NEW CUMBERLAND - "We hope we're all four here next year," said John Kuzio. "When you get this old, you never know."
Kuzio, 92, of New Cumberland, is the oldest surviving member of the Adam Poe Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3526 Last Man's Club. He, along with Kenneth "Pat" Kessel, 84, of New Manchester; Charles Byrne, 85, of New Cumberland; and Don King, 86, of Crystal River, Fla., formerly of Toronto - the other three remaining members - had dinner and their 57th-annual meeting Sunday at the post hall. Over the years, the membership of the club, founded in 1955, has dwindled from 55 members to these four.
A few years ago, there were five; Chet Spilecki of New Cumberland was transported by ambulance to his last dinner and returned to the hospital following the meeting.
"He had to fight to come, but he was happy," said King. "We had to help him up the stairs. Afterwards, they loaded him back in the ambulance, and he went back to the hospital. He was only in the hospital a few more weeks after that."
Despite the intervening years, their memories of their time in the service has not dimmed.
King and Kessel served in the Navy, Kuzio with the Army Air Force Ordnance Corps and Byrne with the Army, although he re-enlisted for a stint in Korea with the Navy.
"He was so ornery, the Army got rid of him," King joked.
Kuzio said he enlisted the day after Thanksgiving in 1941, intending to serve a year, then began his studies at West Liberty State College.
"I signed up, then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, and Dec. 8, we declared war," said Kuzio.
On Dec. 26, Kuzio began his service, and was sent first to Columbus, then to North Carolina, then to San Francisco on his way to Australia and the Pacific Theater.
"They gave me a Springfield from World War I," he said. "I was in for all of a month when they made me a staff sergeant because I'd graduated from high school. I called my dad, and he asked if they were training me, but I didn't know where I was going or what was going on. They just gave me these books and said, 'here, study up.'"
He spent 33 months in New Guinea, before returning to the Ohio Valley. His plans to attend West Liberty were foiled by the fact there were no buses running from Weirton to West Liberty. Instead, he took a bus to Pittsburgh, where he enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh, where he also participated in athletics.
Kessel also served in the Pacific, where he served on a troop transport ship. Typhoons were simply a part of doing business in the Pacific, he said.
"Once, we had 2,000 soldiers (on board), but I didn't see them for four days," he said. "They all stayed below, because there was a typhoon, but the Navy didn't care - you stood your post no matter what. These (Navy) guys, they didn't care, there'd be these huge swells and they're playing pinochle."
Byrne, on his Navy stint, was swept overboard, he said.
"A big storm came up, and a big 40-foot high wave come up," he said. "I was tying down a depth charge. I had a life jacket on, and the look-out saw me, but we were the only ship out there. You know, I was the only one washed overboard?"
"I remember there was a typhoon, the first time I was out," said King. "There were 40, 50-foot waves, and someone left a hatch open, and water came in, and I woke up, and there's water all over, and I thought we were sinking."
Kessel voiced admiration for those who manned the smaller vessels.
"Those were real sailors," he said. "You'd see them, and then a wave would come up and you wouldn't see them, then, there they'd be, coming up the crest."
Kuzio remembered taking a reconnaissance flight to see the damage inflicted by B-24 bombers.
"I wasn't supposed to be with them," he said. "It was all blown all to hell. We were coming back, when when one of the engines quit. They said to me, 'here you go, Sarge, here's a parachute.' I said, 'I don't know what to do with this, I'm a soldier.'"
As the crew prepared to evacuate in the case of a crash, they called ahead to have the field cleared, and the pilot managed to crash-land, but the second engine stopped as they landed.
Kessel's commanding officer "asked where the hell I'd been for three hours, and I told him I'd replaced their navigator who was sick, and he said, 'don't you know, if you were shot down or wasted out there, your parents wouldn't have collected your insurance, because you weren't supposed to be out there.' Well, now you tell me!"
Despite being half-way around the world, the group was still reminded of their small town roots by encounters with other Ohio Valley natives. Kessel noted one club member, Jim Greathouse, had such an encounter after being arrested by the military police for intoxication.
"They threw him into the brig - or the stockade, because it was the Army - and they took him up to the provost marshal the next morning, he was sitting at his desk, and he was a captain," said Kessel. "And the guy looked at him and said, 'is your name Greathouse?' And he said 'yes.' And the captain said, 'My name's Plattenburg' - his family ran the (Hancock County) Courier - and he goes 'just get the hell out of here.'"