Veterans in war and love

Metro couple VIPS at exhibit’s grand opening

Orval and his stepmother didn’t get along. She showed no interest in moving out, so that left him with the hard choice. In 1942, with the world about to erupt in flames, he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. Pvt. Orval Kitsmiller of Wichita, Kan., was 15.

Half a continent away, a young woman felt like she had to do something to help her nation in the growing conflict. Martha Kautzmann of Miami married a soldier and wished him well as he shipped off to the Philippines. In 1944, she joined the Women’s Army Corps and did her part at an Alabama air base hospital.

Kitsmiller, a tank operator, wound up driving trucks after discovering that the tanks overseas weren’t the same as those on which he’d trained in the states. He witnessed the war across long hoods of tractor trailer-sized rigs that delivered supplies to the front lines of battle from North Africa to Italy.

He’d go on to fight in the Korean War and muster out of the Army in 1964. Married to an Atlanta girl, he’d drive a truck for decades as a civilian, retiring in Riverdale. He’s been a widower for eight years.

The young WAC served more than a year at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base) in Montgomery. She performed clerical duties for the base medical center’s surgeon, the roar of airplanes a constant reminder of faraway conflicts.

A Georgia native, she’d serve until the war’s end in 1945, then join her husband in Miami. Eventually, she’d divorce, remarry, move to Atlanta and open a travel agency in Roswell. The long-ago WAC, now widowed and named Martha Conway, lives there still.

Saturday, both are in New Orleans, where they’re guests of the National WWII Museum. On Sunday the museum, which opened in 2000, will unveil The US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. The $35 million, 96-foot-tall pavilion houses six aircraft, including My Gal Sal, a B-17 that crash-landed in Greenland 70 years ago and was restored during the past decade; What Would You Do?, an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to consider the ethical and moral decisions fighters faced; and a wall honoring World War II Medal of Honor recipients — all 464 of them.

Kitsmiller and Conway boarded the Megabus Thursday in Atlanta for the nine-hour ride to New Orleans — and for a trip back in time.

It’s a date, too. Not only are they veterans, but Kitsmiller and Conway are sweeties. They’ve been together for more than a year. At 88, they know a good thing when they see it.

They’re eager to see the museum, too.

“It’ll bring back a lot of memories — the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Kitsmiller, who can still wriggle into his old uniform.

Conway expects the exhibit to stir cherished memories.

“There wasn’t a finer time, truthfully,” said Conway. “This country was so united. We had one goal: get in there, get the job done and come home.

“And we did it.”

More than 16 million people served in America’s military branches during the 1941-1945 war and more than 15 million survived. Today, the nationwide ranks of World War II veterans have dwindled to about 1.4 million, about 29,000 of them in Georgia. The Department of Defense recently estimated that more than 700 die daily.

The statistics aren’t lost on Kitsmiller and Conway.

“We’re kind of fading fast,” Kitsmiller said. Then he laughed. “Me, I feel like I’ve faded more than an old pair of blue jeans washed in Clorox!”

The men and women who fought in World War II were a special bunch, said Deborah Lindsay of Marietta, a member of the museum’s board of trustees. Her father was a flight instructor during the war, sending pilots off to battles across the globe, and she grew up surrounded by veterans.

“There was so much about that war that could touch, inspire and intrigue you,” said Lindsay, a writer and historian.

And scare you to death, added Kitsmiller. Dispatched to North African in early 1943, he was “green as grass,” unschooled in the horrors of combat. At the Kasserine Pass, a Tunisian mountain gap under attack by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, Kitsmiller discovered that death respects no one — not even teenaged boys.

Once, too sick to drive, he stayed in a physician’s care while another driver took his place to deliver gasoline to the front. The truck blew up, incinerating Kitsmiller’s replacement.

“I still think about that,” Kitsmiller said.

Conway recalls a tornado that swirled across Alabama, injuring so many people that the base hospital opened its doors to civilians. A surgeon retrieved a long, wooden splinter from a boy’s brain — a miracle, performed under pressure.

The museum opened its exhibit a day early for Kitsmiller, Conway and other aging soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and others who heeded an urgent call seven decades ago. They’re getting the VIP treatment before the pavilion opens to the public on Sunday.

Kitsmiller and Conway, while grateful for the preview, are bemused by all the attention; they merely did what needed to be done. Now they’re getting a personal trip back to a time when the world sorely needed them.

Not bad duty for an under-aged truck driver and a hospital clerk.