Some of the women at the Depew Senior Center didn't understand what Edward H. Kaczmarek was talking about when he told them stories of flak peppering the plane he flew in during World War II bombing runs against the Germans.
Kaczmarek decided it would be better to show – rather than to tell about – the relentless and menacing projectiles fired from anti-aircraft guns.
So the 96-year-old veteran recently showed up at the senior center with a piece of flak he had kept as a reminder of the 51 bombing missions he had participated in over Europe, pulling double duty as a radioman and a 50-caliber machine gun operator.
"The piece of flak that I showed the ladies is maybe 2 1/2 inches long and about three-quarters of an inch wide. They were surprised when they saw it. They could understand what I meant when I said we had all kinds of flak shot at the plane," Kaczmarek said.
But you had to be there to really grasp just how dangerous the situation was inside the B-24 Liberator.
"When the flak hit the fuselage, it would explode like a big firecracker. What makes me wonder is why nobody ever got hurt when we flew our missions," said Kaczmarek, who served with the 26th Bomb Group. "I was part of a 10-man crew, six officers and four non-commissioned officers."
Stationed in Italy some 30 miles from Rome, he says he and other crew members dropped shiny strands of material into the air as they approached a target in an attempt to mislead enemy anti-aircraft gunners into shooting at the diversion instead of the plane.
Maybe that's why no one in his crew was ever harmed.
But there were close calls.
"A couple times we were getting ready to ditch the plane in the Adriatic Sea, but the pilot and copilot managed to get us back."
Edward H. Kaczmarek, 96
Branch: Army Air Corps
Rank: Technical sergeant
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: Drafted, 1943-1945
Most prominent honors: Air Medal, World War Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: Radioman and gunner aboard B-24 Liberator bomber
Crews, he said, lived for the magic number of 50 missions. "Then you could go home."
Many never hit that number because of the flak. And that almost proved to be the case for Kaczmarek and his companions.
"Our 50th mission actually counted for two missions because of the distance we traveled and because we were overloaded with bombs. We went to the Ploiesti oil refineries in Romania and bombed them," he said.
The enemy's ammo knocked out two of the plane's four engines. On top of that, fuel ran low.
Somehow, though, they made it back to Italy.
"It was just about the most dangerous combat mission we went on," Kaczmarek said.
Back in the United States, he worked as a machinist and after 10 years of dating the former Jessica Zasowski, they married and raised a family of two daughters, Michelle and Sally.
WWII, he says, is never far from his thoughts.
It comes up in discussions at the senior center and when folks stop by his home.
"We had a professional photographer assigned to our bombing crew and I have lots of photographs that I show."
And there's that piece of flak.