“We’re camaraderie for older veterans, basically,” Sherman, a former bombardier and still active 90-year-old furniture rep from Encino. “We started out as fliers, that’s why it’s Wings Over Wendy’s. But we take any branch of the service, or anyone who’s interested.”
No dues, no rules, no tests. That’s WOW. Besides the weekly breakfast meet-ups, the group supports charities such as Operation Gratitude, organizes speaking engagements at local schools and sponsors excursions to places such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Regulars include include World War II’s most decorated fighter pilot, 90-year-old Clyde East, who shot down 13 German planes; and oldest member Steve Politis, 95, who went from the Signal Corps to a bomber assignment that got him shot down behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia.
“That was no fun,” the electrical engineer, who volunteers as an algebra teacher at Welby Way School, deadpanned. “They had an underground, fortunately.”
One of the younger vets who’s come to cherish the Monday morning invasions is 56-year-old Brian MacGregor, who was a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam.
“Camaraderie, all the stories, the lies and the big fish tales that go along with the stories,” said the Northridge resident, who coached school sports after his tour of duty. “It’s great to hear the history and meet all the different people.”
Ron Ross stood behind the front counter of his Wendy’s Restaurant in West Hills Monday morning shaking his head in amazement as he watched a standing-room-only crowd celebrate an anniversary no one saw coming.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would grow into this,” Ron said. Neither did I.
It was 14 years ago this week that Fred “Crash” Blechman walked up to Ron and said he and a few of his pals — all combat pilots, tail-gunners, navigators and bombardiers from World War II and Korea — were thinking of starting a club.
Did he mind if they held their informal meetings every Monday at a table in the corner to just sit around shooting the breeze? They had already agreed on the ground rules of conversation — no sex, no politics — so Ron shouldn’t worry about that.
Ron said sure, and cut them a deal because they were veterans and he liked them. A burger and fries for a buck, and the drink was free because they were all seniors.
Crash, who earned his nickname by crash landing five Navy Corsair planes in World War II and Korea, thanked him and walked back to his pal, Mickey Epstein, a flight engineer on a B-24.
“We’re on,” Crash said.
“So what are we going to call ourselves?” Mickey asked.
“How about ‘Wings Over Wendy’s?” Made sense.
When I caught up with the guys a few weeks later, Crash was having lunch with Ernie Bankey, who had shot down 11 enemy planes in WWII. He was in deep conversation with Mike Karatsonyi who was shot down over Hungary while flying for the other side.
Yeah, the Germans. Mike was a Luftwaffe pilot — drafted into service after Germany occupied Hungary.
“You guys have any hard feelings?” I asked. They just laughed.
“As soon as we put the guns down, we were able to talk as men,” Mike said. “Pilots are a special breed.
When their food order was ready, Crash started to get up, but Mickey said he’d get it. The last time Crash went to get the food he tripped on the way back and dropped the tray.
“He still can’t figure out why nobody wants to drive to the meetings with him,” Ernie said.
When the column on the guys ran the next day, I started getting phone calls from the wives of aviation veterans all over L.A. County looking to stash their husbands at Wendy’s for a few hours every Monday.
Their husbands were bored. What they needed were other men they had something in common with — men who had been where they were in 1944 when the world needed them.
Before long, Wings grew to 20 members, then 30. Ron loved the guys but some of his customers were starting to complain the meetings were a little loud and distracting.
He could have told Crash and the guys he was sorry, that they needed to find a new place to meet. Ron didn’t. He couldn’t. They had become like family to him and his wife, Diane.
Art Sherman, a B-24 bombardier and intelligence officer in WWII who joined the group in 2004 and now leads it, says Ross offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse – free coffee, but it had to be at breakfast, not lunch.
“But you’re not open for breakfast,” Art said.
“For you guys, I will,” Ron told him.
Without that gesture, “Wings over Wendy’s” probably would have never survived to see its 14th anniversary this week.
“I don’t think he realizes what his generosity and caring about us old-timers has meant to the men in this room,” Art said, watching Ron cut the cake with his wife.
“These Monday mornings have become lifelines to many of the guys, especially the ones who have lost their wives and were just sitting at home vegetating.
“Now, they have something to look forward to every week. They come from all over L.A. County to finally talk about the war experiences they could never talk to their families about.”
A handful of women veterans have joined over the years, and the Vietnam guys are finally starting to come in, too. But it’s still the flyboys of the Greatest Generation who are the heart and soul of “Wings Over Wendy’s,” now with a membership of more than 150.
The clock is ticking, though, on the older flyboys and no one knows that better than Art, who is 94.
“We’re down to 10 World War II guys, and I’m not feeling that great,” he said this week, trying to make light of a situation no one wants to face.
We’re losing our WWII guys at the rate of 430 a day, according to the U.S. Veterans Affairs. From the 16 million who served, less than 1 million are left.
“I just wish more people could see what this generation was all about,” Ron said, taking a seat in the front row near Art for the anniversary picture. “They’d have a much greater appreciation of why we are the country we are today.”
Dennis McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wings Over Wendy’s
“When you lose a veteran, you lose a library,”
A club for retired military fliers and others interested in veterans and military aviation,
meets at the Wendy’s restaurant at Platt Village in West Hills.