Three weeks ago, Johnny Wearing learned that the liver cancer he’d been battling for years had progressed for the worse. The 92-year-old World War II veteran has a few weeks, maybe a few months, to live.
Despite a long and fulfilling life — one filled with children, grandchildren, tons of friends and a love for singing in a barbershop quartet — the news was depressing and difficult to digest.
Then friend and confidant, Matthew Seely, 55, pointed out a bright spot.
“I said, ‘Johnny, you have a chance nobody gets. You can say good-bye,’” recalled Seely, whose father Russ had been best friends and singing partners with Wearing.
Sunday turned into just that. Setting aside funds that would have typically been earmarked for a memorial luncheon, Seely helped organize a Goodbye Celebration instead.
A living wake, the day including people from all corners — and eras — of the Detroiter’s life. There were friends from the Barbershop Quartet Society, a community Wearing has been a part of for nearly seven decades. There were the children of Wearing’s fellow World War II bomber crew members, sons and daughters who flew in from across the country to commemorate not only Wearing but also their own fathers. And then, of course, there were the family members and Michigan friends he had touched over the years.
Walking around the Walter F. Bruce VFW Post in St. Clair Shores, with a glass of white wine, Wearing, a slight and ebullient man, with a thin gray mustache, was able to say thank you and good-bye to the people most important to him. More so, he could sit in and witness how his life — a remarkable one at that — was celebrated and remembered by those that loved him most.
“I am so happy so many folks are here and are having a good time,” Wearing told the crowd of family and friends. “I love you all. Each of you has touched me in a special way, and I hope in some way I’ve been able to touch you as well.”
A bonafide member of the so-called Greatest Generation, Wearing was born and raised in Detroit. In August 1943, two months after graduating from Eastern High School — a since-closed school at the intersection of Mack Avenue and East Grand Boulevard — Wearing was drafted into the Army. Just 19 years old, he went on to serve as a tail-gunner on a famed B17 nicknamed the “Five Grand” — the 5,000th B17 produced by Boeing after Pearl Harbor. Wearing went on 35 missions in just five months.
“When I met him at the International Conference on World War II in New Orleans a couple years back he told me he had flown in 35 missions. I couldn’t believe it,” said Derek Reynolds, a retired lieutenant colonel who traveled from Georgia for Wearing’s celebration.
Reynolds, who works as a historian today, said Wearing showed up the next day with proof: a log of all of his missions. Intrigued, Reynolds ended up interviewing Wearing about his experiences for an article on the “Five Grand.”
According to Reynolds in 1944, as the war began to drag on and morale began to plummet, Boeing came out with “Five Grand.” Produced in Seattle, the plane was unique in that everyone who helped build it — Boeing employees and subcontractors — signed it. In the end, there were 35,000 signatures on the plane.
From his research, Reynolds found that Wearing’s B17 team flew the “Five Grand” on nearly a quarter of their 35 missions, which included Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
Notably, because Wearing’s crew flew in French campaigns, Reynolds is submitting the 92-year-old for a French Legion of Honor Medal.
“It’s a big deal. It’s a huge, huge deal,” said Reynolds, who had to grab a copy of Wearing’s identification at the party so he could submit the paperwork Monday.
Others in attendance who recognized Wearing’s war efforts included the children of his crewmates. Brothers Gary and Peter Weise flew in from Florida and New Jersey, respectively. Their father, Harry Weise, was a co-pilot in Wearing’s crew.
Susan Brockman Hinchman, whose father Roy Brockman was the pilot, traveled with her husband, Ben Hinchman, four hours from Cincinnati to be at the event.
“After the war, everybody dispersed to their hometowns and went back to their lives, got married, had their families, got very involved in their own lives and individual families. But as we, the next generation, moved on, they got back together,” Brockman Hinchman, tearing up, explained.
To celebrate Wearing — and his legacy — was to also celebrate their fathers.
“B17 crews were a family unto themselves. They were extraordinarily tightly-knit, they looked out for each other and they became family,” Ben Hinchman said.
During World War II, the Army Air Force began to set limits on the number of missions soldiers could participate in. The number had been 25, but it was raised to 35. Wearing’s last mission was in December 1944. “Our Christmas Present to Adolph,” he wrote in his log. So eager to come home, however, he forgot to put down the target, he said.
When he did come home he was able to start a family. He and his wife, Margery, had three children together: Tom, Jon and Rick. They lived on Detroit’s east side — at Gratiot and Six Mile — for the first six years of the eldest Tom’s life, but then moved to Grand Rapids for a job opportunity. Wearing worked in sales all of his life, retiring only in the past few years. Soon after they moved again for another job opportunity in Niles, Mich.
It was there that Wearing discovered the Barbershop Quartet Society. An avid singer, who participated in his church choir, Wearing was at first reticent about joining — “I don’t cut hair!” he told his wife when she first suggested it. But after getting involved he became hooked.
Singing was an integral part of Sunday’s festivities. Since Wearing has been in more than 40 quartets over the years, many singing partners were on hand. Impromptu a cappella sessions occurred throughout the day, including many with Wearing himself.
“He likes being on stage, that was what he was all about, singing, being on stage, that was what he was all about,” said son Tom.
Gazing over at his dad, who was in the midst of greeting his many adoring party revelers, Tom smiled.
“I was always in awe of his energy and positivity. To me that’s what he’s always been,” he said. “He just worked so hard. He never made a lot of money, but I never wanted for anything. He was able to make a good life for us and ourselves. He made a lot of wonderful friends over the years. He lives his life with rare joy, I wish I could be more like him, I tend to be more … realistic. he’s just an amazing fellow.”
By Allie Gross, Detroit Free Press
©2017 Detroit Free Press, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.