By Martin B. Cassidy
While history perhaps better remembers the exploits of American infantry and pilots in the assault of Iwo Jima, aviators who made aerial raids of Chichi-jima also faced a high probability of becoming war casualties, Donald Kiggins, a former World War II fighter pilot said.
On Sunday, the 89-year-old Kiggins recalled his close call at the age of 22 when his P-51 Mustang was struck by Japanese anti-aircraft fire.
Flying blind due to engine oil, which had spurted onto his cockpit glass, Kiggins managed to land the plane in one piece by following a fellow fighter pilot onto a landing strip on Iwo Jima to the south.
“If you had eight guys flying out over Chichi-jima, you knew at least one of them wouldn’t come back,” Kiggins said.
Kiggins was one of more than 40 area World War II veterans honored during a ceremony Sunday afternoon at Atria Darien on Ledge Road that observed the 67th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The program was part of a nationwide observance at Atria homes on Sunday of the 67th anniversary of V-J Day, which celebrates the official surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces on Aug. 14, 1945, ending the war.
Kiggins said that he had flown a mission the day before on Aug. 13 to fight off Japanese warplanes deployed to target American pilots off Chichi-jima.
“The end of the war was very sudden, but you can bet we were happy,” Kiggins said.
At the ceremony U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who spoke along with U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., emphasized the continued gratitude subsequent generations owe to the young soldiers, sailors and other military personnel who fought and prevailed in World War II.
Blumenthal said that beyond the sacrifices of those lost in the war itself, those returning home exemplified the ethos of service to others by quietly resuming their lives and helping restore the industrial might of America as well as the world.
The senator said that the perhaps overused phrase of “shared sacrifice” used by politicians in recent years amid government deficits and other challenges most aptly describes the communal contributions of the World War II generation to the world’s benefit.
“It was a long combat experience and they did it with no sense that there would be a reward,” Blumenthal said. “They came home to build new communities, new houses and new lives and did it uncomplainingly. What we can learn from you is the definition of the term ‘shared sacrifice.’ ”
Himes told the soldiers and sailors on hand that while the names of historic battles at Monte Cassino, Iwo Jima, Arnheim, and El Alamein may be less familiar to current generations, younger Americans in the present day continue to enjoy the continued benefit of the efforts of World War II veterans.
“Your courage and the courage of all you stood for is the perfect gift to our generation,” Himes said.
John Geoghagan, who served as a U.S. aviation radio man and tail gunner aboard a torpedo bomber, said that he was grateful to be alive after) having sustained a wound from anti-aircraft fire over Iwo Jima on July 4, 1944.
After convalescing, Geoghagan was in California on V-J Day.
Geoghagan said he believes those in the Navy and Air Force were less exposed to the dangers of war than infantrymen.
“I can say I feel fortunate in that I wasn’t in the Army and wasn’t involved in man-to-man combat,” Geoghagan said. “I didn’t even feel very bad about getting shot because it came as part of the territory. I had a place to sleep every night and could take showers.”
Billy Adcock, 90, of Darien, remembered the happiness of learning from his fellow sailors on board the USS Pasadena that Japan had surrendered. Adcock served from 1942 to 1948 in the U.S. Navy.
“We had a feeling that the top brass might have already known the war would be over soon,” Adcock said. “We were supposed to begin bombing raids of Japan, which were then canceled. Everybody was happy.”
Also speaking at the event were state Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford; state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk; and state Rep. Terri Wood, R-Darien, as well as Darien Selectman John A. Lundeen, who read proclamations from the town of Darien and the General Assembly declaring Sunday Spirit of 1945 Day.
Leone and Duff both emphasized the importance of continued attempts to document the experiences of World War II veterans whose numbers have begun to dwindle at a faster pace in recent years.
“We need to continue to tell the stories of all that happened in World War II,” Duff said. “It will make us a better country.”
“You went off to fight a great evil and there were times that things could have turned in another direction, but you fought on,” Leone said.