Every Memorial Day I attend an annual parade in Mercer, Pennsylvania, which I never miss. It’s pure Americana: the flags, the kids, the snow-cone stand, the marching bands, the Shriners in their go-carts racing along, the local clubs and rotaries and 4-H, politicians from county government and borough council and everything else. And there are always veterans of wars past walking or riding down the street.
Every year, one exhibit always strikes me most: a car with a placard announcing the “Five Bailey Brothers.” The mere name always gives me a good feeling: Bailey. It reminds me of “George Bailey,” played by the great Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. That movie, of course, has a wonderful ending, a happy ending—and so does the story of the Bailey brothers.
After several years of watching the Bailey car ride by, I finally took the time to try to track down the last surviving Bailey brother: Richard, or “Dick.” I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he just happens to live in my own backyard, right here in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is 91 years old and sharp as a tack. I asked to meet with him, and if he minded me bringing three of my kids. He cheerfully obliged.
Born in Grove City on Christmas Eve 1922, Dick Bailey was one of five Bailey brothers who served in World War II. That’s right, five of them. You’ve heard of the Ryan brothers in Saving Private Ryan and perhaps the Sullivan brothers in the old black-and-white The Fighting Sullivans. And you know from these movies that the nation resolved not to have so many brothers ever again serve together in one war. The loss of one of them is hard enough for any mom or dad. Picture the unforgettable scene of the mother at a farm in the Midwest being informed of her loss in Saving Private Ryan. That scene is devastating.
To lose more than one son in a war, or three, or four, or, incredibly, five… that would be staggering. It would seem un-survivable.
Nonetheless, there they were: Dick, Jim, Fonnie, John, and Fred. Surely, some of them were wisely protected with a desk job on the home-front? No, all five Bailey boys were dispatched into enemy territory against Nazis and Imperial Japan.
“All had combat,” says Dick.
All had volunteered for combat after Pearl Harbor, and all faced it—Europe, the Pacific, Northern Africa; by land, by air, and by sea.
One of them, Fred, was shot in the stomach and taken prisoner of war by the Nazis. He was in Patton’s Third Army, the commander of a tank battalion. His tank was set ablaze by the Germans. When Fred rolled out, the Nazis were shooting, and he was hit. His next destination: a Nazi POW camp.
“The Germans didn’t treat him well,” said Dick of Fred’s time as a guest of the Third Reich. “Fred said it was horrible. They beat you around and everything else, even as you’re wounded. He didn’t eat half the time…. Fred was only 110 pounds when he came home.” He won a purple heart.
Dick was in the Army Air Corps, rising to the rank of sergeant. He and John were in the war the longest, both starting in 1942. He served on six different islands in the Pacific, including the Philippines. None of them were a picnic. One of them, Biak, in the Schouten Islands, was constantly being bombed by the Japanese during Dick’s eight-month stay. Dick remembered the bombing coming almost every night, late at night, at durations lasting typically two hours at a time. “You didn’t sleep very much,” says Dick in his typical understated way.
In all, Dick served continuously from December 1942 until January 1946. And it was truly continuous. “I was never home the whole time until January 1946.”
Think about that: Dick never got even one visit home. No time off whatsoever.
How many of the Bailey brothers ultimately made it home? That’s where the story of the Bailey brothers, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, has a happy ending. They all made it home. All five of them.
I asked Dick about the moment he finally made it home, for good. It was the winter of 1946, a blustery January day. For weeks, he had traveled countless thousands of miles from the other side of the earth only to encounter a terrific snowstorm as he neared Western Pennsylvania.
He took the train from Pittsburgh to Grove City. His parents now lived in the nearby little town of Harrisville, about 10 miles down the road. Because of the weather and other obstacles, Dick arrived very late at night and ended up consigned to a 24-hour diner in Grove City, held captive by no transportation and a foot-and-a-half of snow. Dick’s parents had no idea he was en route home. Amazingly, they hadn’t heard from him in years, and he hadn’t heard from them—such were the lines of communication, and secrecy. In fact, Dick hadn’t been in touch with any of his brothers either. For all he knew, they might be dead.
Because his parents had moved since he left for war, Dick had no idea of their address. At the diner, he saw an old buddy, who told him where his parents were living. With this useful new information, Dick made his way home. He showed up at his parents’ house at 5:00 in the morning and knocked on the door. The knock first woke his mother, who came to the door and saw her son for the first time in four years. She cried. He cried.
Dick’s mother and father then informed Dick of something he didn’t know, but was extremely curious to hear: All of his brothers survived the war. He was the last one they were waiting to hear from. All along, she had been hopeful. Her hopes were vindicated.
Dick arrived to a strange situation—a home with only his mom and dad. All of his brothers now lived elsewhere, two of them newlyweds. His two sisters had also since gotten married. It wasn’t like when he left. He had left a home of nine people. The war had emptied the Bailey home.
But, now all the Bailey boys were “home” regardless; they were alive. “Pretty lucky,” Dick says today. And prayer certainly didn’t hurt. Asked if his mother had been praying a lot, Dick laughed and said, “Oh, yeah.”
Interestingly, the five Bailey brothers never talked much about the war. Part of that was because they didn’t see each other nearly as much after the war. They all had started families, moved away, and were living their lives. “The five of us would get together and talk about it only rarely,” says Dick. “We mostly wanted to forget about it.” He and Fred talked about Fred’s arduous trials in the Nazi camp only once or twice.
Among the five, Jim never gave up combat, and paid for it with a life shorter than that of the other brothers.
Jim went on to serve in Korea as an Army paratrooper and then in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He became so skilled at flying a helicopter that he regularly flew one for the president of the United States: Lyndon Johnson. But Jim’s days were numbered. In one particularly perilous action trying to rescue American troops under enemy fire, Jim’s helicopter went down. It was October 9, 1969. He didn’t survive the crash.
“Once he flew a Huey from Washington home to Harrisville and landed it in a ball field,” says Dick. “That was the last time we saw him.”
Jim was buried in Arlington, the only Bailey not buried in Harrisville, Pennsylvania. He won three Purple Hearts, one in each of the wars he served in.
As for Dick, he came home and worked for the local Cooper-Bessemer plant for 44 years, plus a bunch of other jobs. Among them, he was a bus driver whose route went from Tennessee all the way to Alaska. While that trek sounds daunting, it wasn’t for Dick, whose love of anything with wheels and speed is legendary—literally.
Dick Bailey became a great racecar driver, one of the earliest members of Nascar, joining in 1950. He is a member of five racing halls of fame and (as we spoke) was readying for a trip to Daytona to be inducted into the “Living Legends” hall of fame. He raced in the first race run at Daytona International Speedway in 1959 (and also the last race at the Daytona road and beach course). He raced for 30 years until a bad accident in 1978 ended his racing career. He still owns and shows some gorgeous classic cars, and maintains a pilot license. The only thing out-populating the war medals in Dick’s home are the numerous trophies he has won for his driving prowess.
For Dick Bailey, he considers it a wonderful life. He’s aiming for another nine years—to make it to 100. And with his attitude, appearance, ability, and active life (he has never smoked or drunk, and doesn’t drink coffee), he might well make it. (I asked him, “You made it through the war without alcohol?” His reply: “Yes, and without cigarettes! No one believes it!”)
The war, like his life, has been “quite an experience.” I asked if he would do it all over again. He smiled and said, “as long as I came back alive.”
Dick Bailey did just that, as did all five of the Bailey brothers.
How can we honor them? We can honor them by not destroying the America that they were willing to sacrifice everything for. Hopefully it isn’t too late.