SIDNEY — Most people have heard that when veterans of the Vietnam War returned to the U.S., they were not greeted with open arms by the folks they left behind.
Because no said, “Welcome home,” to them, they began to say it to each other. Even today, 50 years later, when Vietnam vets see each other, the first thing they say to one another is “Welcome home.”
Not so with World War II, people think. Seventy years ago, when vets came back, there were confetti and parades and kisses in Times Square. The photos from that time confirm it, right? Right — but not always.
Jim “Doc” Fink, of rural Sidney, looked back recently to his return from three and a half years in Italy during WWII.
“I was in uniform, riding the train home (from the East Coast to Dayton). Not one person spoke to me. No one said, ‘Are you going home, soldier?’ That always bothered me. Not the people who worked on the train or the public. No one welcomed me home. That always bothered me,” he said, with tears in his eyes even 70 years later. “It still bothers me.”
Fink’s friends, acquaintances and former patients will have the opportunity to say not only “Welcome home” but also “Happy birthday,” during an open house, Aug. 22, from 7 to 9 p.m., in the IUE hall, 1330 S. Main Ave. The event will celebrate Fink’s 95th birthday, which is Aug. 21, 2015.
“We’d like the public to come. That would be awesome,” said Fink’s daughter, Marilyn Sanford, of rural Sidney.
Fink was born in Dayton, but moved to a farm near Jackson Center when he was 2. He graduated from Jackson Center High School in 1939.
“There were no jobs in 1939,” he said. He worked on a farm — not his family’s — for two summers for the princely salary of room and board and $7 per week. In 1940, he went to barber school and opened a barber shop in Sidney. But a year later, the U.S. was at war.
Fink traveled to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to enlist in the Air Force.
“I beat the draft by one month,” he said. “I get seasick, so I didn’t want the Navy. And I hated the Navy uniform,” he laughed. “I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the Army or the Marines, so I joined the Air Force.”
That turned out to be a good choice because Fink didn’t have to face combat. Now, however, he is hesitant to talk about his war experiences.
“Lots of other men did a lot more than I did,” he said.
Fink worked in a supply office, first in Algiers, for six months, and then for two and a half years in Naples, Italy. The office was responsible for assuring that airplane parts were shipped and kept track of all the paperwork.
“I don’t like paperwork, but it’s better than being shot at, so I didn’t complain,” said Fink, who did not carry a rifle in the military.
“I did have to endure the threat of bombing,” he said. In fact, the transport ship that took him from the U.S. to North Africa was bombed at sea.
“If you ever prayed, you prayed then,” he said. “We were bombed again on the shore. Fortunately, there were no direct hits.” In Naples, his office was about 40 miles from the front lines and was bombed steadily for about a month. After the invasion of Normandy, as the war began to wind down, Fink was able to travel during his time off. He spent a week on the Isle of Capri and two weeks in Switzerland.
Being in the Air Force, however, turned out not to protect him from seasickness.
“On the way home, the north Atlantic was stormy. I was sick for nine days,” he said.
Sanford remembered stories her dad had told in the past.
“He said they had to tie themselves in the beds so they wouldn’t fall out,” she said.
As he looks back now, he thinks that his three and a half years in the military were a waste of his time, “doing something that none of us wanted to do. But we had to do it,” he said. “I’d have rather been home trying to improve myself rather than be in the military being told, “Go here. Do this. Do that.” I’m not very good at that.”
At home, Fink went back to barbering for about six months, but his “wasted” time in the military provided an education through the GI Bill that took him to Columbus, first to Capital University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science, and then to Ohio State University’s dental school.
He opened his dental practice in the Ohio Building, where he stayed until he retired, at age 70, in 1990. But before he went to college, he married the sweetheart he had left behind to go to war.
“I told her, ‘I will not marry you and go away,’” he said. Fink and Lillian Faler were wed March 23, 1946. The marriage lasted two weeks less than 63 years. Lillian died March 9, 2009. The Finks have three children, Sanford, Greg Fink, of Sidney, and John Fink, of Marion. They have six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
The man who didn’t carry a rifle during the war came home to become a hunter.
“I love guns,” Fink said. “I love to hunt. I was involved in building the Shelby County Deer Hunter shooting range.” He took annual trips to Wyoming, South Dakota and Canada to hunt for moose, elk, pheasant and bear.
“We had that bear made into a rug,” Sanford said. “The moose head is stuffed on the wall. The deer head, a jackalope, pheasants. He had to build a whole room just for that stuff.”
The hunter is also an accomplished ballroom dancer and some dances are planned for the upcoming open house.
“I can’t do the swing anymore,” Fink said. “I had a lot of fun doing ballroom dancing. (Lillian) was always my waltz partner.”
A nine-year survivor of pancreatic cancer, the former dentist seems surprised to be turning 95. He credits his longevity to a good attitude and the vitamins and minerals he has regularly taken for the last 40 years.
“It isn’t easy when you’re 90, but at the same time, it’s fun,” he said. “My wealth in life is not money. My wealth and richness is meeting people that I used to work for and I’ve been their friend for 20, 30 or 40 years, and when they meet me, they talk to me. That is the richness that I enjoy. Money,” he said with a shrug, “is not that important.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824. Follow her on Twitter @PASpeelmanSDN.