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Leathernecks rally with WW II comrades

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Former Marines Earl Vaughn, left, and Clarence Meyer revisit memories of their days in military service, when they were in the Pacific during World War II. Veterans of the squadron are holding their 18th reunion this weekend in Toledo.

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Clarence "Stretch" Meyer still gets choked up when he talks about his fellow Leathernecks.

"It's really a brotherhood," he said last night, on the eve of what likely will be the last reunion for a squadron of men thrown together by war 60 years ago.

"One thing about this outfit is that the men and the officers were always close. And we still are close today," Mr. Meyer said.

The 82-year-old Sylvania Township resident is one of 19 World War II veterans who will gather at the Wyndam Hotel in downtown Toledo for a reunion of Marine Corps Photographic Squadron VMD-354, a photographic reconnaissance unit that flew missions in the Pacific Theater. The bulk of the unit were pilots, ground officers, and enlisted men.

"Part of our job was to fly over the beaches of Japan to prepare for an invasion," said Lou Conti, 85, of Chicago. "Thank God we didn't have to [invade]."

With age catching up with many of the Marines, Mr. Conti, who retired as a major general, said the group must decide if it will try another reunion.

"This is our 18th reunion," he said. "It's disappointing, but I'm a realist. Many of the men have died, and it's getting to be hard for most to travel."

Earl "Cherokee" Vaughn of Bartlesville, Okla., was the joker of the squadron during the war. That title followed him through six decades, his friends said.

"I sure hate this to be the end of it, but we're always Marines," he said, pointing to his shirt with the legend: "Marines never die. They just go to Hell and regroup."

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) plans to attend the reunion dinner tonight and present each veteran with a World War II commemorative stamp from the U.S. Postal Service.

Like most World War II veterans, the Marines of VMD-354 are happy just to see each other.

"It's nice that she is coming because she was so involved with the World War II Memorial," Mr. Meyer said.

Robert Simmons, 82, of Arlington, Va., was one of three squadron members who started the reunions. "When the squadron was decommissioned, an officer gave money to eventually have a reunion," Mr. Simmons said. "Well, 40 years later, I had a heart attack and remembered that envelope of money was in my footlocker."

After an intense search for former members of the squadron, the first reunion took place Oct. 30, 1985, in Chicago.

"We looked up these guys who were all over the United States," he said. "It wasn't easy, but I'm glad we did it."

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.

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