I was trying to find order in my cluttered home office over the weekend and came across my treasure trove of Life magazines – 27 copies from 1941 and 1942. When I moved them closer to my desk, I had no problem deciding which one to stack on top.
The cover of the Aug. 31, 1942, issue shows a Navy flier pointing to a map of the Pacific. The caption says “Ensign Gay of Torpedo Squadron 8.”
George Gay, known as Tex, was the sole survivor of a squadron of 15 torpedo bombers that engaged the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. The story is Gay’s account of that day, June 4, 1942, when his Douglas Devastator was shot up and careened into the sea. Wounded in the arm, he floated in the Pacific and, as Life puts it, “had a fish’s-eye view of the main action.”
Gay was the first veteran I ever interviewed and wrote about.
It was 35 years ago and I was in my first newspaper job out of college, at The Bradford Era in north central Pennsylvania. Gay had come to town to visit his married daughter. I spoke with him at her home in Bradford. The tall, hardy Texan wowed me.
My story ran on the day Midway, the 1976 star-studded account of the naval battle, started showing at the small city’s only theater. I was in the audience, and so were Gay and his family. He had been a consultant for the film and is portrayed in it by actor Kevin Dobson. Many in the theater apparently had read my story, because a loud cheer erupted when Dobson appeared on screen and a subtitle identified him as Gay.
I don’t have a copy of my story, which included an image of the Life cover. At the time, it was nothing special, so I didn’t save it. It never crossed my mind that I might have a future in war stories.
Gay and I had no further contact. He died in 1994 at age 77.
My stash of Life magazines once belonged to my uncle Louie Venditti. He got them from a resident of an apartment complex in Malvern, Pa., where Louie was in charge of maintenance. My Aunt Bert gave the magazines to me in the late 1990s after her husband died.
Louie probably enjoyed having the wartime issues as mementos. He was proud of his service as a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force in England, proud that he and three of his brothers, including my dad, had served in the armed forces during World War II.
And he was proud of his son Nicky, an Army helicopter pilot who was killed in Vietnam.
Nicky is the subject of my yet-to-be-published book Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam. http://www.davidvenditta.com/