“I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness.” —Tom Brokaw, “The Greatest Generation”

Duty, honor, country, those principles were among the common values of the 16 million Americans who fought the good fight against fascism in World War II, their numbers winnowed 76 years after the twin victories of V-E Day and V-J Day, to 325,574 veterans. 

According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La., the ranks of these octogenarian, nonagenarian, centenarian and supracentenarian veterans continue to thin at the rate of 296 per day. Pew Research projects that the last U.S. World War II veteran will be buried 23 years hence in 2044. 

In my 56-year lifetime, I’ve lost all the World War II veterans within my inner circle of family and friends-turned-family — Great-Grandpa Langbecker; Grandpa Mac; my father-in-law, Dick, the real life embodiment of unconventional problem-solver MacGyver; several close friends, “adopted grandpa” Byron, and employer turned longtime friend and mentor “Papa Joe,” who died at age 99 in February 2020. 

Consummate characters all, their lives were marked by the “greatest generation” hallmarks of duty, honor and country. Their loss is keenly felt.

But while death has silenced the voice of some 15.6 million World War II soldiers, there are still 325,574 stories remaining to be told. 

Among the stories is that of 99-year-old northwest Indiana veteran Ray Brown, who was in the North Woods last week visiting his daughter and son-in-law, town of Washington vacation residents Nancy and Rick Townsend, who hosted a surprise gathering in Brown’s honor July 7 at Trinka-Weber-Rogers VFW Post 8637.

Not a stranger to the North Woods, Brown said he spent “practically the entire summer” last year in the Eagle River area in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He’s a gamer,” admired Rick Townsend of Brown, who lives in an independent living facility just a five minute drive from his oldest daughter, Gail (Rick) Bedeusz of Dyre, Ind. “His mind is as sharp as ever. He just gave up his golf clubs to his great-grandson, but he’s still driving. We drove him down to Florida, and he drove from Munster, Ind. all the way to Indianapolis. For 30-plus years he’s rented a place down in Marco Island for three months. He just signed a lease for next year.”

Last week’s party at Post 8637 marked the to-the-day 77th anniversary of Brown being shot down July 7, 1944 over Hungary in Nazi-occupied Central Europe.

“It was a lot better today than it was 77 years ago,” noted the spry, sharp and active Brown, the decorated recipient of Air Corps and POW medals during the war. “I’m just very fortunate that things happened the way that they happened.”

Calling himself “one of the lucky ones,” Brown, today a steadfast annual “old timer” volunteer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, lived to tell the tale of his harrowing ordeal at age 22 — being shot down, captured at rifle-point, imprisoned in a POW camp and surviving a grueling 86-day POW “Death March.”

“When I put myself in his shoes . . . I think it’s truly an amazing story,” said Nancy Townsend, who has compiled a thick history about her father’s World War II service for future generations. “It’s hard to think about anybody going through what he went through. He’s been through a lot in his lifetime.”

Born June 6, 1922 in New Jersey and raised as an only child in Illinois, Brown served three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1942-45, pulling duty as a flight engineer and occasional gunner aboard Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers.

Brown’s B-24 was attacked and struck by Nazi German Luftwaffe aircraft during one of the dangerous in-flight “change of escort” points on the long-range bombing run.

He remembers that fateful day 77 years ago as clearly as if it was yesterday.

“It was a beautiful day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky — and there were enemy airplanes,” he recalled. “We got hit at change of escort . . . I jumped out at about 25,000 feet over Hungary, which was occupied at that time. It all happened so quick. As soon as we got hit, the No. 2 engine started on fire. We could see the intensity of the fire in the back. We hoped it wouldn’t blow up.”

The crew nursed the damaged B-24 along for about 20 minutes before ultimately bailing out as the fire grew, consuming the aircraft’s twin tails. Four airmen in the back, including “Tom and Leo,” parachuted out with Brown. The machine gunner “in the ball” underneath the B-24, he said, wasn’t so lucky. 

“If it happened today, I’d be out in two minutes,” Brown said. 

The parachute drop was a harrowing experience in itself, with Brown descending through a barrage of exploding tracer ammunition, used to mark targets.

“I remember tracers going on both sides of me,” Brown recalled.

Asked if he was scared, Brown said, “You’re damn right.”

While Tom and Leo were fortunate enough to have been spirited out of enemy territory by the underground resistance upon landing, Brown found himself in Nazi-occupied Hungary at rifle-point. 

He was taken by surprise when the firearm-toting farmer addressed him in perfect English.

“He said, ‘For you, soldier, the war is over,’” Brown recalled. “I said to him, ‘You speak English.’ He said, ‘I worked for Ford for five years in Detroit.’”

Taken to a local jail, Brown was subsequently transported by rail for imprisonment at the Luftwaffe’s newly-built Stalag Luft IV prisoner-of-war camp in Gross Tychow, Pomerania near the Baltic Sea, today’s Tychowo, Poland. Opened in May 1944, Stalag Luft IV housed nearly 8,100 POWs, including more than 8,000 Americans, more than 800 Brits. and a smattering of Poles, Czechs, Frenchmen and Norwegians.

Brown was a POW for ten months until late April 1945, when he was liberated just days in advance of Germany’s surrender.

Food rations for a 200-man barrack were meager at Stalag Luft IV — a pail of coffee, a fifth of a loaf of bread, lunches of thin, watery kohlrabi, cabbage and turnip soups, and dinners consisting of a pail or two of potatoes.

“We were only filled up twice, once at Thanksgiving and once at Christmas, because we had the Red Cross parcels.”

Despite the challenging conditions, Brown said morale among the POWs “ran pretty high.” 

With a lot of “radio men” among the POWs and radio parts bartered from the enlisted German guards, crystal radio sets were constructed and put into use to keep tabs on the world outside Stalag Luft IV.

“Patton was going like hell across Europe at that time,” he explained. “He was going 40 miles a day.”

As Russian troops advanced on Nazi Germany as the war in Europe drew to a close, Stalag Luft IV POWs on Feb. 6, 1945 embarked on a grueling 86-day “Death March” that claimed many lives, with POWs marching under armed guard some 15-20 miles per day.

“The Germans were losing and they knew it,” Rick Townsend said. “The Russians were coming in and the Germans didn’t want any part of the Russians.?The Germans started marching thousands of prisoners towards Berlin, and as they marched the Germans didn’t have a lot of food for them. He said a potato lasted him three, four days. A lot of the prisoners died, most of them of dysentery. He (Brown) is always cold, so we figure he got frostbite.”

Recalled Brown of the Death March, “You didn’t have anything to eat for a long time.”

Returning stateside after the war, Brown married his wife Lois in 1947, raising two daughters and paying a mortgage with income earned from his 28-year career as a salesman with Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., better known for its Mobil tradename. Lois passed in June 2017 after nearly 70 years of marriage.

During the gathering, 99-year-old Brown attracted the rapt attention of a group of young adults with his razor-sharp recollections of his harrowing wartime service.

As I departed the post, I overheard one young man enthuse to his peer companions in awe, “It’s unbelievable. He’s 90-****ing something years old and still a badass.”

Duty. Honor. Country. Still enduring, inspiring values for the next generation.