As he hunkered down in a foxhole at an English airbase, trying to escape German rockets buzzing overhead, George Brienza questioned whether he would get to see his wife and two daughters in Colorado again.
On Saturday, Brienza celebrated his 100th birthday in the Arvada home of his niece, surrounded by family that had traveled from all over the country.
“I was always scared. They bombed us 24 hours a day,” recalled Brienza. “War is nothing but death and destruction.”
But the experience also helped him learn to live life in a better way.
“It taught me to love people, and to keep my nose clean,” said Brienza. Among his rules for making it to 100 — don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t run around and keep family close.
“Love a lot, love your family, love people,” said Brienza, who has 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
World War II veterans are rapidly exiting the stage — and departing with them are their memories and stories. In 2005, there were 39,400 World War II veterans living in Colorado, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of last year, there were fewer than 13,400 left.
Brienza grew up in a small house in north Denver, across the street from the now-closed Patsy’s Inn, near Mount Carmel Church. He was the second oldest of six children born to immigrants from Potenza, Italy, who made a living raising goats they herded from Navajo Street to a farm in the Westminster area.
As a machinist and welder, Brienza had skills the military put to use during World War II working on B-26 bombers as part of the Eighth Air Force’s 387th Bombardment Group.
Brienza was the crew chief tasked with making sure one plane in particular, the Ollie-L, operated safely. Pilots came and went, but he stayed with Ollie-L.
“We flew 153 missions with nobody hurt or killed,” he said.
The B-26, known as the Marauder, was smaller and with a shorter range than the B-17 bombers that captured popular imagination. But the bombers played a critical role in softening German defenses. They helped set the stage for the D-Day invasion, relieved the besieged 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and took out the dreaded V-weapon sites that terrorized the British.
Brienza recalls the first time he saw a V-rocket, or buzz bomb, basically a 500-pound projectile with a flame trailing behind it. He mistook it at first for the burning engine of an exploded plane, not knowing he had just witnessed a weapon that would transform modern warfare.
Every time the Ollie-L and its crew left to cross the Channel, Brienza said he sent up a prayer with it. It always came back. He said he knew the Ollie-L was special when he removed a piece of German anti-aircraft shrapnel from its roof. Inscribed on it was 717, the plane’s call number.
To his dismay, a rookie pilot on a training flight came in short of the runway and wrecked the storied plane, something the Germans hadn’t been able to do.
“It was one of the worst feelings,” he said.
When Brienza returned from the war, he found a job with the U.S. Postal Service, spending 30 years there and raising a family. After his wife died in 1988, he met and married a woman 27 years his junior, Jean, bringing a second family into his circle.
Working on aircraft took a toll on Brienza’s hearing. And his eyesight is failing. But his mind remains sharp. He was surprised his phone was silent on the morning of his 100th birthday, unaware of the bigger surprise that was waiting for him that afternoon.