Max Massey, an Aventura resident, celebrated more than his 94th birthday on April 6.
He received a visit from his World War II Air Force buddy, Joseph Beale, 91, who flew down from South Carolina for the special occasion.
Their reunion was nearly 70 years in the making — the two hadn’t seen each other since Oct. 19, 1945 in Okinawa, Japan, although the two have kept close through frequent correspondence.
Flipping through old photographs at Massey’s daughter’s condominium, the duo finished each other’s sentences as they recounted the war they endured together.
They recalled a tragedy from 1945 when they were stationed in Mindoro, Philippines.
“I was out behind the tent, shaving, because it was Sunday,” Beale said.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just died, and in reverence, an American Flag was flying at half-mast on the compound.
A B-25 “Fat Cat” plane was coming in low to give a message to the troops. The pilot underestimated his altitude, because he figured the flag was raised to the top of the flagpole. As a result, the plane clipped the top of the pole and tore off one of its wings.
“I saw that plane from the back of my tent blow up and burn down by the chapel,” Beale said.
As a chaplain’s assistant, Beale’s job was to pick up body parts and help bury the dead.
That day, he was also ordered to search for artifacts at the crash site.
“All I found, and I’ve still got it, was a wedding band,” Beale said. “To think that we had to send the message to the people they were kin to.”
He began to tear up.
When they left Mindoro for Okinawa in August of 1945, some Japanese Kamikaze planes attacked their convoy of nearly 100 U.S. ships.
“They already had their funeral,” Beale said about the Kamikazes. “They were in the cockpit and ready to die. They didn’t care what happened to anyone else.”
Luckily for Massey and Beale, one of the “suicide planes” overshot their ship, but it was only by 20 feet. The captain had managed to sail in a zigzagged pattern to avoid being struck.
But about 20 other American ships were hit.
“We watched the G.I.’s slide off the side of a ship,” Beale said. “The orders were don’t stop for anything and here were our own troops floatin’ around in the water.”
Their ship had to keep pushing forward.
Throughout their tour and into civilian life, religion played an important role for the two Air Force vets.
Massey acted as a rabbi overseas and led minyans — Jewish prayer groups of 10 people each to represent one of the Ten Commandments. Because there were only six Jewish G.I.’s in their outfit, Beale and others volunteered to take part in the worship.
After the war, Massey served as president of the B’nai Israel synagogue in Spartanburg, South Carolina from 1963 to 1965. Beale attended the Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta and became a Presbyterian preacher. He went on to preach in South Carolina for many years.
In addition to his religious obligations, Massey continued to operate his chain of discount clothing stores, Kiddie Korner, which he had started with his sister and brother-in-law before he enlisted. By the 1950s, Kiddie Korner had 21 stores all the way from High Point, North Carolina to Miami.
Over the decades, the two friends have kept close through frequent correspondence.
“No more than a month goes by without a letter or a phone call,” said Terri Brown, Massey’s daughter.
To their knowledge, they are two out of only three veterans who are still alive from the 58th Air Service group, which once housed more than 250 officers.
And so Brown wonders – why were they so fortunate to be alive and get to pass on these stories?
Perhaps the men said it best when they said, “we fought for each other.”
Massey added, “After all, everybody was saving each other’s lives.”