WINCHESTER — The last time Navy veterans Harold M. Buckholz and Kenneth Bladen saw each other, the United States was at war with Germany in Europe and Japan in the Pacific.
On Aug. 25, the two friends reunited at the George Washington Hotel on Piccadilly Street. They hadn’t seen each other in 75 years.
Bladen, 95, was driven to the reunion by his son Rich from Hagerstown, Md., while Buckholz, 94, was driven by his son Wayne from Bridgewater.
“I can’t believe it was happening,” Buckholz said of getting to see his old friend again. “First of all, because of the length of time between the last time we saw each other, and secondly because of the age of both of us, which is kind of unusual that two buddies of the same age will still be alive in their 90s.”
The two veterans and their sons dined at the hotel and recalled the events that brought them together three-quarters of a century ago.
Prior to joining the military during World War II, Bladen was living with his parents in Capitol Heights, Md., and worked as an apprentice machinist at the Washington Navy Yard gun factory in D.C. He decided to enlist in the Navy after his cousin Delbert Weast visited his parent’s home in early 1943 and recounted his experiences in the Navy. Weast had lost several friends he served with during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly before the attack, Weast was transferred from the USS Arizona to the USS Hornet. The Hornet was torpedoed and sunk in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on Oct. 27, 1942. Weast survived the attack.
Inspired by his cousin, Bladen quit his job at the gun factory and joined the Navy.
Buckholz, who was living with his parents in Stafford County, said he volunteered for the Navy so he didn’t get drafted into the Army. He said the Navy “usually had three meals a day and a place to sleep at night.”
“I didn’t want to be digging fox holes and sleeping in the mud,” Buckholz said. “I just had a choice and took the choice.”
The two met at a bootcamp in Bainbridge, Md., in January of 1943. They were placed with about 50 other young men and underwent six weeks of training. Since Buckholz had high school ROTC experience, he was made a section leader.
After boot camp, both Bladen and Buckholz were sent to Jacksonville, Fla., for Aviation Ordnance training, where they became good friends.
“He has always been a fine guy to me,” Bladen said. “He had some military training in high school. That kind of put him in front of the class of anything we were involved with. He had experience. He was a good friend. I didn’t have any problems with him. He didn’t have any problems with me.”
After their training, they both were in the top 10 of their class and were sent to a naval air station in Norfolk.
“That’s when we realized we were going to spend a lot of time together,” Bladen said.
While in Norfolk, Bladen and Buckholz refurbished machine guns and other weapons of war so they could go back in service.
Bladen’s official title during World War II was a second class Petty Officer Aviation Ordnanceman for the United States Navy. He remained in Norfolk for the duration of the war.
“I was a support person,” Bladen said. “I wasn’t dodging bullets or anything like that.”
Bladen and Buckholz spent roughly a year together. Sometimes, when Bladen and Buckholz had a weekend off, they would drive to Bladen’s parents’ home in Capitol Heights.
“He stayed at my mother and dad’s home over the weekend with me,” Bladen said. “In the evening we’d go around Washington, D.C., and do sailor things. You know how that is.”
Other times, Bladen would drop off Buckholz in Stafford so that Buckholz could visit his parents. Bladen would then pick Buckholz up on his way back to Norfolk.
The last time Bladen saw Buckholz was before September of 1944. In late 1944, Buckholz became an Aviation Ordnanceman First Class and was sent to Sao Paulo, Brazil. He and a crew flew in PB2Y aircraft between the Brazil coast and halfway toward Africa as subhunters. Their goal was to look for any strange or enemy submarines.
“All I saw was a big whale,” Buckholz said.
After the German defeat in the spring of 1945, Buckholz said he was transferred back to the states and trained to use a PB4Y2 to prepare for an invasion of Japan. Ultimately, the preparation was for naught, as Japan surrendered in September of 1945. “Fortunately or unfortunately” Buckholz didn’t see combat, he said.
“If they hadn’t signed the peace treaty, we would have been in the air bombing the heck out of Japanese men,” Buckholz said.
Bladen and Buckholz never reunited in the seven decades after the war ended. The war killed Bladen’s older brother, Sgt. Calvin Bladen, who served in the Air Force. He was shot down and killed in Germany in September of 1944.
After the war, Bladen joined the Navy reserves and served in two different patrol squadrons during the Korean War. He married his wife Edna in 1947. The two currently live in Hagerstown. They have two sons and one daughter.
Buckholz married his wife Genevieve in 1950 and they had four children. They are currently living at the Bridgewater Retirement Community.
Bladen said he looked up Buckholz on the internet about 15 years ago and was able to get in touch with him over the phone, but the two never managed to meet in person until recently. A few months ago, one of Buckholz’s sons called Bladen and told him that Buckholz wanted to meet up with him. The two agreed to meet in Winchester, as it was a good midway point between where they are living.
“I really was anticipating the meeting with him,” Buckholz said. “It was just a unique experience to meet up with someone after that long of a vacation. …I enjoyed my time. I’m awful glad to have been able to meet an old buddy again.”