They arrived with pep in their step via a customized cane, a walker, or marching straight and tall into the American Legion with the vitality of bulls on steroids in the proverbial china shop. These veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam, with one veteran holding the distinction of serving in all three wars, were arriving at the American Legion for their ‘meet and greet’ to become acquainted with their guardians and with each other before their September 30 Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. They are getting older, but not enfeebled; and to suggest such a thing could run the risk of having your noggin' walloped with that customized walking stick.
Only veterans understand the lifelong competition between the Army vs. Navy vs. Marines vs. Air Force. That’s what veterans do; that’s what veterans have earned. They poke fun at or roguishly insult each other as brothers do, but for an outsider to badger a brother could prompt a vindictive gaze, a word of warning, or the imprint of a customized cane atop the offender’s cranium.
It could be the first two paragraphs are prose of exaggeration and, well, honestly, the implied walking stick weapon is a bit of an overstatement. Yet these veterans, at least in their imaginations, were energetic young warriors again, willing to defend their country or their brothers seated across or beside them. These are the men of the September 30 Honor Flight Conyers trip to Washington, D.C. Twenty-five veterans, 25 guardians, two EMTs, professional photographer Gary Ezell, and two Honor Flight Conyers directors will board a Delta Airliner so these elder soldiers can visit their memorials, built to honor their service and to express the gratitude of a grateful nation.
Executive directors Dave and Anita Smith along with a board of devoted volunteers arrange three flights per year. Thus far Honor Flight Conyers has completed 13 problem-free flights with No. 14 scheduled for September 30. The vital pieces of the planning puzzle are numerous, such as, obtaining buses, exceptional assistance from the TSA, guardian training, procuring boarding passes, monitoring medications, snacks, water, three meals, wheel chairs, a special pass for the chartered bus to enter Arlington National Cemetery, booking a time to observe the changing of the guard at the Tomb of Unknowns, organizing police escorts and American Legion and Patriot Guard Riders, plus handling dozens of other factors.
Yet no complaints and no regrets. The completion of such a Herculean task is rewarded by the simple smile of a 97 year old veteran, a young admirer shaking the hand of a disabled Marine, the throngs of people and passengers and military personnel who greet the veterans at both airports, or an old seadog explaining to a class of eighth graders gathered at the WWII Memorial why a Navy destroyer is called a Tin Can. Every flight is different, each flight has its unusual moment of remembrance, every flight is special; all Honor Flights carry America’s best.
These are the men of September:
John Alford, age 71, USMC – John served two tours in Vietnam early in the war, 1964 and 1965, as crew chief aboard a Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw from the DMZ down to Saigon. He recalled, “We delivered everything, from troops to food to ammunition.” John’s chopper crew also called the Amphibious Assault Ship Princeton home for a few months, sailing and flying up and down the coast of South Vietnam.
Jarrell Anthony, age 92, Army – Jarrell served in the Pacific during WWII as a rifleman and later as NCO in a motor transportation outfit. He also pulled duty in the Army of Occupation in Japan and Korea.
James Bates, age 83, Army – James served in Korea with an engineering outfit maintaining K-2 Airbase at Teagu, Korea. A critically important air field, K-2 was one of the few air strips available for off-loading men and materials inside the Pusan Perimeter. Several big battles occurred near and around the base to prevent North Korean troops from crossing the Nakdong River.
William Blomelei – William served in WWII. His application is a bit late due to health issues, but he has finally been cleared for the Sept. flight. Welcome aboard, William.
Cecil Boswell, age 97, Army – Cecil served as a cook, all the way from D-Day until the end of the war in Europe. Dodging artillery, snipers, and mine fields, Cecil kept the boys fed. Asked if any soldiers complained about the chow, Cecil said, “Not if they wanted to eat.” Napoleon said it best, ‘An Army marches on its stomach.’
Homer Coker, age 92, Navy – Lt. Coker served as a beach master aboard the USS Menard, APA; attack transport. The Menard participated in the Okinawa Invasion unloading troops and supplies under the crosshairs of Japanese bombers and suicide planes. On April 1, 1945 gun crews on the Menard splashed an incoming suicide plane just off the ship’s port quarter. Coker and crew transported thousands of soldiers to various islands in preparation for the feared Invasion of Japan. At war’s end, the Menard delivered occupational troops to the nuclear-devastated city of Nagasaki.
Julius Davenport, age 92, Army – Julius served as an infantryman with Company B, 151st Infantry, 38th Infantry Division. He saw action in New Guinea, Leyte Gulf, and Luzon. His unit was known as the ‘Avengers of Bataan.’ On the retaking of Corregidor, he recalled, “We witnessed the assault by paratroopers from across the bay. Those boys had it rough, many didn’t make the landing zone; we saw bodies floating by. Later we assaulted an island shaped like a battleship, but the only thing we found was a fat pig that the 1st Sergeant roasted. After that we were preparing for the Invasion of Japan when the war ended. We partied, and partied, and partied some more. I don’t remember how long we partied and I don’t know where all that booze came from. Come to think of it, I don’t even know when I finally sobered up.”
Richard ‘Dick’ Grimes, age 86, Army – recently featured in “A Veteran’s Story,” Lt. Col Grimes served his country in postwar Germany, England, Vietnam, and several other countries plus attended advanced studies at universities and military colleges. A military authority in chemical and biological warfare, Lt. Col Grimes gracefully took a lot of good-natured teasing about ‘glowing in the dark.’
Robert “Roy” Hector, age 88, Army – Roy modestly entered ‘rifleman’ on his Veteran Application. I know this man, and I know his story. He was the second veteran I ever interviewed for “A Veteran’s Story.” A ‘rifleman’ yes, but a rifleman who was blown out of a second-floor window by a German grenade. Landing in a muddy snowmelt that broke his fall, Roy lay wounded for hours before receiving medical attention because the Germans were using Roy as bait to attract well-meaning G.I.s into their gunsights.
Chuck Hendrickson, age 84, Air Force – Chuck was an AP (air policeman) in the Korean War providing security and investigative skills. APs were sometimes the only defense against an enemy attack, especially during the early stages of the war. These men truly were, unsung heroes.
Harry ‘Fuzzy’ Jones, age 84, Army – Harry served in the 82nd Airborne as a BAR gunner and radioman. He volunteered for combat duty in Korea several times, but each time his orders were canceled. Later he found out the company commander refused his transfer to Korea because ‘he didn’t want to train another radioman.’
Herbert Mathews, age 90, Navy – Herbert had a WWII assignment most soldiers would envy: payroll and warehouse duty on Maui in Hawaii. “I was lucky,” he said. “We worked out of huge Quonset buildings helping supply the ‘green’ pilots with necessary equipment for training.”
Victor Merenuk, age 87, Navy – Victor was with the Naval Occupational Services on Guam. Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender took to the mountains of Guam and continued to fight long after WWII ended.
George McDonald, age 94, Air Force – George retired after 20 years in the Army Air Corps, later the US Air Force. His baptism to war came as a B-17 pilot with the 8th Air Force during WWII.
Ulysses Mitchell, age 92, Army – Ulysses served in Army transportation as a truck driver. He obtained the rank E-5 and received an honorable discharge in 1945.
Edward Parks, age 84, Army – Ed was with the Army Security Agency in the Korean War. Their motto, Semper Vigilis (Vigilant Always), gives a nice hint into their Intelligence gathering capabilities. Often referred to as Signal Intelligence, Army Intelligence, with nicknames like Tape Apes and Ditty Boppers, you’ll have to ask Ed what his duties were.
Byron ‘Ray’ Pate, age 82, Army – Ray served during the Korean War and in Crealsheim, Germany as a Battalion motor pool dispatcher.
Lee Shell, age 84, Navy – During the Korean War, Lee served aboard the USS Washburn (AKA-108), an attack cargo ship, as an Electrician Mate. The Washburn ferried supplies between Japan and Korea, participated in the Inchon and Wonsan landings, and at the end of the conflict took part in ‘Operation Big Switch’, the mutual exchange of POWs.
Wayne Shelnutt, age 100, Navy – Wayne was recently featured in “A Veteran’s Story.” Aboard the USS California on Dec 7, 1941, this Pearl Harbor veteran was the only surviving member of his gun crew. Later assigned to a destroyer, he and his shipmates ran out of ammunition supporting the Invasion of Normandy, sailed back to England, reloaded with ammo, and returned to the fight. Later in the Pacific, Wayne and his buddies participated in several invasions while fighting off Japanese bombers and suicide planes.
William ‘Bill’ Stubba, age 84, Army – A Korean War combat veteran, Bill fought on Heartbreak Ridge, the Punchbowl, and several other vicious battles. Asked what weapons he carried into combat, he replied, “Any weapon I could get my hands on.”
Harold ‘Whit’ Whitlow, age 84, Army – Attached to one of the first units to arrive in Korea, Whit fought all the way from the Pusan Perimeter to the border with China at the Yalu River. “That’s when Chinese soldiers poured across the border,” he said. “We were completely surprised. I am one of the lucky ones. Out of 170 guys in the platoon, only 30 of us made it out.”
Julius Williams, age 85, Air Force – Julius served during the Korean War in the legal offices.
Robert Williams, age 82, Army – Robert did his part in the Korean War as a member of the 176th Field Artillery Unit.
Jacob Wilson, age 94, Navy – Jacob is a WWII Navy veteran. We’re still awaiting his application, but he will be aboard. Welcome aboard Jacob.
James Wiseman, age 88, Army – Major Wiseman served in the Pacific as a forward observer for artillery, became a battery commander, and Ops Officer (Intelligence). He retired after a successful career in 1967.
Twenty five inexperienced young men, imagining themselves invincible, chose to don a military uniform when their country needed them. Now these Golden Age warriors will finally receive their merited reward, an Honor Flight to Washington, DC. Blue skies, guys.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.