For WWII glider veterans, this could be the last reunion

Jack Cimino, left, in this scrapbook photo, posed with Jerry Barochin in 1945 in Sissone, France.
Jack Cimino, left, in this scrapbook photo, posed with Jerry Barochin in 1945 in Sissone, France. Charlotte Observer

The label on the bottle of French Chateau la Bastienne apple brandy is yellowing from age.

It was bought in 1977 by Wayne Pierce, a former Army colonel who stipulated that it not be opened until the last reunion of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment Association. Its members were World War II glider troops attached to the 82nd Airborne Division who fought from North Africa to Berlin and liberated a concentration camp along the way.

Saturday night, the bottle's red wax seal will be peeled away at a banquet at Doubletree Hotel in Charlotte's Gateway Village.

"This is the last reunion," said Jesse Oxendine, a retired Charlotte pharmacist who is the association's chairman and organizer for the reunion, which runs through Saturday.

Time is catching up to the 325th. Only a dozen veterans were expected to make it to Charlotte for the reunion that once drew 200.

Pierce himself died two months ago. So it's time to open the bottle.

"There're not many of us left," said veteran Bob Bridge. "We'll open the bottle, but I doubt anyone will drink it. We used to use this stuff for our cigarette lighters."

Will never forget the smell

The four veterans in Charlotte Thursday, including Oxendine and Bridge, were just teenagers (they're 84 now) when they joined the 325th as replacements in late 1944. By then, they'd missed the fighting in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and then the D-Day invasion of Normandy in northern France.

Jack Cimino of Sebring, Fla., wanted to be a Marine, but he had to finish high school in Baltimore first.

"They couldn't wait," he said. "So I stayed in school and three months later I was drafted into the Army."

After training, he boarded the USS Wakefield for the 14-day cruise to England. He was gravely seasick the whole way. Jerry Baroch, another glider troop from Baltimore, fed him water and crackers the whole way.

"He saved my life," Cimino said. "I named my son after him."

By the time the four made it to the 325th, the regiment was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge - Hitler's final charge that would be the largest and bloodiest land battle that Americans fought in World War II.

In early 1945, the 325th joined the British Second Army for the final push to Berlin. Oxendine's company crossed the Elbe River, determined to capture the town of Ludwigslust in the Mecklenburg region of Germany.

They found little resistance, as 150,000 German troops retreated from the Russians and surrendered to the Americans. Outside the town, they came to a cluster of several buildings wrapped by barbed wire.

It was the Wobbelin concentration camp.

Oxendine, a Lumbee Indian, had grown up in Pembroke in Robeson County. He'd never heard of concentration camps.

He was stunned by what he saw.

"It's amazing how people look alike once they lose flesh on their skulls and bodies," he said. "...They had on this pajama-looking clothing with stripes. I thought maybe it was an insane asylum, but then I saw the dead bodies. Then one of the boys said, 'I think these are Jews.' Growing up in Pembroke, the only Jews I knew were the Weinsteins in Lumberton; my family traded with them.

"I didn't know there was such hatred and resentment toward Jews."

He and the others would never forget the smell of rotting flesh.

"It was devastating," Cimino said. "It made your heart bleed for what came of these people."

"It took two or three weeks to get the smell out of your nose," said Tony Vallos of Chicago, another of the veterans in Charlotte. "There were 16-year-old kids who looked like they were 95."

The last time?

A general with the 325th sent for Germans in the village. He forced them to walk through the camp to see what had taken place. Few looked.

The general had farmers bring wagons and dig up a mass grave. He had French film makers document everything. He ordered the bodies buried in a park with graves dug by Germans.

"He made sure nobody would forget," said Oxendine, who with friend Henry Hirschmann, a Holocaust survivor from Charlotte, has gone into schools in recent years to tell the story. "Long after we are gone, the world can't forget that this took place."

This weekend, the surviving members of the 325th will sit and remember, retelling war stories that have been told countless times before - each time stretched, if ever slightly.

"It'll be for the last time," Oxendine said.

"That's what you said 10 years ago," Vallos said. "And we're still here together."