MIDTOWN, Manhattan (PIX11) — Veterans Day is set aside each year to give a grateful nation an opportunity to pay tribute to its war heroes, past and present. 

For those veterans who have been in combat, the time has healed many wounds, but the memories of the conflicts in which they served still linger. A small group of veterans of past conflicts recently reflected on the days they served aboard a warship now docked in the Hudson River. 

The mighty Intrepid, the valiant warrior the Japanese couldn’t sink, survived not only the relentless Kamikaze attacks during the turbulent years in the Pacific but also the bombardment it endured during the Vietnam war and the nuclear threats during the Cold War. After 31 years in combat, the aircraft carrier was retired and is now the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. 

Shortly before Veterans Day, three former crewmembers met with PIX11’s Marvin Scott to talk about the days they served aboard and to reflect on the recognition the nation gives to its veterans.

Charles Wladyka, who was 18 when he spent the first of his three tours aboard the Mighty I, said, “It’s nice the country now appreciates the men who paid a price for our liberties.” 

But, it was quite different when he and then 22-year-old shipmate Jerry Feola returned from their service during the Vietnam war more than 50 years ago. They were victims of the nation’s anti-war sentiment. 

“The American people were spitting at us and calling us all kinds of names. When we got off that ship, the officers said, ‘Make sure you get out of that uniform because you’re not going to be welcome,’” Feola said.

Bobby Cassara, who was engaged in anti-submarine warfare during the Cold War, said, “It’s different today. I’ve got people coming up to me on this ship and telling their children to thank this man who was in the service. ‘Tell him, thank you for protecting us.’”

Walking through the Vietnam exhibit, Brooklyn veteran Feola found something personal among the artifacts. 

“This is the letter here,” he said. “That’s the letter to my girlfriend. We wrote 100 letters to each other. I married her one-and-a-half years after we got back.” 

As the war raged in Vietnam in 1967, the USS Intrepid played an integral combat role. Time has passed for Feola, but not the memory of a then 22-year-old third-class petty officer who was flying aboard a Skyraider aircraft high above North Vietnam. 

“I saw a missile come off the rail and it came right by us by about 100 yards and it scared the heck out of me,” he said. “The thing was going much faster than we could fly. The pilot did a maneuver and it missed us.”

Charles Wladyka said he grew up fast during his years serving aboard Intrepid. He remembers it well.  

“I came aboard a wet, behind-the-ears 18-year-old and I walked off four years later as a salty second-class merchant mate,” Wladyka said. “I was a man. I grew up in four years.”

The Cold War and the Russian nuclear threat unnerved an entire nation. Intrepid veteran Bobby Cassara has vivid memories of that threat. 

“We had Russian subs with nuclear missiles right under our task group, Russian trollers and Black Bears coming into our air space,” Cassara said. “It was an adventure for me, a guy from Brooklyn, to be a part of something so big.”

Time may not heal all wounds, but a good dose of love for our veterans from a grateful nation certainly is a good shot in the arm. 

“We are all recognized as veterans and they give us great honor, and that’s wonderful today,” Feola said.

For the veterans who served aboard her for past generations, the Intrepid is a ship of memories. For future generations, it is a floating monument, a museum rich in lessons of war at a time of peace.