Robert Tharratt, kneeling at far right, was shot down over Germany during… (handout, unknown )
CONCORD, Calif. — The procession of white-haired men hobbling into the Denny's restaurant starts about 11 a.m. Most arrive by themselves, although family members deliver a few. They are veterans of World War II, stooped with age, some clutching canes, who make the pilgrimage on the third Thursday of every month to gather with other men imprinted by war.
They have been meeting for 12 years now, telling stories of downed bomber planes, harrowing prison camps — scenes of death and memories of intense fear that the decades have not blurred. They are bonded by their histories and comforted by their common understanding.
"Somebody who has been there, they know," said Robert Tharratt, 89, who served in the Army Air Forces. "Most of us tried to go home and forget, but it's something you don't forget. It's always there."
The men call themselves the Third Thursday Lunch Bunch. Waitresses at the restaurant, on a busy intersection near the freeway, look forward to their arrival and greet some by name.
The vets pin on name tags and settle into booths in a banquet room, usually sitting in the same spot every month. The most popular order is biscuits and gravy, along with some black coffee. Several of the vets no longer hear so well, so the room gets loud.
When a familiar face fails to show, the waitresses fret. Eighteen onetime lunch regulars are now dead. Younger vets from the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars are starting to take their places.
"After their meetings, almost every time, I cry," said Noreen Collins-Romo, 31, who listens to the vets' stories as she pours their coffee. "I feel so bad for what these guys went through. All this stuff comes up, and now they are finally able to talk about it."
The lunches draw about 60 men, vets of different races who took varying paths after laying down their arms. Some became doctors. Others worked as laborers. Occasionally a few women attend, but the group is overwhelmingly male. The oldest is 96. Each diner pays his own check.
The group was born from a bout of depression.
Tharratt's "sounding board" — a brother-in-law whose ship had been sunk by the Japanese — died in 1988, and Tharratt went to a VA clinic for help when he could not shake his despair. Another vet there who heard his wartime stories wrote to the Defense Department, recommending that Tharratt be recognized for heroism.
The recognition finally came in 2000, 56 years after the deed that inspired it. Tharratt was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross for saving another man when their B-17 came under anti-aircraft fire on Sept. 10, 1944.
The crew had been bombing oil refineries near Nuremberg when the bell to bail sounded. Tharratt noticed that another airman had been wounded and could not get out of his turret. He yanked the man free, strapped a parachute backward on him and pushed him out of the stricken plane. The backward parachute allowed the man to use his uninjured arm to pull the cord.
Then Tharratt bailed, landing in a plowed field near a Hitler Youth camp. Uniformed teens waving knives and guns surrounded him. Tharratt said he feared they would kill him, but two German soldiers intervened. He and the other American crewmen were sent by train to a prison camp in Poland.
Publicity about Tharratt's long-delayed medal led to phone calls, and he and four other veterans decided to meet for lunch. They agreed to make it a regular affair, on the third Thursday of every month.
Word got around, and more vets started showing up.
The four who first lunched with Tharratt have died, and the group has grown younger over the years as vets from more recent wars have joined. But the elder men remain the soul of the Third Thursday Lunch Bunch.
"There's a million stories," said Jerry W. Whiting, 61, a retired police officer and honorary member of the lunch bunch. He was invited to join after writing a book about his father's experiences in WWII. Eventually he self-published "Veterans in the Mist," the stories of the lunch bunch veterans.
There was the man who told of his dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt during a break from battle in Australia. The first lady was visiting the troops, and they dined on beef — a rare treat.
A vet who participated in the invasion of Normandy recounted seeing the bodies of American soldiers floating in the surf, a soldier burned alive when he couldn't escape his tank and dead paratroopers hanging from trees.
Another reminisced about reading a letter from a friend about campus life at UC Berkeley while the serviceman sat in a jungle in New Guinea, near a man with a bandaged head and blood streaming down his face. The vet was 18 at the time.
Tharratt has shared tales from "the death march."
Near the end of the war, the German government emptied POW camps to prevent them from being liberated by advancing Russians. About 80,000 men were sent into blizzards to march west across Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany.