United in War: They'll Always Have Casablanca
Reprinted with permission. For more on this story, please visit www.newsobserver. com.
By Martha Quillin
The Raleigh News & Observer
Since men first raised weapons against one another, wars have torn families apart.
Lee and Marie Schoen, of Pinehurst, will travel to Washington later this month to visit the national monument commemorating the war that brought them together.
He was a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Force, and she was an Army nurse when they met in the North African city of Casablanca in early 1946. World War II had ended, and both were trying to get home.
On April 18, the couple will be among about 120 area veterans on the final chartered trip organized by Triangle Flight of Honor, which began in 2010 taking those who had served in World War II to Washington to see the monument in their honor.
For Lee and Marie, World War II was a great adventure into what lay beyond their hometowns.
The United States had just entered the war when Marie started nurse’s training at St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn, right after graduating from high school in Long Island. Her mother didn’t want her to, but the family doctor said, “Let her go,” Marie recalls, and her mother did.
Through three years of school, Marie and her classmates shared a common goal of joining the Navy or the Army and serving in the medical corps.
“We all knew that’s what we were going to do,” she says. “We all hoped that maybe we would get stationed in Hawaii.”
The Navy wasn’t recruiting when she graduated from nursing school, so Marie joined the Army, but they didn’t send her to Hawaii. After basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., she was put on a ship and sent to Burma, a base of operations for Allied air forces working in the Pacific theater.
“The worst injuries we treated there were from Jeep accidents,” Marie said. She had been there about six months when the war ended and she was transferred to Calcutta, India, to complete her service.
Lee, meanwhile, was building a career as a military pilot. Also born in New York, he lost his father when he was 4 years old and went to live with his grandparents on a farm. He attended a one-room school and was bumped up a grade when teachers realized he would be the only third-grader. He was 16 when he graduated and went to work as a jeweler’s apprentice. He soon left there and went to work for more money at Eastman Kodak in Rochester.
He was just 18 when he joined the military and asked to be trained as an aviator. The Air Force obliged him in June 1942, sending him to Texas for training.
“I thought I’d never get out of Texas,” Lee says now, because once they had trained him, the Air Force wanted him to train others. He was finally sent overseas in December 1944, to India, and a month later was assigned to an air base at Kurmitola, Dhaka, in what is now Bangladesh.
Between January and August 1945, Lee flew 115 missions over “the Hump,” running supplies from India over the Himalayan mountains to China to supply Chinese and American forces fighting the Japanese.
“Getting shot down was the least of our worries,” Lee says. Crossing the Himalayas, weather and terrain were the real dangers.
At the end of the war, he too was sent to Calcutta to wait for his next assignment, which was to fly home a C-54 transport full of soldiers.
They made it as far as Casablanca before being told they couldn’t go any further without a navigator, and none would be available for two weeks. They were temporarily grounded.
So was Marie, who with some other nurses had been bumped off a flight in Casablanca and was waiting for another that had space to take them the rest of the way home.
For the next two weeks, they went to nightclubs and horse races, attended an opera, ate fabulous food.
“We drank a lot of champagne,” Marie says. The one thing they didn’t do was visit Rick’s, the fictional nightclub from the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman film, “Casablanca.”
When he finally got a navigator, Lee put Marie and her best friend on his manifest as passengers and gave them a lift back to Wilmington, Del.
“See you around,” he told her as they got off the plane.
“Call if you get bored,” she said.
He did. They reunited a few weeks later under the clock of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. He went home with her and met her family.
They married in 1946 and had four children. Lee had a successful 22-year run in the Air Force, including serving on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s crew from 1949 to 1951, before retiring as a lieutenant colonel and starting a second career as a maintenance test pilot with the Federal Aviation Administration.
They moved to North Carolina in 1989 after visiting the state many times to see their son, who also served in the Air Force and was based here.
She’s 88 now, and he’s 89, and they don’t travel as much as they used to. They visited the National World War II Memorial before it was finished, but the Flight of Honor is a different kind of trip.
These have been planned and largely paid for by the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association. Hundreds of people have helped, including volunteers such as Mariah Bridges, who has flown six of the seven previous flights, paying her own way and looking after several veterans on each flight to make sure they have what they need. “I have eight or nine hundred grandpas,” Bridges says, referring to the mostly male passenger list of all the previous flights.
If they could change anything, organizers say, they would have started the flights sooner, before so many local veterans had passed away or grown too frail to travel.
Automobile Dealers Association President Bob Glaser says the group will find other ways to honor the veterans they didn’t get to or who couldn’t make the trip.
Those going on the final flight will leave Raleigh-Durham International Airport early on April 18, tour the World War II monument and others, and come home to a public reception at the airport atrium that night. “Those people are the heroes,” Lee Schoen says of his fellow passengers.
For their part, his wife, adds, “We had a ball.”
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