It was Valentine's Day, 1945 and 20-year-old Private First Class Bob Jacoby was lying badly wounded from a mortar attack on the floor of a farmhouse in Belgium. The fighting was part of the aftermath of the bloody winter campaign known as the Battle of the Bulge. Alone in the house on top of a hill that overlooked Hitler's infamous massive fortification, the Siegfried Line, Jacoby was unable to move. "I heard boots coming up the stairs and I knew it was the Germans," he said.

As a Forward Observer, part of a three-man team that scouted ahead of the troops and sent communications back on conditions and enemy positions, Jacoby had become a fatalist.

"I figured if it was my time, it was my time," he said. As the German soldiers filled the room, he was prepared to die, but one of the men bent down to help him. "He must have been a medic," reflects Jacoby, "he put sulfa powder on my wound and then he held my hand and said 'You're going home.'"

The Germans left and Jacoby heard firing nearby. Then a platoon of U.S. military rushed in to rescue him, sliding him down the snow-covered hill on a stretcher. "It was like a dream," said Jacoby. "Then I heard someone say, 'Don't worry, we got those Jerries', and I could only hope that didn't include the young soldier who helped me."

For his actions in this and several other combat situations, as a number one gunner on a 105 Howitzer crew and as a Forward Observer, Jacoby received the Silver Star, a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.

Jacoby now resides in Petaluma and is part of an ever-diminishing number of local World War II Veterans. In Petaluma, they are united by someone who shares their spirit, if not their experience — Joe Noriel.

Past President of the Petaluma Historical Museum and founder of a nonprofit called History Connection, Noriel is dedicated to bringing "living history" to new generations so that they gain an appreciation of the tremendous sacrifices that were made by these men.

He recently organized an event at Valley Orchards Retirement Community, where Bay Area World War II hero Phil Arnot spoke and was honored, drawing a crowd of veterans who remembered the war together.

Each had their own story, some more dramatic than others, but each played an integral part in that historic war.

The Battle of the Bulge, where Jacoby fought, was the largest and costliest battle in terms of casualties for the United States. More than 600,000 American troops were involved, with an estimated 81,000 killed. The Germans sustained a loss of more than 100,000 men.

At the time, World War II was being fought on two fronts thousands of miles apart and in radically different conditions, from centuries-old European cities and bucolic countryside to the sweltering and largely unknown tropical islands of the South Pacific. In both arenas, and on the ground or in the air, hundreds of thousands of Americans stepped up to serve in a valiant effort to protect their country.

Second-generation Petaluman Arthur Cader was determined to join the Army Air Corps (as the Air Force was known then), but with only a high school education, he knew he had to prepare for the exam. While working for his father in a hide and leather business, Cader spent his evenings in the library, reading and studying. "I knew it would be tough, but I wanted to be a pilot," said Cader.

In 1942 he was accepted into the Army Air Corps and underwent flight training to become a B-24 pilot, then was deployed to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Now Lt. Cader, he took command of a crew of 10, most of whom were with him on the 46 missions he flew. Unaccompanied by fighter escorts for most of the flights, the skies were especially dangerous for the B-24s, but Cader never lost a plane or a crew member. "We had a good crew," said Cader, "and my job was to do the right thing to get the job done."

In the early hours of Sept. 30, 1944, American bombers took off from a makeshift airstrip on the island of Noemfoor, just off New Guinea. "We had to be airborne by 4 a.m.," said Cader. "If we weren't, we'd come back after dark and it would be impossible to find the island and land the planes." To reach the Japanese occupied oil refineries at Balikpapan, Borneo, the Bomb Groups had to fly a round trip of 2,610 miles over open ocean and enemy territory. "It was the longest daylight mass formation bombing mission ever flown by B-24 aircraft. We were in the air 15 hours, operating on pure adrenaline," said Cader.

Met with more than 25 Japanese fighter planes, called MiGS, the squadron went into a tight formation and started their bombing run, turning the oil fields into an inferno. As he pulled out of his run, Cader, who had the number three plane, saw a single fighter plane streaking relentlessly towards the lead B-24. Its anti-aircraft guns struck home and the plane spiraled downward. Five men managed to parachute out, but the MiG fighters killed all five. Another five then jumped, and seeing this, Cader took his plane out of formation and flew down, shielding them and pulling the enemy fire.

With his aircraft crippled by the attack, Cader set course for Noemfoor, coaxing his badly damaged plane to make the 1,000-plus mile flight back; miraculously his was the first plane to return. He ended his tour as a captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism.

When Cader is asked the question: "What do the American people owe the World War II veterans?" His answer is simple: "Their lives."

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com.)