July 18, 2019

War vets swap stories at Wendy’s

Pictures of fighter jets and war memorabilia aren’t the typical decor you expect to see on the walls of a Wendy’s restaurant, but after an early Monday visit to its Canoga Park location, the ornamentation starts to make sense. That’s when approximately 100 men and women, many dressed in matching blue shirts, jackets with military insignias and hats adorned with military pins, convene 52 weeks a year to share war stories and some coffee. 

Packing the restaurant are members of Wings Over Wendy’s (WOW), a club for military veterans that’s been going strong since its inception in 2002. That’s when Fred Blechman, a Corsair fighter pilot in the United States Navy, and Mickey Epstein, an aviation engineer, happened to meet while eating their senior 99-cent lunch specials. After exchanging stories about World War II, they decided to meet again. Soon, more veterans joined them, and within three months, 12 guys were getting together every Monday to swap books, magazines and stories about flying. 

After a 2003 article about them appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, the casual meeting grew quickly. The group started to impede the restaurant’s lunchtime business, so franchise owners Diane and Ron Ross of Thousand Oaks offered to open early and provide free coffee (it’s since been raised to $1.65 for coffee and a doughnut or bagel). 

“I get goose bumps every time I see them,” Diane Ross said. “They are what America is all about. They are about our freedom.” 

WOW now includes 200 members who have served in all branches of the military in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The group hopes to bring in younger people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as submarine vets — the only group not yet represented. Members come from as far away as Pasadena and Valencia, with the oldest participant being 97. 

At one time, WOW included three World War II German fliers who had become American citizens (they have since passed away). One of them, Mike Karatsonji, an ME-109 pilot, reluctantly joined the Luftwaffe when he was forced to choose between flying for the Germans and going to a concentration camp. 

“It’s the nature of the beast,” said WOW member Michael LaVere, a former B-24 navigator. “Wartime makes people do a lot of things they don’t want to do.” 

As with many of the men, LaVere, 89, knew exactly what he was fighting for. “As a Jewish person, [I believed that] a man like Hitler didn’t deserve to exist in this world. What he was trying to do was something that I wasn’t going to let him do. Every bomb that we dropped, we put little signs on them — this is for you, Adolf,” he said.   

The leader of the pack is Art Sherman, 93, a B-24 bombardier, intelligence officer and self-proclaimed frustrated comedian. His levity and humor are infectious, making him a natural master of ceremonies and setting the lively, fun tone for the meetings. 

Members spend most of the meetings sharing stories, and they have a lifetime of them. WOW member Allyn Lewis was a 21-year-old first pilot with the Army Air Corps when he flew a B-17 over eastern Belgium on April 5, 1945. The weather was bad, and his plane, carrying a crew of eight, had a spectacular midair collision with another U.S. B-17, tearing off the entire nose of his plane. Three other men in the cockpit bailed out, but Lewis stayed at the controls for 45 minutes. With heavy snow flying directly inside the plane and only minimal controls, he safely landed his plane near Brussels. 

“I wasn’t scared,” Lewis said. “I had a job to do, and luckily the emergency training came in handy. I was very fortunate, and it’s a miracle that all the members of both crews survived. Twenty days later, I was back up flying.” 

WOW members also perform community service together, believing that you’re never too old to serve your country and make it better. They visit food banks and other charities, and often speak at local schools. Members are particularly proud of the many volunteer hours they spend making packages of toiletries and snacks for service personnel around the world through the nonprofit Operation Gratitude. 

“We try to do our best for the public and are honored when people come and thank us for our service,” Sherman said. “When we speak to kids at schools, I tell them that the real heroes of World War II are in the cemeteries over in Europe and the Far East, because they are the ones that did the most and gave their lives so that the kids today can have their freedom.”  

One of those “kids” is certainly impressed: teenager Bradley Gerber, who is by far the youngest WOW member. His interest in war tactics and weaponry was initially sparked by his grandfather’s experiences during the Korean War; Bradley has collected hundreds of military books and VHS tapes. When his Temple Aliyah youth group was organizing a veteran’s lounge, Bradley was introduced to a few members of WOW, and since then, he’s been going to meetings whenever he can, even if it means missing school. 

“I have read so many books, but you don’t understand the true meaning of war until you talk to them in person,” Bradley said. “These vets are so amazing. They’re the greatest generation.” 

The kind of bonding that takes place through WOW serves a core need, according to Jonathan Sherin, executive vice president for military communities and chief medical officer at Volunteers of America. 

“Because of their repeated trauma of being moved around and then being exposed to life-threatening experiences as a group, that need for fellowship is significant. … It can only be provided by other veterans, as it’s not something that your family or a clinician can understand and communicate.” 

The strong bond among the group’s members is like a lifeline.

“The amazing thing,” Sherman said, “is that we become fast friends. We give everyone a reason to live; it’s a joyful place. People can let their hair down, if they have it — and not too many of us do.”