For 90-year-old World War II veteran Mahlon Conaway, driving 1,000 miles from his home in Perry, Iowa, to visit with his war buddy Leo Darnell at his Elkin home was worth the trip.
“A couple of weeks ago, I called him and he said come and see me while I’m alive,” Conaway said Friday as he sat in the living room of Darnell’s home sharing stories and reminiscing about their time overseas as soldiers in the U.S. Army 36th Division, 142nd Infantry, Company G.
In 1944 and 1945, the duo served in France, Germany and Austria, with Darnell getting a head start on Conaway serving in Italy first.
“We were together till the end of the war,” said Conaway.
“In 1986, we got in touch again when you came here,” Darnell told Conaway. “That’s the first time we’d seen each other since 1945.”
The company used to have reunions, Conaway explained, with soldiers and their wives getting together once a year in different places around the country. Conaway and his wife, Donna, who died eight months ago, and Darnell and his wife Velma would travel to meet up with other veterans.
The past few years, Conaway said, “I’d call on the phone and we’d yell at each other,” laughing about both now having hearing aids.
Darnell said he was in the battle that took the last hill to Rome. “It was a resort or motel there, and we fought all day and took it just before night. The next day we marched on toward Rome.”
“He was already there and experienced combat,” Conaway said of Darnell. “He kept me alive and kept me from doing something stupid.
“I always felt – the 101st talks about Band of Brothers – but I don’t think they have anything on us,” he said.
“Before the war ended, I got to go to the Riviera on vacation. I got picked to go. While I was there, I got new clothes and had my Eisenhower jacket tailored to fit me,” recalled Conaway. “When I got back, [Darnell] was picked to represent the company” and wore Conaway’s jacket. “I forgot and left my pipe in the pocket and something happened to it.”
Darnell said he bought a corncob pipe in the Riviera and brought it back for Conaway. “He decided to replace it in 1990, and by that time, he knew I didn’t smoke so I have a new pipe,” Conaway said of the pipe Darnell got him from the Sparta pipe factory.
The duo shared a story about coming up on a house that had been destroyed and the only thing left was a bed. So the two slept in the bed and beside them on the floor was a piece of German artillery. “You had so much of that danger,” said Conaway.
“So we’re blessed to have you two men sitting there talking to us,” said Velma Darnell.
“Our division was the third highest in casualties in the war,” said her husband, who spent a year in Korea in the engineers.
“I met him before he went to Korea,” said Velma of Leo. “On Friday, we bought our house, and that Sunday he got his papers to leave. I worked in Winston to furnish the house. He was happy when he got home with the house furnished.”
The Darnells celebrated 65 years of marriage in June, while the Conaways celebrated 67 years before Donna’s death.
“That was a good bunch of men and women we got to know,” Velma said of the comrades they reunited with each year. “I’m glad I did it while I could.”
Darnell and Conaway spent the weekend visiting and reminiscing before Conaway headed back out for his 1,000 mile trip home. The former truck driver said 1,000 miles or so “is not much to me. I have 3 million commercial miles, so this is nothing.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.