World War II veterans still telling their stories 75 years after attack on Pearl Harbor

Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-07 18:32:00-05

CINCINNATI -- Delhi Township resident Robert “Bob” Doolan remembers vividly the day 71 years ago, during the waning days of the Second World War in Europe, when Gen. George S. Patton rolled into a prisoner of war camp in Moosburg, Germany, which troops under his command had just liberated.

Patton wore his usual outfit -- his riding breeches, his pearl-handled pistols and a “stupid, shiny helmet,” Doolan said.

But in Doolan’s jubilation at the prospect of being free, he said, the colorful general looked like God himself. “And he thought he was,” he added with a smile.

Bob Doolan, who served as a navigator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, inside the Western Hills Retirement Village in Delhi Township (Kevin Eigelbach | WCPO contributor).

As a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress, Doolan saw most of the war from 29,000 feet. But as the gunner on a tank, West Price Hill resident Mike Kunnen saw it up close and personal.

“If you weren’t scared, you weren’t human,” Kunnen said.

Stories like Doolan’s and Kunnen’s will be on tap Wednesday when The Urology Group hosts a lunch and patriotic program at the Sharonville Convention Center, in observance of the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted the United States to enter World War II.

At least 75 veterans are expected to attend, which organizers believe makes the event the largest local gathering of WWII vets for the anniversary. 

Nationally, WWII vets are dying off at a rate of nearly 400 a day. Only 620,000 remain, with 26,000 left in Ohio and 7,000 in Kentucky.

Doolan is 99, and although his mind is still sharp, his body’s falling apart. He lives in the Western Hills Retirement Village, rolling himself around in a wheelchair at a fairly brisk pace.

Kunnen, 93, still lives at home with help from relatives. He doesn't use a wheelchair like Doolan, but getting up to walk is a slow, painful process.

His story is more colorful -- and more horrifying -- than Doolan’s, but Doolan’s is more widely known, thanks to Hollywood.

Doolan’s story

In 1963, United Artists released the film, “The Great Escape,” starring Steve McQueen and James Garner. It told the story of an escape by British POWs from Stalag Luft III, the prison camp where Doolan spent two years.

Doolan knew some of the officers involved in the escape, but he’s quick to add that he had nothing to do with it. He found the film mostly accurate about the escape and life in the camp.

He had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in the summer of 1941 because he wanted to become a pilot, but washed out of pilot school and was made a navigator. He flew his first combat mission in 1943, and did 12 missions before being shot down on the 13th mission that August.

A photo of Bob Doolan during his World War II service. (Provided).

After 21 days wandering in Holland and staying at various safe houses run by the Dutch resistance, he and another airman were captured and taken to Stalag Luft III, which was then a part of Germany, but now is in the city of Zagan, Poland.

They were sometimes hungry and often cold, he said, but they had a dry barracks and a place to sleep. When he talks to Japanese prisoners of war, he said, they tell him, “You were not in a prison camp, you were in a country club.”

The Germans provided two varieties of unappetizing soup, which the POWs called “the Green Death” and “the Black Death.” The bread they provided was heavy and produced a lot of gas, he said, but was nutritious.
Food packages from the Red Cross helped a great deal. Doolan talked of making a pie using crushed crackers mixed with water instead of flour.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about food,” he said.

His worst experience was when the Germans evacuated the camp in advance of the Russian army. It was January 1945, and the POWs had to march for several days in snow a foot thick and in sub-freezing temperatures to a train station.

There, they boarded boxcars for a three-day ride to the prison camp at Moosburg, near Munich, where they would spend the rest of the war. The trains stopped once in a while, and guards with submachine guns herded the POWs to the side of the road to defecate.

“It was hell,” Doolan said of the train ride.

Kunnen’s story

Along with the rest of his classmates at Xavier University, Kunnen enlisted in December 1942, when he was 19. He spent the war with the 709th Tank Battalion, which supported infantry during the liberation of France, the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Germany itself.

Like Doolan, he and his fellow soldiers spent a lot of time thinking about food. Most of the time, they were far from the Army kitchen assigned to them, he said, and had to settle for K-rations, which provided fewer calories than most active men needed.

Mike Kunnen, who served as a tank gunner during World War II, at his West Price Hill home (Kevin Eigelbach | WCPO contributor).

During a lull in the fighting in southern France, he and another soldier were asked to forage for food, and they found 22 chickens. Kunnen described how he held each one by the feet, while his buddy, a chicken farmer back home, wrung their necks, skinned them, cut out the fat and tossed it and the carcasses into a pot for cooking.

Soldiers were often sleep-deprived as well as hungry, which prompted Kunnen to learn to fall asleep in seconds when he had to. “During the Battle of the Bulge, we were awake damn near all the time,” Kunnen said. 

The fear of battle and desire to avoid it drove seven men in his company to shoot themselves in the leg, he said.

Some men, like the soldier who drove Kunnen’s tank for 18 months, stayed drunk all the time.

“I never saw him sober,” Kunnen said. 

Kunnen himself dealt with fear by praying -- a lot.

During one fire fight, he and another soldier went into no-man’s-land to pick up a wounded lieutenant and carry him 200 yards back to their tank and drive him to an aid station. Then a general ordered them to get their tank ready to return to battle.

“I started to shake,” Kunnen said. “I’ve never done that in my life. I thought, ‘What the hell’s happening to me?’ I thought, for sure, ‘This guy’s sending us to our deaths.’”

Fire fights with the Germans followed a similar pattern, he said, with the tanks surrounding an enemy position and opening fire. “You don’t know who you killed and mutilated,” he said.

But everyone knew when a fellow soldier was killed. Kunnen remembered an engagement in Germany in which one tank hit a mine. One tanker had his legs blow off, and another was blown nearly in half and repeatedly called for his mother before he died.

“You never forget them kind of things,” Kunnen said. “You know?”