Auburn WWII vets reunion

By: Melody Stone, Journal staff writer
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Every year since 1946 the men from Company E. 184 Infantry meet together in Auburn, right where they started. “You know ‘Band of Brothers’?” Duane Whaley asked, referring to the award-winning 2001 TV mini-series about US Army 101st Airborne division during World War II. “We’re the same thing.” Whaley said the camaraderie experienced between infantrymen is unbelievable. “You live together, eat together, get shot together,” Whaley said. “It’s something no one understands.” The men met Wednesday to eat together again for their 69th Annual Reunion at a Denny’s in Auburn. The history and camaraderie they share is evident in their conversations. On March 3, 1941 these men from the tiny town of Auburn signed up to serve and protect the United States. After some training they were shipped to the war effort in the Pacific, except Richard Hubbard. Hubbard went to high school with all the rest, but got a job in the Forest Service and didn’t go right into the Army. When all his friends left he decided he wanted to serve too and told the draft office when his name came up to get him right in so he could catch up with his friends. He ended up serving in a firefighting unit in Italy and around the Mediterranean. He never met up with his high-school buddies. That doesn’t matter; he still feels a strong connection with his fellow Auburn WWII veterans. Whaley joined the army before getting out of high school. He was 15, 6 feet tall and 150 pounds. The recruiter looked at him and said, “You look 18.” He said, “yep” and joined the Army. Whaley wears a hat adorned with medals and with the words “WWII and Korean War Veteran” embroidered amid the awards in yellow. He said the hat got him two first-class plane tickets to Pennsylvania and back. The fight attendant saw he was a veteran and made sure he got an upgrade. Whaley now lives in Corona, but still considers Auburn his hometown. Dick Ebbert, a 92-year-old, sports a long gray beard, and sits back quietly listening to the chatter around him. Whaley said Ebbert is the best Browning Automatic Riffle shooter the Army’s ever seen. “Was,” Ebbert protested, saying he doesn’t know if he could even dismantle the gun now. “Still the best as far as I’m concerned,” Whaley retorted. Allen E. Butler and Tony Trabakoolas served together in the Pacific. They helped land on Okinawa, Japan in April of 1945 and said they lost 90 percent of their company in battle. “Dropping the bomb stopped everything in its tracks,” Butler said. They guys discussed what would have happened if the US had launched a full invasion of Japan. They said none of them would be alive today. Butler served in the Army for 22 years, retiring as a major with four purple hearts. Trabakoolas retired from the Army after 21 years as a master sergeant. Trabakoolas said the army was the first place he had new shoes and pants and the first time he slept on sheets. “It was better than the dirty 30s,” Trabakoolas said. At the reunion luncheon at Denny’s Butler gave each of his fellow veterans a GI watch. “A little something from the old man,” said Butler, not the even the oldest of the group. “But I’m the old man,” Hubbard said, also not the oldest of the group. With the passage of time the men maintained a deep connection because of what they’ve seen and done together. Whaley said he went through three years of Veterans Affairs counseling. “What I saw and what I did are still here,” he motioned to his head. “Never goes away.”