7 decades later, WWII veterans meet again

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK

Businessmen with leather briefcases and sailors in dress whites rush through the concourse at Norfolk International Airport.

Joe Collector checks his watch.

The old man says he isn’t nervous, but his body language suggests otherwise. He leans up on his toes and bends his neck to peer down the terminal, searching for an old friend.

“I think I’ll recognize him when I see him,” Joe says. “I think.”

Nearly seven decades have passed since he last laid eyes on Harold Kronenberg. Like many teenagers who grew into men while flying in B-17s over France and Germany during World War II, Joe and Harold returned home and lost track of each other.

Joe went to work at his father’s deli on Church Street and later became a successful homebuilder. Harold played minor league baseball for a few years before returning to Wisconsin to become a history teacher.

“I wish he’d come on already,” Joe says, again glancing at his watch. “Come on!”

In the distance, he spots an elderly man hobbling briskly through the terminal.

“There he is,” Joe says. “That must be him.”

Until recently, Harold thought Joe – like most of the old-timers they flew with during the war – had passed away years ago. That’s what a mutual friend told him a few years back during a reunion of the 390th Bomb Group.

Imagine Harold’s surprise when he read a story about Joe last year after he took a flight over Chesapeake in a restored Flying Fortress.

Harold looked up Joe’s number and gave him a call. They laughed and reminisced. Harold played for the Norfolk Tars in 1948 and wondered how the city – and his old friend – had changed. Within weeks, plans were in the works for a reunion.

They recognize each other almost immediately.

“Oh, my God!” Harold shrieks, stretching out his arms to wrap his old buddy in a hug. “It’s good to see you, brother.”

“I can’t believe this,” Joe says, slapping Harold’s back.

Both men laugh like children.

“It’s been a long time,” Harold says, still embracing his friend. “Sixty-nine years! Can you believe that?”

“It’s been a little while,” Joe says.

“I’m a little hard of hearing,” Harold says, pointing to his ear.

“I said it’s been a while.”

“You’ve changed a lot.” Harold pulls back to examine his friend.

“Well, we all have,” says Joe.

“I’m coming up on 88,” Harold says.

“He’s just a boy.” Joe bats his hand at Harold’s nephew, who tagged along. “I’ll be 89 in August.”

Wasting no time, they begin swapping war stories as they walk toward the baggage claim.

Joe recalls the first time he flew a mission with Harold’s crew back in 1944. The plane experienced mechanical problems, got separated from the group of bombers and for several minutes was lost somewhere over occupied France.

Harold doesn’t remember the mission.

“It was probably the navigator’s fault,” he says.

“I was the navigator!” Joe shouts.

The men laugh so hard, they have to stop walking.

“It’s so good to see you after all these years,” Joe says.

Harold puts his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of talking.”

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