including the 45th Infantry Museum in Oklahoma City.
The World War II Museum in New Orleans has plans for a $300 million expansion that will quadruple the size of the original museum and tell the entire story of the American experience in the war. That new space is expected to open in 2015.
The value of those museums becomes important as veterans of the war continue to dwindle in number. It's estimated by 2036 there will be no surviving veterans of World War II, but their memories will live on.
"Even if there's not one veteran left, the rest of the nation should continue to honor the sacrifices they made," 45th Infantry Museum curator Mike Gonzales said. "That legacy and duty is left to people like me."