He still calls them “chips,” the inch-square scraps of paper on which Vince Werner wrote stark details after each of his 51 credited missions in a B-17 bomber over Europe in 1944.
Werner, 97, will mark his 75th Veterans Day as a veteran on Monday. You’ll probably see a flag outside his home in west Missoula but you won’t catch him waving it.
He hangs his patriotism on a wall inside, a map that traces each of those missions with the 96th Bomb Squadron of the 2nd Bomb Group in the 15th Air Corps in April through July 1944, and in a unique spiral-bound book he put together 50 years later and called “High Adventure: 120 Days.”
“As a navigator I always call myself a historian too,” Werner explained. “So I had all my little chips and I did my book. … I just started writing longhand, and then I ended up typing it.”
May 25, Thursday Nite: Flew with Parker & crew — target, Atzgersdorf Aircraft Factory, covered by clouds so bombed by Pathfinder. Only they missed by 12 miles or so. Slight flak at target but on ‘turnoff’ run into Bad Voslau. No explanation needed (lots of flak)! Few fighters.
Werner knew such notes weren’t kosher in top-secret war time.
“I shoved them into my pocket, but they wouldn’t have been meaningful to anybody if I was in an enemy camp,” he said.
The historian in him kept the Mediterranean editions of “Stars and Stripes.” He’s arranged clippings in his book that enhance the personal notes, with headlines like “Planes Blast French Rails” and “Ploesti, Nis, Belgrade Hit By Heavies.”
What makes “120 Days” special, though, are the updates and love notes he wrote almost every day to his fiancé, a music major at Northwestern University in Illinois. They included count-ups to his 50th mission, the one that would send him home. Werner married June Devine a month after his final mission. He calls her “June the Divine” to this day, four years after her death at home in Missoula at age 93.
July 6, Thurs. Late Afternoon. I’m so happy this afternoon. Everything (good) happens to me. First, yesterday afternoon I received 2 swell letters from you, honey, with snaps (snapshots) … Then! And then! I found out ‘something new had been added,’ that I’d made 1st Lt. effective June 23rd — of all days, your B-day. Somewhat of a record maybe — in less than 7 months .… And today I carved #47 on the old totem pole. So with any luck, I’ll be finished in a week!”
It was probably the interviewer's fault, but the obvious question never came up.
How does someone who came of age in the Great Depression, who flew in the nose of a B-17 for all those flights over enemy territory out of southern Italy, and who, not least of all, raised seven kids with June the Divine, keep that glint in his eye, a World War II song on his lips and, yes, even an excited bounce in his step at age 97?
The one-word answer seemed clear when it came up over and over again in a two-hour conversation with Werner last week at his kitchen table.
He said it’s why he was chosen in flight school to train to be a navigator in the sleek four-engine bombers Werner called the “Hollywood planes” of the U.S. Army Air Corps fleet. The larger B-24s could tote twice the payload, but “they were the Flying Boxcars or the Pregnant Whales,” he said with a chuckle. “We had a lot of creative names for them.”
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When he sat down with an advisor at Montana State College in Bozeman after the war, Werner had no idea what to study.
He told the man what he’d done in the service, “all the facets of navigation and creativity, creativity probably the biggest thing,” he said. Werner was steered to the attic of the engineering building where the architecture department was housed.
“I had never heard of the term, probably, or paid any attention to it before,” he said.
Within 10 years he and classmate George Page had their own firm, Page & Werner, in Great Falls. Werner, born in 1922, had lived in the Electric City before the war, following brothers Wilbur and the Rev. Martin Werner to north-central Montana from their home in northern Kansas.
He met June Devine at the College of Great Falls the year before he enlisted, when the college (now the University of Providence) was housed in a couple of dilapidated buildings by the old Columbus Hospital. In 1960, Werner watched with pride as the new 70-acre CGF campus opened across town, a product of some groundbreaking architectural work by Page & Werner.
“Our biggest break was in 1956 when got a letter from the Sisters of Providence in Spokane saying that we had been selected to do the new campus for the College of Great Falls. Oh, boy. Oh, boy,” said Werner, who retired in 1988.
While Werner never forgot his Army days, work and family pushed them and other veteran affairs aside. Mary Werner said that only in recent years has her father talked freely about his war experiences.
His caregiver, Suzy Wiseheart, is a professional storyteller who quickly recognized Werner’s remarkable memory and spirit. In the last few months she recorded some 50 short videos in which he expands on his “120 Days” entries. Wiseheart timed many of them to coincide with the same calendar day, 75 years later, on which he wrote the notes.
“I appreciate that when he has an interested audience he can still rise to the occasion and remember so many details from his experiences in WWII,” said Mary Werner, the sixth of seven Werner children and one of two daughters who live in Missoula. Vince and June moved to the Garden City to join them in 2006.
The GI Bill paid for his four years of schooling at Montana State, perhaps the most valuable outcome of Werner's service. Veterans Administration benefits covered an open-heart surgery a few years ago, and pay for what home care Werner needs. Mary said her father’s primary, vision and medical care are all taken care of by the VA, as are physical therapy, shoes, foot care, prescriptions, and a grant to help pay for an accessible bathroom remodel.
Werner is bowed but still nimble and grateful, with a smile and a song at the ready.
Would he change anything? he was asked.
“Nooo,” he answered instantly. “If you change something, then lots of other things would change.
“Hey, I’m pleased with the way it has matured and come about. And, hey, I cannot complain about a damn thing. How’s that?”