“Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.” - Psalm 144:1
Their journey into greatness was set in motion on Dec. 7, 1941 at a Pacific anchorage called Pearl Harbor. Over 2,400 would perish that morning, yet today less than 2,000 Pearl Harbor survivors are still with us. Roughly 16½-17 million more Americans would serve in uniform by the end of World War II. Of those millions, less than 855,000 are still alive and continue to succumb at a predictable rate of 492 daily. Georgia’s surviving Greatest Generation has dwindled to below 20,000.
I respectfully offer a scripted eulogy for seven members of the Greatest Generation previously featured in “A Veteran’s Story” plus a respected colleague of the Atlanta WWII Round Table. For the many I’ve known who will not be mentioned, my sincere apologies, for they too saw, felt, tasted, smelled, and heard the horrors of combat. Maybe one day their stories, too, can be retold.
I first met Carl Beck at the Atlanta WWII Round Table. A tall man with a permanent smile, his bigger-than-life gaiety was unavoidably addictive. Only after his death did the realization hit me that I’d shaken hands and stood in the shadows of an authentic American hero.
Carl made his first parachute jump behind the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 over the French town of Baupte. He didn’t have much of a choice; the C-47 was on fire and going down. On June 6, 1994 for the 50th year celebration of D-Day, 69 year old Carl Beck made his second jump over the town of Baupte. Allowing no moss to sprout under his parachute, on June 6, 2004, 79 year old Beck made his third and final jump behind the beaches of Normandy.
But on June 6, 1944, 18-year-old machine gunner Carl Beck jumped into France with H Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. Landing nowhere near the original drop zone, Beck found only one other man from H Company, ironically his assistant machine gunner. They hid in a barn for three days until the noise of the 82nd Airborne advancing on the Baupte Bridge caught their attention. Problem was, Carl and his assistant were on the wrong side of the bridge.
Setting up their machine gun behind the Germans, Beck opened up on a concealed enemy position below the bridge, ricocheting rounds off the bridge trusses into the enemy position. Carl called his bullets Irish troops; Rick O’Sheas. His deadly aim kept the German engineers from blowing the bridge and allowed the 82nd to capture the structure intact. For his valor, Carl was awarded the French Legion of Honor (equivalent to America’s Medal of Honor).
Carl and his assistant fought on for several days until reunited with the men of H Company. Carl also jumped into combat as part of Operation Market Garden, one of the largest airborne assaults in military history.
After just one night of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge, the men of H Company counted 72 dead Germans in front of Carl’s machine gun position. But as American losses mounted, Carl could no longer engage in personal relationships, especially with tenderfoot replacements. He claimed it became too painful to watch them die.
Wounded by shrapnel, Carl received a paltry five days respite. Rejoining his outfit, he fought across Europe and Germany until reaching Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ near the town Berchtesgaden. There, Carl heard he had earned ‘points’ to go home, and go home, he did. The Spielberg movie, “Saving Private Ryan” was based on a paratrooper in Carl’s company, a man named Fritz Niland.
Carl also served during the Korean War. Master Sergeant Carl D. Beck reported for his final inspection on Sept. 13, 2015.
Ray Clay’s journey into military history began on Jan. 28, 1943 when he failed his physical for flight training. ‘You don’t weigh enough,’ a flight surgeon said. ‘Go home and gain some weight.’ Ray followed orders. He went home, devoured bananas and gallons of milk, reported back, passed the weight requirements, then proceeded to flight school and qualified as a B-17 pilot.
Podington, England: Ray flew B-17s on the deadliest missions in WWII, targets like Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Hanover, Berlin, Frankfurt, Kassel, and the killer of flyboys, Schweinfurt. He kept one souvenir: a big piece of flak that penetrated his B-17, whizzed around, and landed between his legs.
After completing 30 missions, Ray was sent home to train on new B-29s in preparation for the dreaded Invasion of Japan. He said, “Thankfully, that never happened.” He did, however, pilot B-29s during the Korean War. Later he ‘hunted hurricanes’ and flew into the eyes of the swirling beasts to collect data. Ray flew B-50s out of Saudi Arabia to collect air samples from Soviet A-bomb tests, piloted the first jet bomber the B-47 Stratojet, then completed his military career behind the controls of the huge B-52 Stratofortresses on nuclear-armed ‘Chrome Dome’ missions to keep Russia at bay.
Ray retired after serving his country 26 years then worked 15 years in commercial aviation. Colonel Ray Clay reported for his final inspection on Sept 21, 2015. Blue skies, Colonel.
Ralph Dunlap volunteered for Marine Recon. He stated, “That was the last time I volunteered for anything in the Marines.” From Tinian, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the recon Marines reconnoitered beaches ‘before’ landing boats ever hit the sand. They arrived in the dead of night via rubber boats or dog-paddling for over a mile. To swim normally would create tell-tale phosphorus sprays in the seawater that could give away their position. They carried one weapon: a K-bar knife for self-defense; their mission was to reconnoiter, not kill.
Their mission done on Iwo Jima, the recon Marines were sent to help secure a nearby island called Ie Shima. Ralph recalled, “The Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper’s bullet while we were on Ie Shima. Ernie was ‘our’ reporter; the guys loved him.” Ralph reconnoitered 52 beaches, including little known spits of sands like Kuma Shima, Kangoku Rock, Eniwietok, and Kutuka Shima. His salary was $50.00 per month.
Ralph and I formed an outstanding friendship. He was always polite; always the gentleman, but being a WWII Marine…well, you had to be on guard for his quick satirical wit. Ralph is now trading barbs at the Pearl Gates having been called for his final inspection on March 19, 2015. Semper Fi, my friend.
Roy Hector was pulled out of Army Air Corps training to fill the need for combat infantrymen. Once in Europe, he boarded an antiquated WWI freight car for the front, after which he walked into combat for two years. Roy fought in the hedgerow country, endured frequent bombardments from the infamous German 88mm artillery piece, carried wounded men to safety, and engaged in house-to-house combat. He said with a grin, “One private in our platoon thought he’d captured a German general due to his impressive uniform. The German turned out to be a trolley conductor.”
As a participant in the Battle of the Bulge, Roy narrowly escaped death several times. Later after crossing the Rhine River into Germany, Roy was helping a gun crew set up a machine gun position on the 2nd floor of a railroad station when a German hand grenade sailed through one of the windows. The explosion killed the gun crew but hurled Roy out the side window. He landed in a snowmelt suffering minor injuries, but couldn’t move because a German sniper was using Roy as ‘bait’ for more than two hours.
Recovering from his injuries, twice-wounded Roy Hector never received a Purple Heart. He said, “Shoot, we just got patched up and sent back into action.” He recalled his home coming. “No parades for me. I did get a free ride home from the train station but that was about it.” Roy reported for his final inspection on Sept. 6, 2015.
Gerald Hipps had a tendency to aggravate the US Marine Corps. As an impoverished child, Gerald received his first pair of shoes at the age of 12, but he was tough and a fisticuff aficionado. The Marines welcomed the feisty kid from Miami. Discipline, however, seemed a problem. His reply to a drill instructor of, “Man, you got to be crazy,” brought forth a punishment of a Hula dance with a string around his waist while picking up cigarette butts. Even perched naked on the barracks rafters with a rifle in hand, singing, ‘I’m a Gooney Bird from Buford’, didn’t break his rebellious spirit.
Having grown up hungry, Gerald volunteered to be a cook. That lasted less than two weeks. A mess sergeant saw Gerald practicing his curve ball by tossing Uncle Sam’s potatoes against a wall. The Marines took back Gerald’s kitchen apron and gave him a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). His next stop: Iwo Jima.
Gerald landed on Iwo with Easy Company in the first wave. Rushing off the landing craft, he was hit immediately by shrapnel. His wounds were treated by a Navy corpsman named John Bradley, one of the six famous flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi. Refusing evacuation, Gerald rejoined Easy Company and scaled Mount Suribachi. He was behind the flag-raisers “off-camera’ protecting them with his BAR. Ahead lay a solid month of bloody combat. Of Easy Company’s 240 Marines in the first wave, only 27 walked off the island. Nineteen-year-old Gerald Hipps was one of those lucky 27.
The Marines of Easy Company welcomed Gerald for his final inspection on Aug. 21, 2012. The VA refused Gerald’s benefit claims for wounds received on Iwo Jima due to a lack of documentation. Perhaps the VA will reconsider: shrapnel was discovered in his ashes after cremation.
Roy Reid copiloted the first American plane shot down in WWII. “We were unarmed and out of fuel,” he said. “We were in a flight of 13 B-17s arriving at Pearl Harbor after a 15-hour flight from San Francisco. The time was 0800 on Dec. 7, 1941. We were on a long base leg approach to Hickam Field when I spotted thick black smoke billowing up from the harbor. The pilot told me local natives were burning off sugarcane, but I kept thinking, ‘how does sugarcane grow on water?’ About that time two Japanese Zeroes jumped on our tail and opened fire.”
The enemy shells ignited emergency flares behind the cockpit, setting the B-17 afire amidships. “Our vision was hampered by all the smoke but we managed a rough landing on Hickam,” Reid said. “The bomber buckled, cracked, then broke into two pieces. We scrambled out and ran for the nearest hangar.”
The flight surgeon aboard Reid’s bomber didn’t make it. A low flying Zero strafed the survivors, killing the surgeon, but the Japanese pilot had been too aggressive: his propeller blades hit the runway causing the Zero to crash and burn.
Reid and crew grabbed weapons, offered assistance at a hospital, and survived the 2nd attack wave. Later in the war Reid commanded his own B-17 crew and flew 50 combat missions in the South Pacific. On one recon mission, Reid and crew fought off 12 Zeroes and knocked four of them out of the sky. Returning to base, the crew counted over 250 bullet holes and eight cannon holes in their bomber.
Reid remained on active duty and retired after a long flying career. An outstanding aviator, he bribed his way behind the controls of several American fighters in WWII, plus a British Spitfire, which he stole. But that’s another story.
Colonel Reid reported for his final inspection on Sept. 18, 2015. Another Pearl Harbor survivor has gone home. Blue skies, sir.
The incomparable Roger Sheridan. Not one in a million, but one for the ages. Roger visited 32 countries as a construction engineer, recognized twice in the Guinness Book of World Records for structures: the world’s deepest coffer-dam, Akosombo Dam, and the largest artificial lake, Lake Volta, in Ghana.
He attended West Point, but a bad fall resulting in two fused vertebrae ended his appointment. Undeterred, Roger attended the University of Utah and received an Army commission through their ROTC program. After serving at the Top Secret 1st Petroleum Production Depot in Santa Anita, California, Roger was en route to Europe to help turn back the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge.
While fighting on the southern flank, a half-track accident broke Roger’s back, again. A 3rd vertebrae was fused, and Sheridan was back in action with Patton’s 3rd Army. Sent aloft in the back seat of a Piper Cub as an artillery spotter, the plane returned peppered with bullets holes. When the pilot said, “That wasn’t as bad as yesterday,” Roger’s guardian angel told him to find another job.
On the ground, Roger’s unit ran into a German ambush. A bullet stuck his helmet and knocked him cold. He fell behind a stone wall which hid him from further harm. He stated, “That tiny stone wall saved my life.” One thing Roger could never erase from his memory was liberating the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. “We could smell it a mile away,” he said. “The furnaces were still warm.” Roger received a Purple Heart for wounds received during the Ardennes Campaign.
Excerpts from one citation: “….he manned a machine gun and forced an enemy anti-aircraft crew to abandon their weapon. …….he knocked out a truck loaded with enemy personnel and pinned down the remaining infantry. ……he engaged an enemy tank and forced it to withdraw.”
After the war, engineer Roger Sheridan worked with Navajos in Arizona surveying mine claims, worked construction projects in Kazakhstan and Asia, built installation in Vietnam while under rocket and mortar attack, and recalled the first, and last, time his wife Shirley drank camel milk.
Never one to stand still, Roger Sheridan ran for and was elected mayor of Newborn. Asked why mayor such a small town, he replied, “Oh, I need the money.” His annual salary was $1.
Roger was called home for his final inspection on Dec. 3, 2013, no doubt to improve roads leading up to the Pearly Gates.
Bud Sosebee lived the American dream and was the American dream. Born in impoverished Cabbagetown, as a young man Bud worked odd jobs to buy shirts and pants for school. He slid in under the radar and joined the Army at age 16. Sent to flight school, Bud was pulled out to fill gaps in the infantry. In Europe, history found a slot for Bud Sosebee.
He participated in the historic battles across Europe, witnessed horrors few people could stomach, met up with the Russians at the River Elbe near Torgau in Germany where he observed an outfit of Russian tanks commanded by Russian women, yet found the humanity to speak well of the German people.
After the war Bud earned three college degrees, succeeded in business and earned a pilot’s license. He was a scuba diver, a musician, and Rockdale County Commissioner for 12 years. As founding father of the Walk of Heroes War Memorial, Bud donned his WWII uniform to promote and obtain funds for the memorial, anywhere, anytime.
Such a short tribute does not do Bud Sosebee justice, for his story is the story for novels, not a newspaper. I knew this man, admired his love of country and belief in his fellow man. A valid exemplar of the Greatest Generation, as the cliché confirms, ‘they just don’t make them like this anymore.’ Bud reported for his final inspection on March 29, 2015, no doubt Saint Peter required assistance on a heavenly memorial.
If you see a veteran, if you know a veteran, just walk up and say, “thank you.” They have at least earned that.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.