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Veterans Share Their Stories
Walter Mayer of Oakdale was a ball turret gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. Joining the U.S. Air Corps straight out of Lodi High School, he flew 36 combat missions over Germany. Losses were often horrendous, he said. On one mission, they lost four-fifths of their planes. On another sortie engineered by the legendary Jimmy Doolittle, they flew deep into Germany to unload their bombs on an oil refinery and then were directed to land in Russia to avoid flak on the way home,

"See here," he said, searching among the colored ribbons on his uniform during a special Veterans Day luncheon in Riverbank on Saturday, "I still have this medal inscribed in Russian. Their premier had it struck as a gift for the U.S. bomber crews."

Tony Mello, who lives between Riverbank and Escalon, served for three years with the Marine Corps and was wounded on Guam in the leg and stomach, three hours after his company hit the beach. That was the last fighting he did. He was carried out to a hospital ship and evacuated to a British hospital in the New Hebrides.

Leo Silva, a lifelong resident of Riverbank, served in the Air Force as a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber flying out of England. He volunteered at the age of 19 and served 38 months.

"We named our plane Pilgrim's Progress," he said. "There were nine of us on the crew. Five of us are still living. We had a get together once after the war. But only half turned up."

Doris Wanty of Oakdale and her friend Adeline Ellison are two women who answered a government call to deliver planes from factories to air bases all over the United States because most of the male pilots were in combat overseas. They recently were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their volunteer service as pilots.

"I was just an Illinois farm girl," said Ellison. "But I wanted to volunteer. My father took me to the local airstrip to start learning to fly. Later I got properly trained. There were 25,000 applicants and I was one of 1080 selected."

These were just a few of the 150 war veterans and their family members who enjoyed a free luncheon put on by the Royal Neighbors of America at the Riverbank Community Center on Saturday.

The occasion started with a color guard presentation. Riverbank resident and Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O'Brien thanked the vets for their service, noting he had not served in the armed forces himself but many of his family members had.

Veteran Mayer gave an emotional address, saying after the war he visited the beach in Normandy where the D-day invasion of Europe began and burst into tears at seeing the site of so many soldiers' deaths.

The luncheon concluded with a word, music and picture presentation on patriotism by Ron Harris, a Modesto schoolteacher who uses it in his classes.

Meanwhile, at a Veterans Day ceremony in nearby Escalon on Nov. 11, California National Guard Command Sergeant Major Michael Winstead of Riverbank was the keynote speaker at the Memorial Wall adjacent to the Escalon Community Center.

"I'm just a simple soldier," Winstead said. "I'm humbled ... I look out and see veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam ... spanning the entire spectrum of what service is all about."

He added that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day and was designed to honor soldiers from World War I, the 'war to end all wars.'

But since war didn't end there, the observance eventually grew into Veterans Day, a day to honor all that served.

Along the way, Winstead said, many lessons have been learned, specifically when it came to Vietnam.

"Soldiers do not make policy," Winstead said. "They (Vietnam vets) were blamed for the policies of the government.

"Whenever I get a chance to stand up in front of a crowd, to the Vietnam veterans I say 'welcome home and thank you' for what you contributed to America at that time," Winstead added, to applause from the assembled crowd.

Editor Marg Jackson contributed to this report.