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A Day To Remember and Be Remembered

Local veterans share experiences on Flag Day.

What a confluence of history. The dedication of America's World War II Memorial on the National Mall. The observance of the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, both here and high above Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. And the death and funeral of the nation's 40th President, Ronald W. Reagan, credited with ending The Cold War, the final vestige of the last global conflict.

Thousands participated in those events. Each with their own reaction and remembrances. At Hollin Hall Senior Center, two who attended the memorial dedication reflected on their life-altering World War II experiences.

One saw it from the perspective of a British Royal Navy WREN. The other from that of a U.S. Army Air Force B-25 gun turret on 70 missions over North Africa, Corsica and Europe.

The WREN, which was the acronym for Women's Royal Navy Service, is Shelia Melville. She serves as co-chair of the Center's Military History Committee. On Monday, Flag Day, at a special committee gathering, she shared her memories of June 6, 1944, and the events leading up to the launching of what will probably be the world's last great armada.

The other is Eli Jaffe, a Philadelphia native, who served as a waist gunner and radio operator in a twin engine B-25 Mitchell Bomber and finished the war as a Tech Sargeant. He is also an active participant in Military History Committee. Melville and Jaffe accompanied one another to the Memorial dedication ceremonies.

They traveled by Metro to L'Enfant Plaza Station where they boarded a bus that delivered them to the security point at the Memorial entrance. "What amazed me was that when we got on the bus there were no locals on board. They were all from elsewhere," Melville said.

"Our bus pulled up to that curious relic of early days, the old Barge Master's house at the corner of 17th and Independence. Security was so friendly. No wands, no shoes off. A big welcome and a quick look at our totes," she recalled.

"We arrived just before noon. A couple of today's Navy women came up and asked about my experiences during World War II. Everyone was extremely helpful and pleasant. It was like Christmas morning," Melville said.

"The only annoying experience was some reporters from Barcelona, Spain. They asked about the war in Iraq and my reaction to the architecture of the memorial," she said.

"I told them I wasn't here for either of those things. I was here to honor those that fought and died in World War II. Not to make any political statement or to pass judgment on the architecture," Melville insisted.

Although she did admit, "The World War II Memorial is not to my taste. It seems to be more of the generation of World War I. It's rather gothic with those huge columns. But that's not the point. The point is what it represents."

REFLECTING ON memorials in general, Melville views the Vietnam memorial as a creation of "genius." But it also had it's detractors at the outset, she said.

"The sad memorial is the D-Day Memorial in Bedford [Virginia]. The World War II Memorial is in the right place. The D-Day Memorial is in the completely wrong place. It's an elegant memorial but it won't be appreciated where it is," she said.

Jaffe was very much in favor of the World War II Memorial. "I like it. It's a good thing and long overdue. My only complaint is that they left out Italy altogether. But they did put in the Africa campaign," he pointed out.

In addition to his service in B-25's, Jaffe also flew out of North Africa in Navy PBY's, known as flying boats. "We were on rescue missions for down planes. Then they brought in the PT boats," he said.

Jaffe joined the U.S. Army Air Force in June 1940. He served until 1948. "We were still in the depression and there were hardly any jobs for young men so the military looked pretty good at the time," he said.

"When I got into combat the rule was that if you flew 50 missions you got rotated back to the states. Then it got changed to 60 missions because they couldn't train enough personnel fast enough. Then they changed it to 70 missions. I thought I'd be flying forever," Jaffe said.

HE WAS NEVER shot down and never had to bail out. "But we often came back with a plane full of holes. I did have a piece of flak come through and land at my feet on one flight," he remembered.

As a waist gunner in the 57th Bomb Wing, 12th Air Force, Jaffe was responsible for two 50 caliber machine guns, one on each side of the fuselage. "When they said fighters at two o'clock I'd go to one side and then back to the other when they were at 10 o'clock," he explained.

Others who served with Jaffe in his outfit were future U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the author of "Catch 22," Joseph Heller. "We had quite a group," he said.

Upon release from the military, Jaffe returned to Philadelphia and completed Pharmacy School at Temple University. "I came across a magazine that said there were less drug stores per population in the Washington, D.C., area than anywhere else.

"I thought that would be a good way to get started. I eventually opened my own drugstore in the District. I had three altogether, at different times. But D.C. got so bad I eventually sold out and went to work for Dart Drug in Virginia. I retired from there after 13 years." A widower with a grown son and daughter living in the area, Jaffe is a resident of Hollin Brook Park.

Melville was 14 when the Third Reich war machine began to consume Europe. She was a student at St. Felix School. But that was eventually commandeered by the Royal Air Force.

"I joined the WRENS on September 3, 1942, as soon as I was 17 and a half and eligible. They just put the "E" in WRENS to create the acronym. It doesn't stand for anything. But it helped with our symbol which was a small bird sitting on an anchor," Melville said.

She and her husband, Philip, a civil engineer, live in a townhome on Belle Haven Road. They have two daughters and four grandchildren living in Baltimore. "Close enough for nice visits and emergencies, but not too close," she said.

Philip chose to go to the D-Day ceremonies in France rather than the memorial dedication. "I went to the 50th but was not up to the trip this time," she said.

But some of her most vivid wartime memories, which she shared with those attending the Military History Committee on Flag Day, are intertwined with that historic day 60 years ago. Or as she recalled it being described, "The day the balloon went up."

HER UNIT HAD been transferred to the assembly region for the invasion force. "We were in a closed zone. We were not allowed to travel more than five miles in any direction. Since one side was sea that limited us even more," Melville said.

"You could receive mail but you could not send any. All telephone and mailboxes were removed. There were check points everywhere to make sure you did not go beyond your five mile limit," she remembered.

"England actually turned back the clock two hours rather than one. That meant it started to get light at about 4 a.m.," Melville said.

"On the night of June 5, we went to the roof of a building and just sat there until 11 p.m. We watched thousands of planes and ships leaving the harbor. At 3 a.m. on June 6, we were awakened and told to go to work. The balloon had gone up," she told her audience.

To bring that "Longest Day" back into perspective, Melville displayed a copy of The Manchester Guardian dated June 7, 1944. Due to the lack of paper it was printed on a single large sheet giving it a total of four pages.

The headline across the top, above the fold, read, in classic British understatement: "The First Day: "Thoroughly Satisfactory."

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's assessment of the invasion was quoted as, "Our losses were far less than we apprehended."

By contrast, American reconnaissance pilot, Lt. Col. C.A. Shoop from Beverly Hill, Calif., upon his return to England late in the morning of D-Day with his report and photographs of the landings and action in France was quoted, "The Channel was like a regatta."

Then, on June 13, the Germans struck back with a their new weapon. "It put more fear into us than anything we had experienced. It was the V-1 buzz bomb or "doddlebug" as we called them," Melville recalled.

"They did not seem to be aimed at any particular target. It was to instill fear and they did. Twelve WRENS were killed in one attack," she said.

"It was not the noise of the rockets that caused fear. It was the silence. When the noise stopped it was coming down," she said

AS A FINAL TRIBUTE to those who served during World War II and in honor of Flag Day, the Military History Committee raised a 48 star American flag that had traveled throughout Europe in one of General George Patton's 3rd Army tanks. It was supplied by Major William Connor (USA Ret).

As he explained it, "Patton made sure that every third tank had a large American flag. When he conquered a town he wanted to have a large flag raised to make sure everybody knew it was the Americans. He did like the smaller official version supplied by the military."

Melville summarized her experience at the WW II Memorial dedication as, "It was a day of days." That could also be said of June 6, 1944.