World War II Heroes Venture to D.C.
By DAVE BERRY
From the start it was evident this would be no ordinary adventure.
The cheers and accolades of East Texans gathered at 5 a.m. to launch the 37 World War II veterans on their journey were barely audible inside the bus, and interior lights made it difficult to see the lines of well-wishers waving flags in the pre-dawn blackness.
But, to a man, the veterans knew: This crowd loved them.
With a Tyler Police escort to Interstate 20, Patriot Guard riders taking them on to Terrell and a USO breakfast awaiting at DFW International Airport - it had the makings of an epic adventure. But this was just the start.
Sam Anderson, whose public relations team organized the World War II Heroes Flight for Brookshire Grocery Co., kept repeating, "It gets better."
He was so right.
The veterans - now in their late 80s - had applied to go on the trip from more than a dozen communities where Brookshire's has stores. Some thought it too good to be true, but they figured they could trust the local grocer and turned in their paperwork.
All knew this might be their last opportunity to see the monument built in their honor - the World War II Memorial completed in 2004 on the Capitol Mall in Washington DC. They felt fortunate to be chosen. "Thank you," was a phrase heard often.
A mixed bag of veterans from all branches, ranks and experiences, they had much in common. They were fun-loving and mischievous - like military men can be. They were opinionated and outspoken - like men of experience. And they were emotional and soft-hearted, like the fathers and grandfathers they had become.
They met as strangers but were good at making friends. Soon, with thirty-seven veterans and 21 volunteer "guardians" filling every seat on the bus, they began to share - one-to-one with the person beside them.
They talked about fishing and football, grandkids and gimpy knees, pastimes and politics.
And, they talked about the war.
Talking about that time in their lives is still difficult for some - after 65 years it can be an emotional minefield not crossed casually.
Basil Dollins, 86, of Gladewater, still struggles with the memory of 19 dead crewmen laid out on the deck of the USS Pensacola, hit eight times by shore batteries while covering the Marine landing at Okinawa. "Hundreds more were wounded," he said, "but I remember those nineteen."
J.W. Gresham, 90, of Tyler, was a private in the U.S. Army and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He recalls the sheer terror of being locked in a German boxcar with 60 other POWs as British planes bombed the rail yard. "We were packed in there like sardines," he said, but dropped in a pile when the first bomb hit. He laughed as he recalled his buddy praying, "Our father who art in heaven..." as the bombs screamed down. "Boom! Our father who art... boom! Our father... boom! He'd start over each time. Pretty quick, he was just babbling." Gresham would remain a POW for 139 days.
Hank Pendergrass, 86, of Tyler, saw combat as a tech sergeant with the 27th Infantry on Okinawa. "We went in with 160 men, and only 60 came out," he said. "We added 30 men as replacements and went in a second time - again, only 60 came out."
Britt Turner, 84, of Bullard, gazed at length on the Marine Corps Memorial, recounting that one of those who raised the flag over Mount Suribachi was - like him - a corpsman. "Three of those men died before they got off that island," he said. "I was with the 1st Marine Division on Peleliu while the 3rd Marines battled for Iwo Jima," he said. The two-month campaign on Peleliu is considered by Marine historians to be the "bitterest battle of the war for the Marines." The 1st Marines, which lost a third of its number there, was out of action until Guadalcanal. "We left an awful lot of good people there," Turner said.
Some stories came out of nowhere. Anna Eisen was one of those.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she has dedicated herself to serving veterans through the USO at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. In a small way, she wants to repay the men who liberated her father from a German death camp as the war wound down in May 1945. Serving up coffee and pastries for members of the Heroes Flight, she asked again and again if anyone was with the 82nd Airborne. No one was.
Tom Sheffield, of Hideaway, had been first sergeant of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Division. His division had liberated a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia - not the camp her father occupied, but it made no difference; she wanted to meet him.
Sheffield, fighting in Europe with the "Big Red One," was wounded three times. He confided he survived only because he was able to "walk out" with his wounds. "A German parachute regiment wiped us out," he said. "Every member of my unit was killed, wounded or captured."
As tears came with the memories, the daughter of another survivor wrapped the 90-year-old veteran in a long emotional embrace. "Thank you. Thank you. Without men like you who fought for my father's freedom, I would not be here."
Others along the way filled in additional pages in the story of the Heroes Flight.
Anonymous firemen at two airports honored the veterans by spraying arcs of water over their plane as it departed Dallas and arrived in Washington.
One group, calling themselves the "Ground Crew" for the "Honor Flight Network," met the men as they emerged from the plane at Reagan National Airport. A spirited group, they cheered and saluted and hugged each veteran.
A young soldier from Jacksonville, stumbled across the group by accident. Nelson Kimbrell discovered them at Arlington National Cemetery, where he had come to watch his buddy take his last ceremonial walk at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Kimbrell, who spotted the Brookshire's logo and introduced himself, is a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), the Army's premiere ceremonial unit.
Others made it their mission to link up. One East Texas Marine, Sgt. Seth Capps, said he had chased the bus all over town to meet Tom Sheffield, a man he had known since childhood. That night, in a hotel banquet room, he caught up and presented Sheffield with a poster signed by every member of his unit, the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon.
Jamie Lynn Pilgrim, who works for the FBI in Washington, came to the evening banquet to support George Pilgrim. As the former B-17 bomber mechanic listened, Ms. Pilgrim tenderly read one of many letters written by Tyler schoolchildren thanking her grandfather for his bravery and service to his country.
The second day was fuller than the first. Lining up to go through security at the U.S. Capitol Building, old soldiers and marines joked that this was like most military operations ... "Hurry up and wait."
Tyler's U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, home during the congressional recess, flew back to meet the veterans. Personally guiding the bus through a security barricade, he shook hands with each man as they emerged, then took them on a personal tour of the Capitol.
Reflecting on the freedom that Americans enjoy, Gohmert said George Washington set a pattern that has been repeated to this day. "When the Revolution was won, George Washington resigned and went home," Gohmert said, "In any other country, he could have been dictator, generalissimo or pharaoh. But that's the difference in America."
"You men followed that pattern when you heeded your country's call," Gohmert said. "You won your war, turned in your weapons, your tanks, your planes, and you went home. That was huge."
Finally, at mid-day Wednesday, the 37 Heroes Flight members made it to their goal: the World War II Memorial. A sea of other veterans had also descended on the monument, men and women from Ohio and Georgia, Illinois and elsewhere. The Texans fit right in.
Marines who stormed the beaches, Air Corps mechanics, pilots and gunners, sailors who worked above and below deck, Merchant Mariners who escorted the convoys and infantrymen who slogged through the mud beside the tanks, officers and enlisted men, draftees and career soldiers ... it made no difference. This was where they wanted and needed to be.
School children waved flags, sang songs and passed to the warriors notes that read, "I'm proud of you for being so brave." "You are my hero." "Thank you for making us free."
Bagpipes played on the flat near the buses. A bugler played taps near the fountains, veterans posed for pictures near pillars representing their states and a Marine color guard made an appearance as groups laid ceremonial wreaths honoring fallen comrades.
There was plenty of time, but it went too quickly. It was time to go.
Less than 40 hours after their departure, they were home.
As they emerged, an even larger crowd enveloped the tired warriors at the end of their quest.
They accepted the hugs with as much energy as they could muster, smiled, cried and absorbed the joy of the moment.
This was the ticker tape parade they never got, the thanks they never sought.
And it was oh so good.
(Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. A veteran himself, he served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army correspondent, and volunteered to serve as one of 21 guardians who escorted the World War II veterans on the Brookshire's Heroes Flight.)