Coming home: Stories from the end of World War II
Hostilities ended in World War II 67 years ago today when the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
“The soldiers running the camp weren't SS (German elite troops), which was fortunate,” Spencer said. “They were mostly respectful in their treatment of us. There were no atrocities. At one point, Hitler had tried to issue and order that all the Jews be segregated, but our people refused and the Luftwaffe never enforced it.”
As the war wound down, conditions worsened. Food was scarce. The soup had been replaced by more sawdust bread, and on some days, nothing at all. As the Red Army closed in on the camp, the commandant was ordered to move it. Allied officers in the camp protested, fearing they would be shot by their own planes.
“The German commandant said, ‘If you don't want to leave, I'll turn the camp over to you and we'll leave,' ” he said.
On May 1, 1945, Spencer woke up to find the Germans gone. American prisoners had taken over the guard posts. There was a roll call that morning, and an announcement was made that all of the prisoners should stay in the camp because it was too dangerous to leave.
“That lasted for about two days until the Russians got in there and tore down the fences and burned the guard towers down,” he said. “A bunch of prisoners walked away, and some of them were killed in the uncertainty of the situation.”
After four missions as a navigator in a B-17 and 14 months in a prison camp, the war was over for Spencer. He returned home on an LST, a ship designed to transfer tanks. With just a 5-foot draft, the seas in the Atlantic were rough.
“I was seasick for 20 days,” he said.
When he arrived home at midnight in Mason City, his family was waiting for him.
“We had a mini-midnight celebration, and then I enjoyed a long night's sleep in my own bed,” he said.
Band of brothers
Despite being spread out all over the globe, the Ferlo brothers were able to stay connected. Guido Ferlo stayed in touch with his five brothers by writing letters.
The six Ferlo boys — Anthony, Joe, Guido, Fiore, Guy and Lindy — were born between 1920-27 an average of 10 months apart in Rome, N.Y. A seventh Ferlo boy, Albert, was too young to be drafted and didn't serve in the war.
His mother, Jennie, died in 1930, leaving their father, Joseph, to raise seven boys and one girl. He supported the family by running a small grocery store.
The first Ferlo shipped out in January 1942 and the last in 1944. Four were sent to Europe, and two went to the Pacific Theater. All saw combat.
“My father never thought we would all come home,” Guido Ferlo said. “The fact that we all did is amazing to me even today. I guess the Lord had a time for us, and it wasn't our time.”
Guido and his brother, Lindy, nearly crossed paths in Germany late in the war. They had been in close proximity to each other for six days along the Rhein.
“That's the crazy thing ... we were in the same town for those six days and we never even knew it,” he said. “It was pretty chaotic.”
After finishing his combat tour in Europe, Guido Ferlo was on a ship heading toward the Pacific when he found out the war was over.
“We had it rough in Europe, but you heard stories about what they were doing to Americans in the Pacific,” he said. “We were prepared to go, but it was a big relief not to.”
By late 1945, the last of the Ferlo brothers had made his way back to the U.S. Guido was discharged in November in Texas and hitchhiked along Route 66 to make his way home.
Their father kept champagne on ice for each reunion. While the brothers were not all immediately reunited after the war, they shared their stories when they were.
“We came home and that was it,” Guido Ferlo said. “We talked about our experiences. We were all excited to be home and that we were all in one piece, but we went on with our lives the best we could.”
Ferlo found solace in music. He played saxophone in bands that toured in the Adirondack Mountains and nightclubs upstate, as well as in a few Broadway shows in New York.
“I was interested in music before the war,” he said, “but when I got back, it was something that I could do that seemed to make me feel normal again. You had to focus on it, and when I was doing that, I wasn't thinking about the war.”
He also helped run the family grocery store in Rome. Ferlo's Grocery sold everything from fruit to homemade Italian sausage and pasta. At Christmas, Joseph would give customers a gallon of wine with their groceries.
Ferlo, 89, married his wife, Anne, in 1949. The couple moved to Oklahoma in 1964 when his job working for the Air Force took him to Tinker Air Force Base. He and Anne raised a daughter and were married for 60 years. Anne passed away in 2009, and Ferlo still works three days a week at the Oklahoma Blood Institute doing technical work.
Ferlo still struggles with some of what he saw in the war. He keeps scrapbooks of his time in the war, most shot with his trusty Kodak he carried. He is the last of his unit still alive.
“So many memories,” he said, his voice cracking as he flips through photos.
After the war, Melvin Spencer went to college at the University of Michigan, married his wife, Dena, and practiced law in Oklahoma City before retiring.
But, although Spencer had left the war behind him many years before, a part of his past would entice him to make a trip back to Europe.
After Spencer was shot down over Germany, another flyer had taken the jacket Spencer had left on his bunk. And, the flyer wore it for the remainder of the war.
To Spencer, the jacket was lost — until 1995, when he learned the other flyer had donated it in the early 1980s to a museum in the United Kingdom. The jacket was eventually displayed at the Red Feather Club Museum in Horham.
Both Spencer and his son, Dennis, and grandson, Nathan, traveled to England where the veteran was reunited with the jacket he had left behind on that hectic February morning 68 years previously.
“What can you say when you put on a jacket,” Spencer said laughing. “It was a jacket, and I put it on. It wasn't anything magic. I didn't have any particular attachment to it. It just happened to be mine.”
When looking back at what he lived through, Spencer said the war taught him a lot about himself and life.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said. “I learned to value my country, my freedom and our Christian heritage. I was proud to serve in the military and have never regretted for an instant my service.”