WINDSOR (AP) Don Straub points at a picture on his basement wall: two rows of crewmen near a Privateer bomber used by U.S. forces in the Pacific near the end of World War II.
Straub is in the front row.
Im the only one left, he says.
His words are becoming familiar. By some estimates, there are fewer than 3 million American World War II veterans alive, and about 1,500 die each day.
Straub has attended many reunions of Patrol Bombing Squadron 109. At the one last year in Tulsa, the squadron historian delivered the news to Straub that all the others of his 11-man crew Crew 13 had passed away.
It shocked me, Straub said. I thought, How could it be? And, How many years do I have left?
At 86, Straub is vigorous enough to conjure images of him as the star pitcher known as Lefty who led Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University) to the 1950 College World Series and then pitched in the minor leagues. Last month, he was inducted into the CSU Sports Hall of Fame.
Straub grew up in Pittsburgh and was 18 when he entered the Navy after his 1943 high school graduation, making him one of the younger Americans to serve in World War II.
He was trained as a radio operator, then went to gunnery school and was assigned to the 109th. In 1945, he was sent to Palawan, in the Philippines.
At his home in Windsor, he points at a clear turret on top of a model of a Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer. He explains this is where hed perch, behind the pilot, as the four-engine bomber made its run toward a target, often from only 150 to 200 feet above ground.
Hed drop the bombs, and the other gunners and I would strafe with the .50-caliber guns, Straub said. Wed come back with holes in the propellers and holes in the wings, mostly in the front, because we went in so low.
Using a revolutionary radar-guided missile bomb, the 109th flew those missions while based on Palawan and then on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
At his home last week, Straub flipped through the 109ths yearbook-style record, which documents the squadrons combat accomplishments.
Straub pointed out pictures from several of Crew 13s missions, including when it took out a key bridge near Shinanshu, in northern Korea. Other targets included Japanese shipping, railroad tracks and yards, and coal mines. The book also says on another mission, Crew 13 shot down a pair of fighter-bombers.
As the crews did their work, they were aware of the perils of being shot down, especially if they survived and fell into the clutches of the Japanese. And they knew they soon would be involved in even more perilous duty.
We were told we were going to have to go to Japan, he said. They were lining up everyone for the invasion, which would have been really, really horrible.
On Aug. 5, 1945, the 109th lost a full crew when the Japanese shot down a Privateer. The next day, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
We were on Okinawa, and it was raining and muddy and a horrible night, Straub said. The next day, they told us there was a bomb dropped that wiped out a city. We said, What are you talking about?
The dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki came three days later. On Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese announced they were surrendering.
Straub came out of the war with three Air Medals, GI Bill benefits and determination to attend college.
A wartime commander recommended A&M, where he played a year each of football and basketball, and four years of baseball.
As a senior, his pitching led the Aggies to a 17-2 record and the 1950 Skyline Conference championship before they lost to Wisconsin and Texas at the College World Series, the first held in Omaha.
He signed with the Boston Braves, getting a $5,000 bonus, and spent the rest of the 50 season with the Denver Bears, going 7-5.
After shoulder surgery, he sat out the 1952 season and retired after one more minor-league year.
I never could throw the same, he said.
After a career as a regional sales manager for Coors and other brewing companies, he retired in 1990. He and his wife, Susie, moved to Windsor from Seattle in 2008.
His induction into the CSU Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 14 was an emotional night. But the feelings were different than at the 109th reunions, where the numbers are dwindling.
We sit around and talk and tell stories, Straub said. We know its the place where everybody will understand.
Straub is effusive in praise of current members of U.S. armed forces.
If I see them in airports, or someplace, Ill walk up to them and say, Thank you very much for what youre doing. If I get on the airplane, and some guy is sitting there in uniform, Ill hit him in the shoulder and say thanks, Straub said. He knows what that means. I dont have to tell him anything else. He looks up at me and he knows.