On this Veterans Day, meet a man who likes to say he was a "guest of the Gestapo" in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II, but refuses to consider himself a prisoner.
"All they had was my body," Merced's Peter Komlenich said. "My mind was home with my daughter and bride."
Komlenich has another distinction, too. He's the man who nearly started World War III.
"That would have been me," said Komlenich, who controlled four nuclear bombs in the belly of a B-52 during one Cold War mission.
As the generation of U.S. World War II veterans dwindles by 1,000 to 1,500 a day, according to various news agencies, there's been a frantic effort to chronicle the memories of those who served and fought. But then there's a guy like Komlenich, who spent 30 years in the military -- in the war and afterward -- and whose career had some equally important moments. None was more important than the day when he was perhaps an hour or so away from obliterating the Kremlin and all that surrounded it.
In October 1962, Komlenich served as a radarman/ bombardier on a B-52 with the Strategic Air Command at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.
The Pentagon had determined that the Soviet Union had been supplying Cuba with nuclear weapons, which the Soviets denied even as their supply ships were headed to the island nation 90 miles south of Florida.
President Kennedy confronted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and the Cuban missile crisis went from a simmer to a full boil. Kennedy demanded the Soviets turn their ships around before they reached a designated point on the map. If they didn't, Kennedy promised, the United States would attack the Soviet Union.
The Soviets ultimately caved, calling back their ships. What they probably didn't know is just how close they came to being attacked, Komlenich said.
"That was something," he said. "You never hear about this. Few people ever knew about it."
A day earlier, Komlenich and the rest of the B-52 crew bade goodbye to their families at Castle, their stomachs knotted from knowing their loved ones were at risk, too. Their mission was top secret. Komlenich could only act as if he were going on a normal training exercise, even though he knew that if the United States attacked, the Soviets would retaliate by hitting key military installations such as Castle.
The B-52 flew east overnight, refueling in midair just beyond the Atlantic coast and again over Greenland. The American plane, one of several involved in the mission, carried four Mark-VI nuclear weapons in its bomb bay, Komlenich said.
Their first of four targets would be the Kremlin, and they had reached the prescribed place where, if the Soviet ships didn't turn back, they would proceed with the bombing run that would trigger nuclear warfare.
Komlenich had studied maps and photos of the Kremlin, and he would have been the one to release the bombs that would have devastated the Soviet government complex and everything else within miles.
It was Oct. 28, 1962. The plane was in the air, waiting for the order to attack.
Suddenly, the mission was aborted.
" ... I heard a shout from upstairs that the Soviet leader had 'blinked first,' and Russian ships had turned back and we had received the 'Green Dot' message and could head for home," Komlenich wrote in his memoirs.
"When I got back with my family, I gave each one of them an extra hug and thanked the Lord for a safe mission."
Armageddon would have to wait for another day, and on someone else's watch.
Throughout his 94 years, Komlenich developed a penchant for coming home safe, if not always sound.
The Chicago native rode the rails as a hobo for two years as a teen during the Great Depression. He worked along the way for a home-cooked meal, but never for money.
Then, using a false birthday, he enlisted in the Army's Horse Cavalry in the 1930s. But he left rather than face a possible court-martial for giving the phony birth date.
He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, working on projects in the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri.
He returned to the hobo life briefly and then worked for International Harvester until 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Komlenich wanted to fly fighter planes. But by then he was 28, two years too old to enlist as a pilot. So he used the birth certificate of his younger brother, Louis Komnenich, to sign up. Louis was a Marine paratrooper missing in action somewhere in the Pacific.
The translation of his family name from their native Montenegran language on a birth certificate confused authorities, but allowed him to use his own name with his brother's birthday to get in, he said. The translation also explains why they spell their last names differently (Komlenich and Komnenich). In Montenegran, the "l" and the "n" look and sound similar. It explains why current state voting records list Komlenich as 91, when in fact he is 94.
"I was born July 3, 1913," Komlenich said.
He went to flight school but shattered both ear drums in training. After surgery, he was assigned to bombardier school.
"It turned out to be a blessing," he said.
As a bombardier instead of pilot or gunner, he was in the middle of a B-24 Liberator during a bombing run, when a swarm of German ME-109s shot down his plane over Italy.
"One guy, a substitute gunner, got killed in the turret," Komlenich said. "A life for a (trigger) finger."
Because it failed, Komlenich likes to say he flew only 12½ missions. He was taken to an interrogation center, then to Stalag Luft I, a prisoner of war camp in Barth, Germany, primarily for aviation officers.
One day, near Easter 1944, a German camp guard struck Komlenich as he stood near the fence chatting with some Russian women just outside. He defended himself and was hauled away for questioning.
He realized he still had, in his jacket, a piece of silk that bore a map of escape tunnels being dug. If they had caught him with it, he likely would have been executed and endangered his barracks mates as well.
He claimed he needed to use the restroom, and it flushed down the toilet on his second try.
Soon, though, Komlenich stood before a jury that certainly didn't consist of his peers. His trial for assaulting the prison guard was on.
"I was the only American in the room," Komlenich recalled.
The proceedings in this kangaroo court might have been downright comical had his life not been at stake. For there stood the strapping 200-pound German prison guard whining to a six-man, all-German jury that this emaciated 105-pound Yank prisoner of war had somehow violently assaulted him.
Then came the preordained verdict:
"In accordance with the Geneva Convention during time of war, you have been found guilty of striking a prison official. You will be executed by a firing squad as soon as arrangements can be made."
Some ranking American officers explained to the commandant why Komlenich should get a new trial.
" ... Colonel Spicer, Colonel Zemke and Group Captain Weir visited the German Camp Kammandant Colonel Warnsredt and told him that if anything happened to me he would be hung," Komlenich wrote in his memoirs. "Fortunately, the Allies were winning the war on all fronts during the Spring of 1944 or I wouldn't be alive to tell about this event."
This time, he got 30 days in the "cooler," a frigid form of confinement in German POW camps, and a diet consisting of bread and water every other day. But he lived to walk out of there when the Allied forces closed in, the Germans fled and the POWs took over the camp in April 1945.
Komlenich decided to stay in the military after the war and was assigned to the SAC. He flew in the B-36 program and then in the B-52s at Castle.
He spends much of his time these days at the Castle Air Museum educating visitors about the war machines and the men who flew them.
Two years ago, he finally returned the birth certificate he had "borrowed" from his brother in 1941.
Although Peter Komlenich loves to tell his stories about being shot down and becoming a "guest of the Gestapo," perhaps the more important mission of his life was the other one he didn't complete: The one in October 1962, that ended before he could start World War III.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.