In the closing days of World War II they filled the skies over Europe with their B-17 bombers from the 95th Bomb Group in Horham, England.
By the 7th day of May this year, 70 years later, those thousands of dashing young airmen had been reduced to fewer than 150 living air crew members.
But only 11 of those survivors were physically or financially able to attend the reunion of the 95th at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Some wore traditional aviator sunglasses above their hearing aids. Others wore original issue service caps and portable oxygen tanks.
Still others were in wheelchairs or using walkers. They struggled to stand. Their salutes were the best they could manage. As a group, they were short of breath but not a man was short of pride or patriotism or love of his comrades in arms.
Tears flowed freely as the names of the last air crew lost on May 7, 1945, were read during a solemn ceremony.
Hostilities had officially ended a few days earlier but their plane was shot down while returning to England after dropping food to the starving Dutch.
A German anti-aircraft unit that refused to surrender had fired on their B-17. That base soon was obliterated by other American planes.
My family had 29 of us that beautiful day in Dayton to support Grandpa Ray Hobbs, a 91-year-old former pilot in the 95th.
He hadn't flown with any of the 10 other veterans at the reunion but that didn't matter because they were bonded to each other by the same unit patch and the same wartime memories.
He is proud of his service to his country and of his time in the 95th. Sometimes he admits to being cocky back then as a 21-year-old aircraft commander responsible for nine other young men.
Despite near blindness, hearing loss, a limp and the toll of 70 years, I saw glimpses of that old swagger in Dayton.
Thanks, Grandpa. You earned it.