Wilsonville residents Ed Johann and Frank Walsh's most visceral experiences from World War II took place on different continents and on opposite ends of the United States' war timeline.
Johann braved the cataclysmic event that pushed the United States into the throes of the most deadly war in human history while Walsh arrested Nazi generals in Munich as the allied forces celebrated victory.
But, through their efforts, both helped the free world stave off totalitarian oppression. And both were honored for their everlasting contributions at the Vital Life Foundation's "Spirit of 45" event at Aurora Airport Wednesday, Aug. 15.
During the event, Walsh whisked through the clouds in a World War II-era military plane while Walsh and Johann were thanked for their service by dozens of guests, young and old, at the commemorative ceremony.
"This event is unique because it's a community celebration honoring veterans for their accomplishments and contributions to all of our lives and the impact that they made," Vital Life Foundation Executive Director Ann Adrian said. "We purposefully make it intergenerational. They're passing on the torch for future generations. To have the entire community be a part of it is very powerful."
After the ceremony, Walsh and Johann talked with the Spokesman about the event and their experiences in the war.
A 'horrible harbor'
Johann enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 after seeing a Saturday matinee that depicted sailors singing, dancing and being adored by women. At the time, he didn't fully grasp the realities of military service or war.
Six months into his stint, when Japanese bombs descended upon Pearl Harbor, Johann's naivete dissipated.
"It changed my life," he said. "I became a man that day when I was saving lives."
While steering a boat that transported sailors between bases, he witnessed the bombs and bloodshed from afar. Amid the chaos, Johann and company pulled countless sailors out of the water and witnessed soldiers jump out of ships to their death and endure severe burns while body parts scattered around them.
"It was a horrible harbor that day, a harbor of hell," Johann said. "I had never seen a (dead) body before, let alone parts of bodies."
Johann did not eat or drink the rest of the day and remembers throwing away his blood and oil-drenched clothing when the carnage subsided.
"I feel fortunate to get through all of that alive," he said. "I became more humble and appreciative of things people do for me."
Johann served for the rest of the war, mostly transporting supplies between bases in the South Pacific. He was in Philadelphia learning how to desalinate water when he found out the war was over. After that, he began a career as a firefighter for the Portland Fire Department.
"I wanted to save lives, keep doing that kind of work," Johann said. "That's (the fire department) about the only place you can do that."
Johann did not fly in the plane at the Aug. 15 event but enjoyed the ceremony and being thanked for his service.
"It was great," Johann said. "I didn't know it was going to be so popular."
The shots you don't take
Walsh served as gunner in the war and was deployed in France, Germany and Belgium.
But his most enduring memories involved the bullets he kept in the clip.
Shortly before his unit marched towards Munich, and in the morning while his fellow soldiers were eating breakfast, he spotted a German soldier walking alone.
"So I thought, here's my chance to capture a German," Walsh said. "I've never done that."
Walsh was first struck by the man's tall, lean frame because it resembled his own. Then, he was perplexed that the soldier didn't abide his requests to halt. Finally, weighing the decision to pull the trigger or let the man escape over a crest, Walsh decided to let the man live. Walsh didn't tell that story until opening up about his experience in front of a classroom at Milwaukie High School many decades later.
"I never told the guys in my squad about that at all. I was ashamed at myself because I hadn't killed the enemy," he said. "But the war was over. We were winning."
Remarkably, on the same day, he spotted a plane rushing toward his base and had to decide within seconds if the plane was a Nazi plane or American plane and whether or not to shoot it down. Potentially risking his life, he decided not to pull the trigger and was relieved to see stars imprinted onto the plane, which indicated it was American, as the aircraft flew away.
After Walsh's blood-curdling day, he continued marching with his unit to Munich and helped end the war. Then, he began a 40-year teaching career.
Walsh flew in an American military plane for the first time at Wednesday's Vital Life Foundation event.
"There's no other feeling. I had flown commercial flights (but) this is flying. I really enjoyed it," he said. "You feel every movement of the plane, the whole thing."
Overall, Walsh felt touched by the gratitude he received at the event.
"It's very gratifying," he said.
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