The last time Dan Jarczynski, Donald Gould, and Vince Wilczynski were in the same room, it was 1943, and they were off to Europe to fight in World War II.
The three Toledo-area natives met once again, this time in Mr. Wilczynski's Walbridge home Saturday. Mr. Gould also lives locally, and Mr. Jarczynski flew up from Florida.
Conversation flowed easily in Mr. Wilczynski's living room, which is decorated with pictures of his children and war memorabilia, including his Navy certificates. And even though it had been 66 years, the veterans treated the meeting as though it were a regular get-together from their boyhood days.
"Danny just called everybody and we just got together, that's all," Mr. Wilczynski said. Noting that Mr. Jarczynski and Mr. Gould had met before, he joked, "I was trying to get away from these two, but they found me."
And just as they thought nothing of the decades-long gap, they had thought nothing of dropping out of Holland High School (now Springfield High School) and heading off to boot camp at the Navy's Great Lakes Recruit Training Center in Illinois 66 years ago.
"We were just kids, and we wanted to be duty-bound," Mr. Wilczynski, who is 82, said.
All of them were under 18 when they enlisted, and Mr. Wilczynski said the original group of four (Donald Grochowski died a few years ago) were among the youngest in their school to enlist.
Mr. Jarczynski, now 83, said his mother didn't want him to sign the papers. But all three men said they never had a second thought about enlisting.
Vince Wilczynski was a member of the Armed Guard, a unit of sailors who defended U.S. and Allied merchant ships from enemy attack.
"That's why they want kids in the service," he said. "You don't have a fear in your gut."
The four were separated before they boarded for Europe. They said they didn't think about whether they would see each other again. They were focused on serving their country and getting back home.
"You're too stupid to be scared," Mr. Jarczynski said.
Mr. Wilczynski had a different take. The fear, he said, was so internal at first that it was hard to recognize. "You are scared, but you never relate to it."
The three shared memories of high school and boot camp with incredible detail and much laughter. They recalled skipping class and hitchhiking up Airport Highway until a truancy officer picked them up and sent them back to school. At boot camp, when a 50-cent piece was found in Mr. Jarczynski's hatbox, he had to run three laps around the drill field, which he said was bigger than a football field.
Memories from the war were more difficult to extract, and often came with tears.
"You can't comprehend it," said Mr. Jarczynski, who manned a 50-foot landing craft.
"You wouldn't believe it if we told you," added Mr. Gould, 83, who lives in Ottawa County's Carroll Township. He was on a landing ship that he said took 97 trips across the English Channel.
Mr. Wilczynski was a member of the Armed Guard, a unit of sailors who defended U.S. and Allied merchant ships from enemy attack. He has a lamp made of a brass shell casing from a German artillery gun. He made it while on his way back from the war in 1946.
Mr. Jarczynski's boat was hit twice by artillery fire. In one incident on the Rhine River in Germany, three crewmen were seriously injured, and he helped them get ashore, for which he was awarded a Silver Star by the Navy.
"We're not heroes," Mr. Jarczynski said with tears in his eyes, as the others nodded and voiced their assent. "The heroes are the white crosses on that beach."
He was referring to Omaha Beach, where he was part of the Allied invasion of occupied France on June 6, 1944. He and his granddaughter visited the area 10 years ago and were able to track down the woman who housed 25 Allied fighters at the time.
When the men returned home from the war, they were focused on getting jobs and starting families. Mr. Wilczynski's first job back was at American Can, where he was paid 41 cents an hour. Mr. Gould, who spent four more years in the Navy after World War II, returned home and worked at a factory building vacuum cleaners. Mr. Jarczynski started out cleaning outhouses.
"I had over 10 W2 forms in my first year back," he said. "I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do." Ultimately he went to barber school and became a hairdresser. Mr. Wilczynski also became a barber, and Mr. Gould became an electrician.
"When I came back on that ship, I was dreaming," Mr. Wilczynski said. He wanted a wife and a steady job. Today, he lives with his wife of 60 years, and has seven grown children. Mr. Jarczynski and Mr. Gould also married and both had two children.
The three said they are grateful for every moment of their lives after the war and grateful to those serving today.
"I look at these men and women who come back with no arms and no legs, and they want to go back," Mr. Wilczynski said of Iraq war veterans. "Why do they want to go back? Because they think this is a wonderful, wonderful life, and they want to make it better."
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