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    World War II airmen recall war stories, old comrades

    The Air Force Escape and Evasion Society's reunion was an opportunity to reminisce and be grateful.

    By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002

    TAMPA -- Philip and Claire Solomon sat side by side on the small settee inside Westshore's Wyndham Hotel on Saturday, their 59th wedding anniversary.

    "On our first anniversary I was missing in action," said Solomon, a World War II veteran who is in Tampa this weekend for the 38th annual reunion of the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society.

    Founded in 1964, the event reunites Allied airmen shot down during the war with the Underground resistance fighters who smuggled them to safety.

    Gazing at him when he is turned away, Mrs. Solomon, 82, examined her husband -- taking in his thinning hair and his hand next to hers.

    She smiled.

    "While I was home crying, he was in a wealthy's man's mansion," she chided with twinkling eyes.

    Solomon rushed to defend himself. He was in hiding with a man from the Underground, he explained.

    "Most of the time I was sleeping in barns," the 84-year old Las Vegas resident said, launching into one of the many war stories that echoed through the hotel Saturday.

    Solomon was shot down in Belgium on April 12, 1944, on his way back from an aborted mission. There had been too much cloud cover to complete it. One minute he was churning through the air in his B-24 bomber, and the next he was falling from the sky headed for a cow pasture.

    "I landed on a cow when I bailed out," he confessed with a grin. He and the bovine "didn't speak much after that."

    Stranded and unsure what country he was in, a group of people soon appeared and circled Solomon.

    "They didn't know who I was, if I was German or not. I didn't know who they were," he recalled. "A little boy about 14 years old stepped up and asked: "American?'

    "I said, "Oui.' Then they took my parachute and hid it."

    Solomon was guided from the site under cover of a tall cornfield as German soldiers searched for him.

    Months later, he and a growing group of downed airmen rescued by resistance fighters journeyed through France, sneaked across the Swiss border to the American embassy, and ultimately made it home.

    The Solomons, who had two children together and now four grandchildren, still remember the name of Franz Cauberg, one of the men who helped him.

    Solomon and his Cauberg often exchange letters and periodically reunite at the Escape and Evasion Society conventions they have attended for the last 15 years.

    "At this affair there are a number of helpers from Poland, France, even England and Yugoslavia," Solomon said. More than 150 people were expected to attend a dinner that night.

    He and his wife usually come to catch up, Solomon said. They also come to see who did not make it back this time. It used to be 200 or 300 participants at one time. "Now, we're dwindling," he said.

    Still, the couple remain devout attendees, saying that more than anything, they come to say thank you for their 59 years together to those who made it possible.

    "We were over there fighting a war for our country, and were fortunate," Solomon said. "Everyone should know about the people who helped us and how grateful we are."

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