The faces in the old photos may be fading, but the smiles never will. Looking at a picture of their World War II Army Air Forces unit, Robert Glaser and Charles Watts can still name every one of the four men standing with them next to the B-25 bomber in which they all flew. Two never returned home from the war alive. On Wednesday afternoon, inside Glaser's home in Brookridge, the memories of seven decades ago flooded forth. They talked of airplanes and combat missions and of the awful food they had to eat at the tiny base near Kunming, China.
Sixty-seven years ago, the men bid each other farewell, with the understanding that they would touch base with each other from time to time. For three years, they had served side by side in the Army Air Forces as members of the 14th Air Force in China, a combat unit known as the Flying Tigers.
During those years, Glaser and Watts flew dozens of combat missions. They faced down enemy bullets, survived separate plane crashes and, most important, lived to tell about it.
But between the pursuit of careers, raising families and, of course, the distance between Glaser's and Watt's hometowns, those reunions never happened.
Until this week.
Glaser, 87, said he got a call about a month ago. The voice on the other end wanted to know if Glaser was the same Bob Glaser with whom he had served during WWII.
"When he told me he was Chad Watts, I immediately recognized that name," Glaser said. "No one ever called him Charles."
A meeting was arranged to coincide with Watt's holiday visit with his son and daughter-in-law, who live in Zephyrhills. Glaser told his friend to be prepared to stay for a while.
"At times, it seems like yesterday," Watts, also 87, said during Wednesday's reunion. "We worked with people who did everything they were asked to do, and they did it well. I think you could say we're very proud to have had an experience like that."
Glaser and Watts, who both volunteered for the Army, originally met in 1942 at a training base in South Carolina. Glaser had gone through radio operator's school; Watts had graduated as a light bomber pilot. Neither knew where they were going to be sent, and were surprised to learn that they were to be part of a small support squadron slated to help fend off the Japanese invasion of Indochina.
Under the command of Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault, the Flying Tigers offered vital support for the Chinese Nationalist Army by initiating strafing attacks on Japanese military targets, including as railroads, bridges and storage depots.
Watts, who piloted a Mitchell B-25 bomber, described the missions as "quick in, quick out," with the objective of doing as much damage to the enemy as possible.
But they were dangerous. Flying at treetop level, and often at night, the planes were constantly subjected to catastrophic possibilities. Crashes were common. So was being shot down.
On one mission, Glaser's plane was struck by enemy fire that destroyed one of its engines. An attempt to get the plane back to its base failed, and Glaser and the rest of the crew had to bail out 400 feet from the ground. The pilot didn't survive.
"Those were the sad moments you tried to forget quickly," Glaser recalled. "I think everybody lived with the thought that they might not be here tomorrow."
Glaser, who returned to Chicago after the war to work in petroleum product sales, said he has attended several Army Air Corps reunions over the past 67 years, and always hoped he might see Watts at one.
Watts, who still works at his family's machine shop in Newark, N.J., said he never cared much for reminiscing about his pilot days. He chose to contact Glaser because they were once good friends, and he hoped they still would be.
"You don't think about the years while they're going by," Watts said. "I thought it might be the right time to do this before any more time goes by."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]