They fought for America's freedom in an earlier era. World War II fighter pilots had a specific mission and an identifiable enemy. Members of one elite Marine Fighter Squadron are sharing stories and re-living military memories at a reunion in Biloxi this week.
"We went in as kids and came out as men."
That's how one fighter pilot veteran described their service in Okinawa. More than half a century after their active duty, these World War II veterans still get together to swap stories and renew friendships. They endured a far different challenge than America faces today.
"Patriotic fervor was a different kind. We seemed to know our destiny, and I sense that today we're uncertain of the destiny," said Bob Muse, from Boston, Massachusetts.
These fighter pilots from VMF-323 shot down more enemy planes than any other squadron. Former Biloxi mayor Jerry O'Keefe was among the best. He took out seven Japanese planes on a single mission.
"Unfortunately, it's not as simple now as it was after Dec. 7, 1941, when we knew who the enemy was. We knew what we had to do. Now, we're uncertain," O'Keefe said.
Following Pearl Harbor, the lives of these men were consumed by "The War." Most were in the early 20s then. Military missions were easily defined.
"Duty officer would come around at say 10 o'clock in the evening and say you're scheduled for a flight tomorrow at four o'clock in the morning," Keith Fountain said. "I'd say, OK, and go right back to sleep."
Today's world and America's challenge are far more complicated. This older generation of freedom defenders agrees that the war on terrorism will be a long haul.
"I just don't have a feeling that it can be anything but a long, long pull for this generation. And their patriotism will get them started, a sense of sacrifice will keep them going," said Muse.
The "Death Rattlers" of World War II faced a much different mission.
"Everybody knew who the bad guys were. So, it's much, much different. A lot more complex and a lot more serious," Jerry O'Keefe said.
The fighter pilot veterans have been getting together for annual reunions since 1976. About 20 veterans are attending this week's gathering on the coast.