NEW PORT RICHEY — In all their 63 years together, Johnnie Myers never allowed his wife Sallie to share his private horror.
She didn't press him. He had witnessed terrible things during the war, and if he didn't want to talk about it, that was okay. They shared everything else, the birth of two daughters, a deep religious faith, a successful business.
It wasn't until much later in life, after their daughters had grown and pressed their dad for details, that he opened up a bit. He had lied about his age to join the Army at 17. He had survived 52 missions as a B-17 tail gunner, including the final one when his plane was shot down over Germany and he spent two months in hospitals.
And then there was this: One day when the bombing crew prepared to leave its base in England, Mr. Myers got sick. His best friend volunteered to take his place and was killed.
Mr. Myers felt guilty, "but he never, never talked about it,'' Sallie said, "only that the life of a tail gunner was measured in seconds.''
He had grown up dirt poor in rural Mississippi, one of eight children of tenant farmers. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade to work in the Pascagoula ship yards. But he returned from war with a purpose and goals. He finished high school and used the G.I. Bill to get a college degree. In Meridian, Miss., he worked in an auto parts store. He met Sallie and married her in 1950. "Love at first sight,'' she insisted, "for both of us. Neither one of us ever dated anyone else.''
They searched for a place to build a future, a place of potential growth. They looked toward Florida, and in 1957 landed in New Port Richey.
"When we got here,'' Sallie recalled, "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, what have we done?' I thought we would starve to death. There was just a two-lane road with orange trees on either side. We had to live in Tarpon Springs for six months because we couldn't find a house to rent. There was no hospital and only one bank. It was just so small and quiet, but Johnnie saw something. … We stuck it out.''
He started Myers Auto Supply, the first store of its kind in an area that was about to experience a population explosion. Sallie worked the books, answered phones and greeted customers. Dianne and Cathy worked there in the summers before heading off to college and careers as local elementary school teachers. Mechanics from across the region relied on Mr. Myers and trusted him.
"They knew he was honest,'' noted Walt Casson, a retired engineer and Mr. Myers' friend for 56 years. "He was well-respected.''
He served as president of the Rotary Club of New Port Richey and often joined with friends to cook for the wild game dinner, an annual event that benefits charities. He held leadership positions in First Baptist Church. After he sold the business in 1988, he and Sallie traveled the world, something he never could have imagined as a farm boy who couldn't afford a 5-cent ice-cream cone.
In May, on Mother's Day, Johnnie Myers suffered a stroke at home. He endured therapy but never recovered. He died on Tuesday (Oct. 1, 2013) with family by his side and will be buried today at the national cemetery in Bushnell, final resting place of many a military hero.