For Jimmy Traupel, Memorial Day has a literal meaning: it's a day that brings back a lot of memories.
As a 95-year-old WWII veteran, Traupel's memories of his service go back nearly three-quarters of a century, to 1944. From February to June of that year, he flew as a waist gunner in a B-17 as a member of the Eighth Air Force's 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
From that time in his life, Traupel's memories are of both the 30,000 men who were lost in the two years the Eighth Air Force was in operation in Europe and the times he narrowly escaped being one of them.
"I'm not a hero," said Traupel, of Mitchell. "I've got a two-volume anthology of our group, and in that is page after page of no less than 20 names. These are all the guys of my group that were lost to the war effort, so to speak. And then right behind that, there's about six or eight pages of cemeteries in England and in Europe ...
"Those are the guys that were heroes, the ones that were lost to this thing. I look at it this way: I was trained to do a job, and I did it to the best of my ability. And I was very fortunate and very lucky to make it through it all."
Although he doesn't want to be seen as a hero, Traupel's list of military accolades is an extensive one. During the war, he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross "for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight;" an Air Medal and three oak leaf clusters; a Purple Heart; and an American Theater Ribbon (now known as the American Campaign Medal), among others. But one of the achievements he speaks most reverently of is not one that is pinned to the "WWII Veteran" hat he wears now.
Instead, Traupel proudly remembers April 1944, the month that the 379th Bomb Group became the only unit ever to lead the entire Eighth Air Force in all five categories by which bomb groups were graded during WWII, earning them the nickname "the Grand Slam Wing"-an unofficial moniker that is now printed along the border of Traupel's license plate.
But not all of Traupel's war memories were accompanied by such a wide margin of success, and some nearly cut short his ability to have memories at all.
On one such occasion, on a bomb run through Berlin, Traupel and his crew noticed their plane start to shake. They had had enemy fighter pilots on them, as Traupel said, "like bees on honey." The pilot announced over the intercom that the number three engine had been lost, and that the props couldn't be feathered, meaning that the propellers couldn't be angled in a way that decreased air resistance enough to counteract the failed engine. Eventually, as the crew continued its mission, the props were able to be feathered, and everyone made it back to the base, although four were injured.
After Traupel's plane landed, someone asked him what happened to him. Traupel looked down and was surprised to find that his pant leg was shredded up to the knee. He had a wide gash on his shin, but was hardly bleeding. The metal from the bombs and antiaircraft fire was so hot that it had cauterized the wound as it cut his leg.
"We had flack jackets on, and they said they were actually shredded, it was so bad...the crew chief made a pass around that plane. He stopped, he looked at it, he said, 'salvage what you can.' She was done," he said.
Traupel was also flying on D-Day, but he holds his friends who were fighting on the ground in higher esteem.
"I was an integral part of the invasion for the fact that I dropped bombs to help the guys, but I was not down there wading through that or dropping off a landing craft up to my neck in water and trying to get ashore," he said. "There were a lot of those guys that got off of those landing crafts that drowned before they ever got to the base. I didn't have to go through any of that."
Although he was 19 years old when he entered the service, Traupel said he wasn't necessarily scared of what lay ahead of him.
"You're not scared of something you've never done before. You're a little apprehensive, wondering what it's going to be like," he said. "I think you have a sense of fear."
Decades later, while Traupel reflects on his own military experiences, he said that because he was lucky enough to come back from every mission he flew and had a warm, dry place to sleep, he prefers to put more focus on other veterans on Memorial Day.
"It's a day of remembrance," he said. "Let's say it this way, it's just another day."