"The Bonnet of an American Jeep" [Special from the Operation Meatball Archives]

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[From the Operation Meatball archives: January 5. 2015]

My sister Faith recently received a letter from English veteran Ernie Covil whom we met while in Normandy three years ago (2011), and then again this past June (2014). Our delight at seeing Mr. Covil after three years was quite unbounded. After the trip, Faith wrote him and sent some of the pictures we had taken. The letter he wrote back was of such interest that we thought we would share some of it with you, as the timing of it is also perfect. 

As many of you may know, this past month has been the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most significant battles of WWII. There were tremendously high casualty rates on both sides, but in the end, the Battle of the Bulge was a decisive benchmark for the Allies as the push to Berlin and winning the war. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Covil’s letter telling a little of his time during the months of December '44 through the beginning of '45.

About my time in the Army, I was called upon on April 1, 1943, age 18. After six weeks infantry training I was then moved into my new regiment as a Lorry Driver into the R. A. S. C. (Royal Army Service Corps). My job was to supply ammunition, food, petrol from the beach to the front line or wherever it was wanted. When Antwerp was taken and the port made workable, the ships were able to bring supplies in, we were moving them from there. That saved the long journey back to Normandy (the roads had been shelled, bombed and it was hard going). Working out of Antwerp, this made things better and carried on back to parts of France through Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

While in Belgium, I was sent to an American transport unit in the Ardennes. It was snowing and cold. I enjoyed my Christmas Dinner on the bonnet of an American Jeep. On leaving the American Unit I went back to the British lines, moving along through to Lubeck, Hanover, Hamburg, and nearly into Berlin. A few miles this side of Berlin, the British and American lines stopped and let the Russians take Berlin. On my way through we were very lucky; we only lost three men, which was nothing to what some units lost. But three is three, to many it is someone’s life gone.

I loved all 40's songs. My most loved one at the time was Vera Lynn’s, "We’ll Meet Again." Of the best bands - must be Glenn Miller. There was no band better to dance to, not even today. When the war finished in Germany I was then sent to Egypt [and] Palestine. From there I came home and was demoted (discharged) September 1947."

The history of the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Antwerp are both fascinating. If you are interested in reading more about it, I would recommend Mr. Federer's article as a very good summary. 

Currahee!

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Last week the girls and I were up in Toccoa, Georgia, for Currahee Military Weekend. 

In my experience, Toccoa is one of America's most delightful hidden gems. It's one of the only places I can think of in our country where you can literally walk in the footsteps of the WWII Paratroopers and (for a brief time), re-live how it was during the war.

 Local veteran, Dewitt Loudermilk holding a newspaper clipping about his service as an Engineer in WWII.

Local veteran, Dewitt Loudermilk holding a newspaper clipping about his service as an Engineer in WWII.

If you are up for it, you can run the mountain where our boys trained; visit the original barracks (currently being rebuilt), the depot where the fresh young men arrived, the museum with remarkable and historical artifacts; and talk to the wonderful folks who were kids at the time and grew up watching the paratroopers make their arrival, train, and depart for overseas... for some of them, never to return.

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The hospitality and genuineness of the people and the wonderful celebration they host each year remembering the paratroopers who trained at Camp Toccoa comes together to make it one of the happiest weekends of the year for me.

 Faith and 101st Airborne Veteran, Vince Speranza.

Faith and 101st Airborne Veteran, Vince Speranza.

Thank you to all our Toccoa friends who work so hard to put on such a splendid event!


Recap in Photos

Lady MacRobert's Reply

 Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Here is a story of fortitude for you!

Upon the death of her three sons who had served in the RAF, Lady Rachel MacRobert sponsored a Stirling Bomber to be built and named "MacRobert's Reply."

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"It is my wish, as a mother, to reply in a way my sons would applaud - attack with great fire power, head on and hard. The amount of £25,000 is to buy a bomber aircraft to continue my sons' work in the most effective way. This expresses my feelings on receiving notice about my sons … Let the bomber serve where there is the most need of her and may luck be with those who fly her. If I had 10 sons, I know they all would have done service for their country."

But the lady's mission did not finish there. She went on to sponsor Four Hawker Hurricanes, three named after each of her sons, and the fourth entitled: “MacRobert’s Salute to Russia – The Lady”

Lady MacRobert is a magnificent example of the indomitable spirit of the British people during World War Two.


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"The War That Was Almost Forgotten"

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In June, we were treated to a special surprise by Battle of the Bulge veteran, Buck Sloan. From his thick Texas accent down to his shiny black cowboy boots, Buck is the real deal. At 94, he can pluck the guitar and sing a tune that takes you back to the days of the old Westerns. 

Buck and his adorable wife serenaded our group with old classics such as Rag Mop (Ames Brothers), and a few that he had written himself.  


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D-Day Ohio 2018

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For the last 5 years, D-Day Ohio has been one of the most looked-forward-to events of the year. This year our annual trip to Conneaut, Ohio nearly didn't happen, but it was too important for us to miss!

Since 2014, we have built some beautiful friendships with the veterans who gather at this fabulous event each year. 5 years later, health and age has seriously shrunk the ranks of the veterans, and it is our last time seeing some of them. And so, though our time was short this year, the relationships we've made with our Ohio and Pennsylvania vets was without a doubt worth the trip!

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R E E N A C T M E N T | Yes, D-Day Ohio is a reenactment and nearly 2,000 people come in period garb for the war years. But dressing in the style of WWII is also a helpful way of connecting with veterans. The clothing is familiar to them- maybe the dress you wear reminds them of a sister or mother, or in Honor's case, the same uniform and rank as their Navy days.

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A  G R A T E F U L   N A T I O N  |  Four veterans received France's highest award, the French Legion of Honor. During the ceremony, a representative from France, Consul General of France Guillaume Lacroix, gave a heartfelt speech thanking the veterans for the sacrifices they made for his country. To be honest... sometimes the politicians who grant these awards tend to ramble on about a million different things. But this time, I was captivated by his sincerity and genuine. It was a beautiful ceremony.

To read more about the legion of Honor Ceremony, France in the United States
Consulate General of France in Chicago:


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A  S I L V E R  S T A R | One of the happy surprises of Conneaut was to see my friend, Major Turner, again! Back in June, I went with the Major and The Best Defense Foundation to Normandy for the 74th Anniversary. Over the course of the 10 day trip, I was incredibly impressed by Major Turner. At 99, he is independent, strong, and always carried himself like a complete gentleman. 

During World War Two, Major Turner served as an Engineer platoon leader with the 2nd Armored Division in Europe. Though he tells everyone he fought the war from a jeep and never fired a shot, it should be known that he received the Silver Star for meritorious actions during a particular engagement with the Germans when he (then a lieutenant I believe) and his men were clearing a roadblock under heavy from the enemy. The Silver Star is the third highest medal that can be awarded a United States serviceman.


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S U P E R  S E N I O R S | Richard C. is one of my favorite examples of a super senior. He is 87 and still rides his motorcycle from Ohio to Florida every fall. I'm sure his vibrant Italian personality has something to do with that.

He also carries photos with him from his time in Korea with the 8th Armored Division, 155 Self Propelled Gun [Tanker], because one time a lady told him he didn't look old enough. "And I most certainly was!" he declared.

I hope we can all enjoy our lives the way Richard does - to the max.


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I N   C O M E S  T H E  C A V A L R Y | Anyone who has met Al Klugiewicz knows what I mean when I say he is a gem. 102 years old and he still drives (he got his license renewed at 100), he can sing you countless old Polish songs, play the ukelele, and I can always count on him for solid boyfriend and marriage advice.

Something else special about Al... he is also one of the very last of the US Cavalry Corps. Yes, the horse cavalrymen. A few years ago he told us his job was to work the radios - on horseback. It wasn't too difficult once you got used to it. In 1938, after 4 years service, he was discharged, but he re-enlisted once again in February 1941. When war came around he fought with the 83rd Infantry Division all through Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe.

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Catching up with him on Saturday, Al showed me a photo from his recent unit reunion, cutting a rug out on the dance floor. A moment later when I pulled out my lipstick to reapply, he told me not to over do it. "Girls always put too much on," he said. "Would you like some?" I joked, offering it to him. "No," said Al. "I only wear Cavalry yellow."


If you've never been to D-Day Ohio, put it on your to-do list. You'll be so glad.


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Bryan Smothers: 101st Airborne

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Monday night, we were so shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of our friend, the ever-delightful Bryan Smothers.

During the 3 years Bryan served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, his experiences forever changed him and the innocence of his boyhood was forever lost. It took many, many years for him to overcome the memories and hardships that war had left on him. When he finally began to write his story down (something he did so his daughter could understand her dad better) it was the road to healing.

Through his book and talks, Bryan was able to help countless other Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD move forward and begin to enjoy life again.

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Our visits with him each year at the Wings Over Houston Airshow were so looked forward to... chatting about the Airborne, the Civil War, music, White Chickens (the name the Vietnamese gave the Airborne) and everything from the serious to the ridiculous. He will be greatly missed.

A Story for the Coast Guard Birthday

 PC. Jocelyne Paris

PC. Jocelyne Paris

Happy 228th birthday to the United States Coast Guard, and this very darling Combat Coastie, Jack.

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On June 6th, 1944, Jack had a rope tied around his waist as he swam the chilly waters of the D-Day Beaches, collecting dead and wounded soldiers. His unit, Rescue Flotilla One, managed to save more 400 men on that day.

“The current was going 15 to 20 mph coming out of the North Sea. That channel had a terrible current and you’d go to reach for a soldier and tried to save him and they’d wash away from you... We did get a hold of some of them,” added Hamlin. “But they’d either have an arm gone or half their face blown off. It was the sickest thing you ever wanted to see. Pulling them out of the water was the worst thing in the world." / Hamlin and his fellow rescuers braved 48-degree water, jumping in to haul out soldiers and airmen. By the time Rescue Flotilla One was decommissioned in December 1944 they had saved 1,438 souls" [excerpt from Coast Guard Compass: Official Blog of the US Coast Guard.]

Two years ago, Jack (then 95) thought it would be a good idea to go sky diving. Now age 97, he hasn't lost one bit of charm and continues to be a stellar example of the courage of the US Coast Guard.


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The Bombs Bursting in Air: A short story for the 4th of July

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Sharing this story from a couple of years ago... a little something to get you in the mood for Independence day.


"Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air??

Lt. Col. Tom Kalus is one of those very rare Marines who happened to be a participant in two of the greatest moments in Marine Corps history: the Battle of Iwo Jima (WW2) and the Chosin Reservoir (Korea). Both events are known for their intensity of the fighting and the bravery of the Marines against unbelievable odds.

Shortly after I met Col. Kalus, he related a story to me which remains one of my favorite ones I can remember a veteran telling me... 


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One evening of the Marine reunion we both attended a few years ago, Col. Kalus asked me, "Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air?"

Of course! Who can forget those inspiring lines written by Francis Scott Key and sung so often at sports events and holidays.

"When I was on Iwo," he went on, "About the 3rd or 4th night, the Japs gave us a real hard shelling. One of the wisecracks in my foxhole said, 'Hey look, it's like in the song, the bombs bursting in air.' I didn't pay much attention to him at the time, until one night at Chosin. The 7th Marines were bravely taking a hill and the Chinese were giving them everything they'd got. The sky was filled with explosions and fireworks. I remembered what the Marine had said on Iwo, 'and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.' At that moment I realized that I was seeing what Francis Scott Key had seen when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner."

Oh goodness, if there was ever a story to put the chills on your arms. Mr. Kalus got teary-eyed as he finished by saying that he could never listen to the American Anthem again without thinking of those fearful nights at Iwo Jima and Chosin. I know I never will listen to it again the same.

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

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And More Honor Flight (anecdotes from a week with my vets)

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Following Armed Forces Day, thanks to the kindness of dear friends and family, I was able to stay in the D.C. area for another week and a half greeting Honor Flights that came in. During that time, I was privileged to meet a grand total of 22 Flights and nearly 1,350 veterans (ages 70-101) from all over the United States. If the numbers sound crazy, they are a little. But 100% true. That is the beauty of Honor Flight. It brings together an incredible group of Americans for a united cause. A 100 year old Flyboy wants to see his Memorials in D.C.? Honor Flight can do it!

Here are "just a few" of my favorite moments from Honor Flight Week.

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H U M I L I T Y / If you ask pretty much any WW2 veteran about his service in the war, he will probably tell you (with genuine modesty), "I was only doing what we had to do."

B-24 waist gunner, Mr. H., was even a little more self-deprecating than that when he told me that the 9 months he spent in a German POW camp was, "nothing compared to some of the other guys." Despite the lack of food and poor living he experienced at the hand of the Germans (who were themselves starving), he just didn't think it was that significant. Especially, he said, compared to other POWS like Senator John McCain.

Whether he considers himself to be worthy of the title POW or not is for him to decide. But there is no doubt that this man served our country bravely and well. It was an honor to meet this humble American. 


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Queen City Honor Flight has their hands full with this hilarious and energetic 92 year old. His Guardian and I could not stop laughing the entire time. He told me the three ways to get to his age were:
1. Don't get no tattoos.
2. Don't drink.
3. And, well... we'll leave it at that. 

(He added that I better get my life in order quick).

And during the war...? "The Navy didn't want me so they sent me to Florida." Where he "fought the Battle of the Mosquitoes. They were mighty big and tough!"


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Notes from May 27:

Yesterday while we were greeting Space Coast Honor Flight I spotted one of the veterans wearing his original USMC pins and rank on his name tag. Of course I had to stop and talk with him - Marine alert!!
Mr. Mahoney told me a little about his service (taking basic at "Par-adise Island"), and after we had compared notes on the Marine Corps and talked about our mutual love of this splendid branch, he presented me with his Honor Flight challenge coin!! I was blown away. Something I will treasure greatly. Semper fi!

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For some Honor Flight veterans, the trip is a pilgrimage, more in honor and memory of their fathers' service than recognition for themselves. In speaking with this sweet North Carolina veteran, I was particularly moved by his purpose coming to D.C. Mr. A's father had served in the Navy in World War Two and had been a great inspiration to him growing up. So much so, that he too had joined the Navy, wearing the same uniform his father had worn before him.

When Mr. A. had a son of his own, he hoped that he too would follow in the steps of father and grandfather, becoming the 3rd generation to wear the Navy uniform. The uniform was even a perfect fit. But his dreams were crushed when his bright 22 year-old was killed in a car accident.

For Mr. A., yes, Honor Flight was a chance for his long over-due service to be recognized. But more importantly, it was an opportunity for him to personally pay tribute to his own father and hero.


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This is 3-war veteran Harry Miller. Mr. Miller told me that 60 days after he retired from the Army in 1966, he received notification from his local draft board that he had to register for the draft. Enlisting in the Army at 15 years old, Harry had never had time to register. Fighting in Europe in World War II, already in the Army in Korea, as well as early Vietnam, he was already in! But they insisted.

So after a 22+ year career in the army, he signed up for the draft. Thankfully, he was never called up again. 

Harry also told me that after serving in a tank battalion in World War II, he lost most of his hearing.  "I lost my hearing after... probably the first shell was fired," he said. "And it took five years before the ringing stopped in my ears."

I had first met Harry a couple of weeks earlier when I was in D.C. with Greater Peoria Honor Flight, and had the pleasure of running into him again on Memorial Day! He told me that I should carry an umbrella around so I could really be the Statue of Liberty. A terrific guy, and one of America's finest soldiers!


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Finally, in preparation for Memorial Day, the USAA Traveling Poppy Wall had come to D.C. 645,000 poppies representing every American serviceman killed from World War I to the present. Truly, nothing could prepare for its visual power. Thousands upon thousands of poppies. 

I walked around the corner and had to catch my breath. All I could wonder was how many Gold Star family members were represented by each poppy...

If you have a family member, friend, or friend of a friend who was killed in the service of our country, I highly recommend you check out their website and possibly even dedicate a poppy. Click here to learn more: https://poppyinmemory.usaacloud.com/

645,000 poppies, 645,000 servicemen. This is why we have a Memorial Day.

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Armed Forces Day / Honor Flight Super Saturday

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President Harry S. Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank our military members for their patriotic service in support of our country. On August 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Days. The single day celebration stemmed from the unification of the Armed Forces under the Department of Defense. - AFD.defense.gov

It would not be a proper May without a Super Saturday at the WWII Memorial. Over the last few years, this has become an unintentional tradition (and one that I'm most happy to continue into the future!), as each May some or all of us end up in D.C. just in time for a Super Saturday.

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Notes from May 19:

Armed Forces Day / Despite the dreary skies, spirits and energy were high at the National World War II Memorial today as we welcomed 9 Honor Flights from all over the country, Oregon to New York!! At one point, we even had 3 full flights invade the Memorial at the same time - the happiest and most wonderful organized chaos. I can think of no better way to spend this special day recognizing our troops. It was an honor. Love our vets so much!!


 PC: Hudson Valley HF

PC: Hudson Valley HF

For those new to Operation Meatball or unfamiliar with the way Honor Flight works, Super Saturdays are days when an unusually large number of Honor Flights arrive at the memorials in D.C. Though all Honor Flight days are magical in their own way, Super Saturdays are overwhelmingly awesome.

From 8:30 in the morning to around 4:30 in the afternoon, it's a constant barrage of veterans, guardians, and wheelchairs.  Each State brings their own personality, stories, and hilarity. Handshakes, hugs, greetings... before you know it, the day is over, and you are exhausted, but so, so happy.

The Armed Forces Day Super Saturday brought in a whopping 9 flights from around the country, equaling between 800 and 900 veterans! Below are just a few snippets from the day.


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Enjoyed a nice chat with the sweet Mr. Bartram from Oregon. He was a Medic with the Marine Corps from 1951-1952, assigned to a Machine gun unit. Always an honor to meet our brave medics! 

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This adorable swabby spent some time explaining to me how "The Sea Bees won the war!"

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You never know who will turn up on a Super Saturday! Such a pleasure to meet General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense. Of course we had to talk about Iwo Jima.

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When I met Mr. Hastings, he was wearing the Honor Flight Smile to the max. He told me how he was only on this trip thanks to a random woman who approached him in Walmart and said, "Have you ever heard of Honor Flight?" Shortly after he was signed up and on his flight, and loving every moment of it!

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We managed to round up [most] of the Marines from Honor Flight Columbus because you know... it's the Marines. ❤

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It's pretty great when you run into folks you know through Honor Flight...or their relatives! I met Mr. Miller's uncle "Moon" Miller in Normandy a few years ago!

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Always a delight for the vets to have Senator Dole come out to the Memorial.

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The Boys Scouts were a great addition to the day, handing out mini American Flags to the veterans.

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And the best dressed award goes to... 


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Visits with the Vets

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In a large way, personal visits with the vets are the heart and soul of Operation Meatball. When the girls and I first started OM as a project 4 years ago, we wanted to use it as a way to encourage, thank, and remind WWII veterans that we are still a grateful nation, that their service to our country has not been forgotten, that they have not become obsolete to society, and that their age only makes them more valuable to us.

We did this through music, dressing in the style of their sisters and wives back in the 1940s, recording their stories, letters, or just taking them out to a meal. 

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However, brief encounters at events quickly grew into friendships, and as the veterans aged, it became more important to visit them in their homes or places of retirement where they could share stories from the comfort of their favorite chair, pull out old photos from pre-war days, or maybe just listen to their favorite Big Band cd. 

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Sometimes it's a quick hello and dropping off some sweets, and other times it's a 3-hour reviewing of war-time scrapbooks. Whatever the case, these "fireside chats" are the most precious of memories.

Recently, I called one of my Iwo vets who I hadn't seen in a while due to travel on both sides. "Come on over," he said. "I'm just here."

I popped over with the complete intention of seeing if I could take him out for a bite to eat, but when I arrived, he was in his favorite recliner, watching an old western. After the usual greetings, he ordered me to, "Sit down and watch the western." Was I hungry? Did I like enchiladas? (I must add, these are his famously delicious enchiladas) Could he make me some?

"Don't you want to finish the movie?" I asked.

"Oh," he said in his West Texas accent, "I've seen this a bunch of times... I know the ending."

How could I refuse such an offer... Within a few minutes, we were eating enchiladas and watching an Audie Murphy western. "He's my hero," my friend said. When the movie was over, and half the settlers had been killed by the Indians and half the Indians had been killed by the settlers, he declared to me that this was his favorite love story.


There is no way to put a value on visiting World War II veterans in their homes, where they are most peaceful, surrounded by memories of a full life, and so desiring to share those memories with someone who really cares. 


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"I've never forgotten them - I never will." / Memorial Day 2018

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Each year people write extensively about the meaning behind Memorial Day. I've written a few posts in the past similarly... but this year I just want to share some brief moments from my first Memorial Day in DC. 

To be honest, I didn't plan on spending this solemn holiday in D.C., for no reason other than I had different plans. But before the day was half over, I wouldn't have traded a precious minute of it to be somewhere else.

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For instance, I listened to a 14 year old Korean-American publicly thank the men who liberated his grandparents back in 1951, and pledge over $800 of his personal savings to the memorial that was in tribute of these liberators. He dedicated a flag to his hero, a WWII/Korean War Paratrooper who had lost both an arm and a leg fighting for that boy's country. Such articulate honor from a young man was completely inspiring. By the end of his speech (entitled "This I Believe"), I'm sure I wasn't the only one trying to keep back the tears.


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At the Vietnam Wall, letters were left for passersby to read. Letters expressing all emotions. Heartbreak, anger, bitterness, forgiveness, love, and gratitude. One read, 

Hello,

I graduated from high school in 1970. My brother (Daniel) was drafted in 1967. When I dated some of the men who had just received their draft cards, they told me they would "probably" die in the war... I tried to comfort them and told them I was very proud of them. 

I know some were killed, because they didn't return. A few of them came to my house and asked me what they should do - because they were weighing whether or not to go. I could only tell them to do as their knowledge told them what they felt was the right thing to do. 

I've never visited The Wall in Washington, D.C., but I am traveling to that area this September, and I won't be afraid if I see some names I recognize. These men died for me and also for all the people in America. They did not die in vain.

I've never forgotten them - I never will.

Ms. Frank (Daniel's sister)


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Without getting too heady and philosophical, I truly believe there are seasons and holidays which act as a natural conduit for humans to interact with each other. Maybe we shouldn't need it, but they give us an excuse to talk to strangers and step out of our comfort zone without the usual "awkwardness."

On this day, something about the meaningful solemnity of it gave off a bit of this warmth and affability. Even an openness to share difficult stories with complete strangers. 

Throughout the afternoon, I found myself listening to heart-wrenching stories from veterans I'd only met minutes before, as they told me about war, of friends they'd lost, pointing to the names on the wall, or showing me their photographs.

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Notes from May 29:

I met 173rd Airborne veteran, Samuel, at the Vietnam Wall yesterday. He had been in D.C. with his reunion the last week and decided to stay an extra day to visit the wall for the very first time.

As all Texans eventually meet up (he was from Austin and I from San Antonio), we got to talking. I asked him about the name his son and he had just pointed out, Charles Watters.

He spoke softly and thoughtfully as he told me that in the few weeks before Thanksgiving, 1967, his unit had had a fierce fight with the VC. The casualties on both sides were enormous, and over 143 paratroopers were killed. He made it out himself, but he never forgot those couple of weeks.

In years afterwards, every Thanksgiving as his family gathered together, before the meal started, he would remind his sons, "We must always be grateful to the 143 boys who didn't make it back."

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A little while later, Samuel came up and showed me a picture. "This was my friend," he said, "I'm looking for his name down on that end. Everybody thought we looked just alike. He was a great guy. But he wasn't supposed to be killed. It wasn't supposed to happen." And he explained to me that one night in Vietnam, they'd heard noises coming from an area a little ways away. It was someone else's job to check it out, but his friend was too curious and had jumped up to see what it was. He was instantly hit.

"I tried to visit the Traveling Wall when it came to our area a couple of times..." he said. "But I just couldn't do it..."

Samuel is just one of many veterans I talked to at the Wall yesterday. Many of them with stories very similar to his.

Being with a veteran when he makes his first visit to the wall is very moving. It's a vulnerable time for them because all their barriers are suddenly taken away, and all they are left with are the raw feelings and emotions of the moment, of seeing so many thousands of names in stone, and among them their friend. But at the same time, it's beautiful to watch. To see the names remembered and the Veterans of this tragic war finding peace and healing.


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On a somewhat lighter note, it was a thrill and an honor to meet Mr. Kyung Kim, one of the brave ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines who served with our guys in Korea. And you know what, whether you're an ROK Marine or a United States Marine, a Marine is a Marine!

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Throughout the day, I kept running into these lovely fellows representing the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Angelo Wider (left) enlisted in the Army in 1964 and served with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He was nearly fatally wounded in 1966, but the bullet missed his vital organs, saving his life. He left the service in 1967.

Felix Garcia (right) of Texas is a three-time Purple Heart recipient. He served with the 1st Marine Division, and was wounded at Al Karmah and Fallujah. He's the Junior Vice Commander at the Military Order of the Purple Heart Association.


Click on the below photos for a full description

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Memorial Day is always meaningful for me, even as I remember my great-great Uncle Israel Goldberg who died overseas in 1942. But this Memorial Day was especially so. The openness strangers and veterans felt sharing their personal stories with me left me greatly touched.

I also saw again and again that gratitude is a universal language. From a 14 year-old boy speaking to his hero, to the wrinkled hand of a visiting foreigner thanking one of our veterans. Gratitude is beautiful.

And finally, in the minds of many of the veterans who participated in the various wars and conflicts America has taken part in the last 70+ years, every day is Memorial Day. If that is the case, it's only appropriate to take at least one day out of 365 to remember the boys who are "forever young."


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Greater Peoria Honor Flight / May 8, 2018

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The month of May was truly Honor Flight month for Operation Meatball. Immediately following the Chino Air Show (which I talked about last post), OM began a whirl-wind trip to Peoria, Illinois.

Just a few weeks earlier, I had received a text from my dear friend (and Operation Meatball board member) Phyllis Piraino of Greater Peoria Honor Flight that they had a spot for me on their May 8th Flight. I was beyond ecstatic. As you all know, I LOVE working with Honor Flight, and there are few hubs I'd rather fly with than Greater Peoria. They were our very first Honor Flight nearly four years ago, and because of that, we share a special bond with them. 

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Notes from May 7:

 

Nearly 4 years ago we met our first Honor Flight at the WWII Memorial: Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). Today I got to see our very first Honor Flight vet, Bob L-, and tomorrow I fly out with GPHF for their V-E Day Honor Flight. Excited doesn't even begin to describe it. But it's a start. We have a bright and early start in the AM, so DC peeps: stay tuned for some pretty happy vets about to head your way!

 
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The night before a trip, GPHF hosts a Pre-Flight Dinner. This is a wonderful opportunity for the vets to get together, meet, break the ice, give any final information for the trip the next day, and enjoy a hearty meal!

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The details that go into this dinner are numerous. In fact, this is one of the things we first noticed about GPHF which sets it apart: their attention to detail and community effort. It isn't a millionaire who sends the vets to D.C., it is the hard work of the local community. During the last school year alone, students from grade schools in Peoria raised $106,480 to send their heroes, the veterans of the Greater Peoria area, to DC!! This is just incredible.

From the adorable goody bags decorated by local children, to the incredible pre-flight dinner, the veterans can't help but feel completely loved and honored for their service.


Flight Day!

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Mornings are early with Honor Flight, but the energy is always high enough to make up for it. First comes check-in, then photos, followed by the easiest trip through security that you'll ever experience. 

Popping around, asking the vets if they were ready for the day, I heard from one of our Korean War vets that he had already had the most wonderful time, and he didn't know how it could get better. "Wait a minute! You can't say that," I told him. "It's 4:30 am in the morning, and we haven't even left Peoria yet." But he insisted. His cup was almost filled up with the happiness he had experienced in the last 24 hours. "Just you wait..." was all I could tell him, and I had to leave him contentedly thinking it couldn't get better. 

Coffee and donuts provided by the Salvation Army, the National Anthem played by two darling little girls on the violin, and we are off!! 


Arrival in DC!

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Whenever an Honor Flight lands in D.C., the entire terminal is notified, and everything is put on hold to greet these heroes with handshakes, clapping, even a little music. Of course, the vets are not expecting this, and I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of moist eyes among the group.


National World War Two Memorial

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First Stop: The National World War Two Memorial for the May 8, V-E Day Program. This was extra special for our group as we had 7 World War Two veterans on this flight who were invited to participate in the ceremony. 

Photo credit: Greater Peoria Honor Flight

Needless to say, the memorials never get old ~ each visit is a new experience, a new memory. But visiting the WWII Memorial with WWII vets, and on such a significant anniversary as May 8, the end of World War Two... it's really hard to beat that.

Some of the WWII vets presented the wreaths for the VE Day ceremony.

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Sunny and warm, but a perfect day. And these two kept us smiling the entire day.

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I always love to see the veterans getting together and chatting... no longer strangers.

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Two of our WWII,s. 

 Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Surprise visit from a few of my BWI Brownies!


The Vietnam Wall

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Each memorial holds a special significance to me... the Vietnam Wall is no exception. For the sake of time, I'll just share one story with you from this emotional memorial...

Notes from May 12 / A highlight from Greater Peoria Honor Flight's trip on Tuesday was visiting the Vietnam wall with our Nam vets. I was able to help Archie find a few of his friends' names (many of them childhood friends)... but the most touching moment came when he told me the story of an officer of his who's name is on the wall:

It was Friday the 13th. Archie and 12 other men were on a patrol in Vietnam. Communications were poor and before he knew it they were being fired on - by their own men. They had unknowingly run into a brother unit who took them for VC. In a matter of moments, every man in his 13-man patrol was wounded, and the officer (fresh out of OTS) was killed. It is one of the tragic accidents of war, and sadly there are too many stories similar to Archie's.

Each visit to the wall is uniquely special... but this is one I will remember for a long time. 


Air Force Memorial

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I ended up spending the entire time at the Air Force Memorial listening as this kind and gentle man, Mr. Avery, explained to me how meaningful this whole experience had been for him. At the end of the day, as we disembarked from the plane back in Peoria, his eyes were full of tears. No words needed to translate that.


Welcome Home

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Moving forward because it's impossible to capture every moment in one blogpost (those of you who suffered through our post[s] several years ago when the girls and I were guardians for two 95 year-old Air Force vets know what I'm talking about)... The Welcome-Home.

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I've never teared up at a Welcome-Home before. But I certainly did here (I'll just blame it on Mr. Avery for getting me started). I walked down the line taking photos of the countless people holding signs, cheering the veterans, hugging and kissing, thanking the veterans, the bagpipes, the families greeting their loved ones... I'm still getting chokey thinking about it.

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Honestly, this was the best Welcome-Home I've ever been to. I'm not good at estimated numbers, but I can say that the entire airport terminal was packed (and I mean PACKED) with people. 

The entire day was a magical one for our vets, and I'm afraid I've only been able to give you a few inadequate highlights. The work that goes into each flight is just enormous, and I can't say enough about the whole GPHF crew, who are really the heart and soul of this Honor Flight hub! And the biggest hug and thanks to Phyllis for including me! 

Finally, the number one word that comes to mind with Honor Flight is Healing. Whether it is tough memories that won't fade, or possibly hard feelings over long overdue recognition, these dear men, who served our country in good times and in bad, come home with a new feeling of respect, healing, and value. 


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My Tough Marine: Loving the harder to love

Photo Credit: Joe Schneider 2015

On my trip back to San Antonio, I detoured through Yuma, Arizona to see a couple more of my Raiders... unfortunately, one of them had just been recently hospitalized following a heart attack, but I was still able to spend a lovely afternoon visiting with my Vietnam 3rd Recon friend. Of all the Marine's I've met, my friend is one of the toughest of the tough. A 32-year career Marine, when his time ended in the Corps, he was devastated. The Corps was his life. So what did he do? He went to South Africa and exchanged his services as protection for a small village for bed and board. A true gentleman adventurer.

But my visit with this tough Marine left me with many thoughts. So after my visit, I wrote the piece below for the Operation Meatball Facebook:


Spending so much time with veterans from all walks of life I've learned that oftentimes the harder the external shell is, the more tender and soft is his heart. Sounds cliche, but it's true.

Today I spent the afternoon with a 32 year career Marine. His life was the Marine Corps. It was all he dreamed of as a boy, all he ever wanted to be. And when they retired him, it absolutely broke his heart.

Externally, he's one of the toughest and roughest men I've ever met. I know he probably terrifies a lot of people who may think of him as a mean old man. But when you start chipping away at the 32 years of Hardcore Marine, you find a man who loves little children and sticks to his friends the way only a Marine can.

Unfortunately, however, because of the stereotype society gives people like him, he's destined to live out his final years in relative obsoleteness; unknown and unappreciated for the life he dedicated to his country. People can't get past what they see on the outside and they don't realize that the crustiness, the hard shell, even the rough words, are just a cover for the suffering that person has experienced in their life.

It breaks my heart to see this, but it's a reminder of why we do what we do at Operation Meatball. We want to make sure people (and not just veterans, but this goes for all elderly as well) like my friend are not forgotten. That they DO NOT become obsolete. And that they know they are still treasured members of society.


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Visit with a Marine Raider

While in California, I was able to pay a visit to one of my Marine Raiders, Joe Harrison. Some of you may remember Mr. Harrison from an article I wrote last fall after my trip to the Marine Raider Reunion.

Here is an excerpt from the article, "Gung Ho! The Marine Raiders Reunion."

One of the most remarkable "miracle" stories I've ever heard was from Raider, Joseph Harrison. During one encounter with the Japanese, Harrison was called on to help carry a stretcher to the field hospital. The man had been hit in the head, but all they could find was an exit wound in the back of his skull. They carried him back and a little while later Harrison learned that the Marine had indeed survived, but the cause of his wound was most curious: - the bullet which had struck him had entered his right eye, circled a less-important part of the brain, and exited through the back of his head. The total long-term consequence was that his vision went from 20/20 to 20/40. Otherwise he was A-Okay.

Another similar instance Harrison witnessed happened to his unit's chaplain. During another fight with the Japanese, he saw the chaplain fall to his knees, presumably hit. He rushed up and called for a medic, but when he examined the chaplain he saw that the bullet had only hit the helmet, made a hole, ricocheted around the inside of the helmet, and exited, leaving the chaplain unharmed - though significantly deaf. The chaplain never fully recovered his hearing, but his life had been spared!

I asked Mr. Harrison about his return home and the first meal he had. This is a fun one to ask because you hear all sorts of things. I wasn't disappointed. He told me he hadn't had a proper salad or any greens since he had left for the Pacific, 30 months before, so he bought himself several bunches of Celery stocks (made me think of the song, "Celery Stocks at Midnight"), and promptly consumed them. They've been a favorite dish of his ever since. 


It was wonderful catching up with my Raider and listening to new stories I hadn't heard before. But one of the things I was struck with most during my visit was the personal integrity and work ethic he had carried with him his entire life. Whether it was on the battlefields of Guadalcanal or raising his 4 boys later in life, he never had to be told what to do. He just knew what he had to do, and he did it. What an example for all of us!!


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Chino Planes of Fame Airshow / May 5-6, 2018

 Liberty with WWII Veteran, George Ciampa at the Planes of Fame Air Show

Liberty with WWII Veteran, George Ciampa at the Planes of Fame Air Show

The first weekend in May, I was invited out by the Veteran's History Project to the Planes of Fame Airshow in Chino, California. This event has been on my bucket list for several years now, and it did not disappoint!! My friend, Don Baer, head of the Veteran's History Project, had tirelessly worked for months to bring together a stellar group of guest veterans which included such names as:

Dick Cole: the last surviving Doolittle Raider
Lauren Bruner: USS Arizona Survivor
Ed Lopez: WW2 & Korean War P-47 Pilot
Doc Pepping: Combat Medic with the 101st Airborne Division
Sarge Lenticum: Vietnam veteran who served 3 tours with the 101st Airborne
Muriel Engelman: Army Nurse - Battle of the Bulge
Bob Friend: Tuskegee Airman
Vince Speranza: 101st Airborne - Battle of the Bulge, and many, many more.

D-Day veterans, Pearl Harbor veterans, Air Corps, Flying Tigers... The years, the history, the experience, all gathered together, under one tent. It was spectacular. 

Each day the tent would fill with spectators of all ages, excited to meet Living History. Little children who just wanted to shake the hand of a veteran, retired servicemen and women who wanted to talk aviation with the WWII ace, the airborne reenactor who wanted to meet the original Paratrooper, and then the random sightseer who was there for the planes and hotdog stands, knowing little about history or WWII, but left filled with respect, admiration, and a new understanding of the sacrifices made for our country. 

Vince Speranza (101st Airborne WWII) talks with P-47 Pilot, Ed Lopez

I didn't see much of the air show (typical for me) as I ended up spending most the time chatting away with the veterans. How could I not?? It was such a fabulous opportunity to visit with men from all areas of the war.

I shared a few words, and a few laughs with USS Arizona survivor, Lauren Bruner, the first afternoon. Mr. Bruner had a dramatic escape from this tragic ship, suffering 73% burns.

A few months after Pearl Harbor, despite his terrible injuries, his knowledge and abilities were needed, and he was called up by the Navy. Four years later, his war ended in Tokyo Bay with the surrender of the Japanese.  

Wilbur Richardson: B-17 Ball Turret Gunner - 30 missions.

Sometimes I wonder if Doc Pepping is the reason the sun comes up every morning. His cheerful personality and hilarious sense of humor makes him a delight to be around. During the war, Doc parachuted into Normandy on D-Day serving as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne. 

It's always great to see our friends from the Airborne Demonstration Team!

WWII Veteran, Vince Speranza, keeping the attention of these young fellas. 

WWII Veteran Larry Stevens surprised us with a visit to the Veteran's tent. After chatting a few minutes with Mr. Stevens, I learned that he was in the same bomb group as the uncle of a close family friend. From then on we were buddies. Mr. Stevens is another man who helps the sun to rise in the morning with his grateful, cheerful, optimistic personality. After meeting him, it was impossible to stop smiling.

Veterans Ed McMullen (Flying Tigers) and Col. Dick Cole waiting to be presented with a special award from the Chinese government. 

Mr. and Mrs. McMullen. Mr. McMullen was a B24 nose-gunner who flew "the hump" in the China-Burma-India theater with the 308th Heavy Bomb Group, "Flying Tigers." Meanwhile Mrs. McMullen worked as a Riveter at a Lockheed defense plant. She had one brother serving in the Pacific and the other at the Battle of the Bulge. Thankfully, both made it home. Mr. and Mrs. McMullen have been married for over 70 years and are just as precious as can be.

Jack Gutman, a Navy Corpsman not only at the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, but also the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific. 

WWII and Korean War veteran, Ed Lopez sits behind his impressive medal display. 

Last photo, but definitely not the least!! My new friend, Bob Friend. On day 1 of the air show, Mr. Friend and his daughter were the first to arrive. So I got to spend a good half hour chatting away before the rest of the group arrived, followed by the crowds. During the war, Mr. Friend served with the elite Tuskegee Airmen. But though we talked a good deal about his service in the war, hearing about his fascinating and hilarious family was really the icing on the cake. Couldn't have been a better start to the air show weekend.

It was a smashing weekend at Chino. Many, many thanks to Don Baer and the team of the Planes of Fame - Veteran's History Project who worked tirelessly all weekend (and long before) making it an awesome experience for the veterans and spectators. 


A Special Sort of Crusty

Hanging out in the airport with Mr. bordeaux (centre) and his lifelong friend, wayne pricer.

“I’m going to push your wheelchair through the museum for you, Mr. B.” I announced.

“No, no, no, honey.” He protested. “You don’t need to do that.” 

“I’m happy to!” I exclaimed.

“No really. I’ll just be fine here.” He settled himself for the wait.

My friend’s response was typical. He was independent and would be the last person in the world to put someone out. 

We were both a part of a large group of WWII veterans and guardians who had traveled from Fort Worth, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana to visit the National WWII Museum. It was most of the vets' first time, and after a swell evening the night before being serenaded by the trio at BB's Stage Door Canteen, everyone was excited to tour the museum for the day. 

just a "few" of the ww2s on our trip!

Unfortunately, stepping off an elevator the day before, Mr. B. had collided with one of the other vets and didn’t quite feel up to a strenuous day of walking. True to form, he would rather have spoiled his trip than have to depend upon someone else. 

But I was prepared for this. 

I walked around to the front of his wheelchair, “Mr. Bordeaux, do you seriously think you came all the way from Texas to New Orleans just to sit in a chair in the front of the museum all day?? I think not!!”

He attempted one last pathetic protest and then realized it was pointless. “Oh, okay.” He smiled. He was won over. 


Everyone you meet has a different impact on you. And what you take away from one friendship may be completely different from the next person.

I didn’t know Mr. Bordeaux as long as some folks, but I like to think that over the several years of our friendship, I was able to see a different side of Mr. B. than the one he regularly presented.

For those who didn’t know him so well, one might have put Richard Bordeaux down as a possibly cute old man, always good for a laugh, with a somewhat impossible amount of orneriness left over from years of being on his own.

In a way, that is true. Each extended trip to the hospital proved he was too tough to be overcome. And it’s true, his self deprecating jokes could be really cute ...

“How are you doing, Mr. B.?” 
“Fine… They said I need a lobotomy, but I doubt they’ll be able to find anything there.”

… But I also saw a side to him that (along with his adorable crustiness) was interesting and even brilliant. I would like to share that with you here - the Mr. Bordeaux I knew.


Until he got too sick, we would talk regularly on the phone. Oh the miles of conversation we would cover. Sometimes we’d compare notes on our Civil War relatives. His insight into a war, so far in our past, but still so hotly disputed, was clear headed, honest, and intelligent. Over the election year, his political commentary, though far from PC (Mr. Bordeaux and "politically correct" were just two things that never went together), was again very insightful and oftentimes hilarious.

His retention of information and knowledge on many, many subjects continually impressed me. 

One day, I was talking on the phone with him. 

“Mr. Bordeaux!” I exclaimed. “I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!” 

“Just a minute honey,” he said in his raspy Texas drawl. “Let me turn the TV down.”

He had one of my favorite smiles!

I smiled and waited on the other end of the phone. He refused to wear hearing aids, despite having lost most of his hearing as a Navy Gunner during the war.

“Now what was that?” He said picking up the phone again. 

“I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!” 

“Oh now, that’s fine. That’s just wonderful, honey,” he replied, “Did you get to see…” And he listed off a couple of places. We kept chatting about it, and he told me about the history and geology of the canyon. His descriptions were breathtaking. 

“I should be taking notes for next time,” I laughed. "When was the last time you went??”

“I’ve never been,” he said. “I’ve just read about it.”

“Well, if you ever decide you need a job,” I told him, “you should apply as a tour guide of the Canyon!”

He chuckled a bit.

A few years ago, I had told him about my brother hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Had he heard of that before? Most certainly!! And he proceeded to tell me about this famous 2600 mile hiking trail. “How did you know about it?” I had to ask, amazed (I’d never heard of it before my brother announced to the family his intentions of making the hike). “Oh, reading somewhere,” was his reply.

The following year, I told him my brother was commercial fishing in Alaska. 

“Alaska!” He said, getting excited. “That’s one place I have wanted to visit my entire life.”

“Really?” I said. “Tell me about it. Why?” 

And he did. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, he went on to tell me about the gloriousness of “The Last Frontier.”

Again I asked in amazement, “Where did you learn all this? No! Don’t tell me…” I knew where this was going.

“I’ve read about it, watched a lot of documentaries… you know. Not much.”

“Goodness, Mr. Bordeaux!” I chuckled on the other end of the phone. Would there ever be a subject he didn’t know anything about?


Pushing my crusty sailor around the National WWII Museum that day, I saw yet another side to this interesting individual. 

“Where do you want to go?” I asked. 

“I don’t care. Wherever you want.” 

“Let’s go through the Normandy exhibit then. I know you were in the Pacific, so it might be interesting for you to see the other side.” 

I wheeled him through the many exhibits, chatting a bit, reading some of the displays, asking questions about the Navy crafts, and watching him in those moments where he was thoughtfully silent. 

 explaining how the landing crafts work.

explaining how the landing crafts work.

We finally arrived at the Invasion of D-Day when he suddenly blurted out, “I lost my two best friends on D-Day.” I stopped. He had never talked about this before. 

Coming to the side of his chair, I knelt down, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Bordeaux. You were close with them?”

“One of them lived next door to me. The other one was a few miles away, but we were always together. When he died, his mother moved to the house next door. Her younger son had been killed by a street trolley, and it was just too much for her to lose another son. She never got over it.” 

As he reflected on these things, his eyes became moist, his raspy voice grew a little more raw. “I haven’t thought about them in over 30 years.” His voice trailed.

“Thank you for telling me.” I said taking his hand, trying not to tear up myself. This was one of those moments I knew I’d never forget.  

Last Memorial Day I was able to get him a photo of his two friends' graves. You can read more about it here

 - - - - 

But if I thought that was the last emotional moment of the day, I was wrong. 

During our tour of the Warbirds exhibit, we ran into an old friend of mine, Lt. Colonel Art Arceneaux, a Marine Air Corps Ace during the war.

The meeting of my two friends was another moment I will never forget. 

After the usual, “Where were you?” they realized they had both been in the same general area during the Battle of Okinawa. Except Col. Arceneaux was fighting the Kamikazes from the air, and Mr. Bordeaux was fighting them from the guns of his ship. 

"Remember how the Kamikazes swarmed at us like flies to honey?" said Mr. B. ”I admired you guys in the planes. I wouldn't have traded places.” 

“I felt sorry for you guys on the ships," responded the Colonel in his soft Cajun accent. ”I didn't want to be in your position." 

So handsome! He never lost the smile.

I stood there in awe listening to them swap battle stories. I knew Mr. Bordeaux had served in the Pacific and had experienced things he’d rather forget. But he didn’t talk about it much, even when I pushed him. Okinawa was his one big battle. Compared to other WW2 guys, his combat experience was limited. But who’s counting the battles? I’ve seen sometimes that the vets who were only in the rough for a short time didn’t have the chance to become battle hardened, and they are left raw with lasting memories that cannot be shaken for anything. 

A few hours earlier our group had watched the Museum’s 4D short documentary, “Beyond All Boundaries.” Despite being in good spirits before the show, when the kamikaze attacks came on the screen, Mr. B. couldn’t handle it. “Make it stop, make it stop.” He cried out. “Do you need me to take you out?” I asked. “No… No. I’m fine.” He said. But soon the sounds, the vibrations, and the visual imagery intensified. My hand was on the elbow of his chair. He grabbed it and held on. Tight. My eyes became a bit dewey.  

After the film, Mr. B. told me how he had watched a nearby ship go down in flames. The crew members jumped into the ocean on fire. There was nothing he could do but watch. 89-years old at that time, and that image haunted him still. 

Pulled back to the moment, I looked at Mr. Bordeaux and Mr. Arceneaux chatting away. These men had never crossed paths during the war, but yet they had fought side by side. 70+ years later, here they were swapping war stories. I was a merely a fly on the wall.

a special meeting between war veterans: dick bordeaux and Lt. colonel Art arceneaux.

Saying our goodbyes, both vets thanked the other for their protection during the battle. They would never meet again, but they would forever be friends.

I was grateful for this meeting with Colonel Arceneaux, for Mr. Bordeaux’s sake. There is something intangible to the looker-on, and so meaningful to the veteran that comes out of a conversation with someone “who was there.”


Over lunch in the American Sector Restaurant, we talked about the day and the museum. So much to take in and process. We talked about his family, goofy stories from the Navy, growing up, events that had hurt him as a child and ended up shaping his life.

In many ways, his story was similar to another friend of mine. Both of them had grown up in the school of extra hard knocks. Both their fathers had left home at an early age, and they were forced to raise themselves without that important figure in their life. “A boy needs his dad,” Mr. B. told me. “But I didn’t have mine.” 

lunch date at the museum!

The difference in my two friends came when one took the path of indifference to hardships and a perspective that life would not be allowed to run him down. Mr. B. did not choose that path. There were many things in his life he wanted to be or could have done… He knew that. But sometimes life just hit him too hard to get around it.

Having the two examples of my friends, such similar lives with such opposite outcomes, I was struck by the fact that here I had an opportunity to see into the future. Life throws an awful lotta curveballs at us, and how we respond to them may change the course of the rest of our life. Through the example of my other friend, I saw the blessings of what it would look like at 90+, having taken the high road of positivity at age 20. And for Mr. B., sadly, I saw the outcome of having taken the road of frustration and discouragement. It’s a hard lesson. 

But for all the somber moments of the day, Mr. Bordeaux still had his wonderful sense of humor. After we pushed the serious life matters out of the way, he was back to his old jokes and humor, including cracking a comment that made me hide my face behind the menu and caused the next table to look up in surprise. Yup, Mr. B. always had something tucked up his sleeve ready to pull out when you least expected. 

“Here, have my fries,” he said.

- - - -

When we landed back in Fort Worth, I looked to say goodbye to Mr. B. But he’d already gone. Calling him up the next day, I pretended to be mad, “Mr. Bordeaux, what did you mean by running off yesterday without a goodbye? After all I did pushing you around the WWII Museum!”

“Oh honey,” he said, “I’m sorry. I just hate goodbyes.”

I get that.


The story of our visit to the WWII Museum is just an excerpt from all the stories I have to tell from dear Mr. Bordeaux. An excerpt though it is, it nevertheless remains one of my favorite experiences with a WW2 veteran since starting Operation Meatball.

one of our impromptu visits after an event in fort worth. 

Yet, WW2 veteran though he was, my family’s friendship with him grew to be more than that. He became a regular fixture in our visits to Fort Worth and a treasured friend. Over the years, we accumulated many hilarious anecdotes from our time with him.

The first time Mother met Mr. Bordeaux, he asked her bluntly, “Why are you wearing BLUE toe polish?”

Sometimes I’d call him up and say, “I’m in town. Can I come over for a chat?” Forever worried that he would put us out, or embarrassed that his little flat wasn’t clean, he’d make some excuse. That is when I had to learn to say, “I’m in town. I’m coming over in 30 minutes.” Of course, he was happy about it, and we would talk for hours… “Come back soon.” He’d say. 

One afternoon, when he didn’t show up to a luncheon where he was a regular, I called him. “Where are you??”

"a quick hi and a hug"

“I’ve been waiting for the mechanic. My car has issues, and they were supposed to be here at 10am.”

“But it’s 2 o’clock!?” I said. 

“I know.”

“Can Faith and I come by and give you a quick hug?”

“Well now, honey, you don’t have to… But you can if you want.”

He was out by his car when Faith and I got there. Our “quick hi and hug” turned into a lengthy discussion on how to solve world problems (sailor style) and the best way to sleep during a Typhoon in the Pacific (educating!). Periodically, one of the folks living in his apartment complex would walk by with a trash bag for the dumpster, staring (not-so-politely) at the little party gathered around his old truck, chatting and laughing in the (Texas style) freezing weather.

Another time, it was his turn to remonstrate when I was out of town for a while and hadn’t called.

“I’ve been looking for you!” He said in his North Texas manner. “But I didn’t find you in any of the local pool halls or bars.”

I died laughing. “Goodness. Mr. Bordeaux. You must have been looking in the wrong pool halls then.” What else could I say?

jubilee and mr. bordeaux at the National wwii museum.

Surer than the sun setting, I could always count on Mr. B. to end his phone calls with, “Now you be safe, honey. And stay off the streets.” 

This last part always baffled me. “Why would I be on the streets??”

"Now, now, you just never know. Be safe now.” He would always answer.

“Well, all right then. I’ll try.” I would tell him.

ice-cream, okinawa, and architecture 

Another time, we were out for ice cream and ended up discussing Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture (a passion of his) until the ice cream ran out. That was after someone had come up to thank him for his service, only to not be heard (remember, he was too independent to wear hearing aids). The fellow was a little awkward not knowing what to do… “It’s okay.” We told him, “He can’t hear you, try again.” We tugged Mr. Bordeaux’s sleeve, “Someone’s trying to talk to you.” I still don’t know if he ever heard what the guy was saying…

20170630_103217.jpg

On birthdays, I’d always call him a day or two after. Why? Because of this conversation: 

“Hey, Mr. Bordeaux! Your birthday is coming up soon!”

“I don’t believe in birthdays. Anyways, life goes downhill after 21.”

“But I’ll be 21 in a couple of years!”

“Well, then… you know.”

“I’m going to send you a card on your birthday.”

“Now, now, now… don’t go doing that.”

“And I’m going to call you.”

“Now, now… Listen here, young lady, I told you I don’t believe in birthdays or holidays. They aren’t for me.”

Two days after his birthday: “Mr. Bordeaux! Happy birthday. You said not to call you on your birthday… and I’m not!”

- - - -

I wasn’t able to say “goodbye” to Mr. B. before he passed. I wondered if I would. But I never got the chance. However, thinking back to that conversation on the phone when he told me, “Oh honey, I’m sorry. I just hate goodbyes,” it’s probably okay. He hated goodbyes… and really, I do too. Anyway, he’ll always be my sailor who was a special sort of crusty.


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Survival, Loyalty, and Faith: The Story of Ben Skardon

Photo Credit: Ken Scar

In early February of 1945, the war in Europe was wrapping up. By May, the Germans had surrendered, and there was "a hot time in the town of Berlin when the Yanks [went] marching in.” The jubilation of the freed countries of Europe was unbounded.  

But for Ben Skardon and the remaining veterans of Bataan, it looked hopeless. After surviving a brutal march, cattle cars of death, multiple Japanese prisoner camps, disease, and starvation, by early December 1944, Ben Skardon and 1600 other POWs had been crammed into the hold of the Japanese passenger/cargo ship, Oryoku Maru.

Sitting for days… Each man sitting between the legs of the man behind him. Thus began a 47 day nightmare of horrendous inhumanity and barbarisms. The lack of air and water. The confined space. The constriction of movement produced near panic.
— Ben Skardon

En route to Japan, the Oryoku Maru was attacked by US Navy planes from the USS Hornet. Unmarked and unidentifiable as a POW ship, the Navy planes had no idea they were bombing their own men. The ship was sunk and 270 POWs were killed. Loaded onto another cargo ship, the Enoura Maru, Skardon and his fellow POWs were again hit by friendly fire in the harbour of Takao, Formosa, killing another several hundred men.

Among those killed was Otis Morgan, a man to whom Skardon owed his life. Morgan and another man named Henry Leitner had worked tirelessly to keep Skardon alive when he lay sick and dying of starvation and disease. Trading what few valuables they had left (including Skardon’s Clemson Ring), they managed to bribe the guards for the necessary items to keep their friend from death’s door.

Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan (PC CBS News)

When Skardon succumbed to the tortuous sufferings brought on by Beriberi (a vitamin deficiency disease which causes nerve inflammation and heart failure), Morgan and Leitner spent hours around the clock wiping his eyes and rubbing his feet to help reduce the pain. During a time when it was “every man for himself” to survive, the three men had stuck together to keep each other alive.

But even their close friendship could not prevent Morgan from becoming one of the hundreds of casualties of the Hell Ships. When the ship docked on January 30th, of the 1,619 POWs brought aboard in the Philippines, hardly 500 had survived the barbaric 47 day crossing.

“Survival, Loyalty, and Faith,” Ben Skardon told an auditorium of people gathered to hear him speak 76 years later. "Survival: To maintain life, to endure. Loyalty: To family, to friends, to country. Faith: In the fellow man and the Almighty God." Those were the keys to his existence during the unthinkable experiences he had endured as a prisoner of the Japanese.

PHoto credit: CBS news

Despite all odds, Ben Skardon (now a retired Army Colonel) had survived. He had survived one of the greatest tragedies in American history. But why had he survived when so many others had died?

In his speech two weeks ago at White Sands Missile Range, he explained how he never gave up. Once a man had given up the hope and fire inside of him to survive, Skardon explained, it was very rare that that man would live to see another sunrise.

To live without Hope is to Cease to live.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The loyalty of his friends and to his country had also kept him alive. Morgan and Leitner never got to see their homeland again, but because of the sacrifices they made for their friend, their names will never be forgotten - not by Ben Skardon.


On March 18, 2018, for the 11th time, 100 year old (“100 and 7/10," he corrects me) Ben Skardon made his annual pilgrimage to White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan Memorial Death March. After a weekend meeting the marchers, encouraging them for the difficult task they were about to undertake, and sharing personal experiences from Bataan, Col. Skardon set out on his own Bataan Memorial March.

He doesn’t have to. After all, he is over 100 years old… but he feels obligated. An obligation that is 76 years old. Leitner and Morgan did not have to exert themselves to save Skardon’s life, but they did. And now, Col. Skardon feels it is a small thing to march in their honor.

Proud to March with ben's brigade and wear a my great-uncle's photo

In past years, Col. Skardon has marched 8.5 miles of the rugged desert terrain. Nearly 7 of those miles are dubiously sandy, uneven, and difficult for the average person, much less a senior. But Col. Skardon has been defying the term “senior” for years, continually proving the mettle which helped him to survive his years of imprisonment.

This year, as the members of Ben’s Brigade gathered for the annual pre-march dinner, I asked a few of them if the Colonel would be going the whole 8.5 miles. “It’s hard to know… but we’re hoping for 3 miles” was the general response.

“I’m going to go as far as I can,” the Colonel told me.

The next morning, the marchers, the veterans, and Ben’s Brigade gathered for the opening ceremonies. It was an electric atmosphere. The Bataan Memorial Death March is no easy marathon, and every one of the participants either knew that or figured it out pretty quick. Having completed the whole 26.2 miles last year, I can tell you the feeling among the marchers is just enough excitement to get them up in the morning, but just enough nerves to question the sensibility of the venture they are about to embark upon.

Members of Ben's Brigade, including Col. Skardon's nephew, Sgt. Hooper Skardon

But all those nerves disappear when, moments before they cross the start line, the marchers are greeted by Bataan Death March survivors, ready to shake their hands and wish them well before heading into the New Mexico desert. It is an utterly inspiring sight. Over and over again my throat choked and I teared up as I watched the marchers, wounded warriors, ROTC, active military, veterans, and civilians pause to shake the hands of the very men who were the reason for this memorial march.

wounded warriors shake the hands of bataan survivors moments before they head out to the grueling New mexico desert

“Good job. We’ll see you in 26 miles!” The veterans would say, and off the marchers would go.

When the last man crossed the start-line, Ben’s Brigade formed up.

“Oosh,” said Colonel Skardon, a command his Japanese guards would holler out for the prisoners to “keep moving.”

At mile 1, we halted. “If you want to cheat,” said the Colonel in his refined southern accent, “You can’t. We’ve got the record right here.” The Colonel says that if you take a photo with each mile marker, it's proof that you didn't cheat.

By mile 2, we began to hit the sand.

Mile 3, the sand was beginning to get rough. The Colonel made his mile stop and announced, “We’ll wait here 30 seconds. One, two, three, four, five, Oosh!” We continued.

Col. Skardon at mile 5

Never a complaint, occasionally throwing out a piece of humorous advice, or offering a witty comment, Colonel Skardon pressed on.

“The voices spoke,” he said, as he rested a hand on the mile 4 marker, “but I have prevailed. I’m gonna try one more mile… before I take the night.” He added with a twinkle, “You know what that means? If you get into that damn automobile, you get bayoneted…. but me, I’m the commander. You’ll be in front of me.” His announcement complete, with a chuckle and a mischievous grin, he ordered the well-known command, “Oosh!”

After completing 5 miles, Colonel Skardon took a seat in the car that followed behind us over the sandy desert terrain. He left us with this parting, “I have some urgent business to take care of, but I’ll join you at 7.”

Before too long we were re-joined by the Colonel, and by the time we reached the finish-line, he had completed nearly 7 miles. I can’t quite tell you what an incredible feeling it was to watch 100.5 year old Bataan Death March survivor (or should I say “year-young” after the feat he completed) cross his personal finish line. Inspiring? Oh 100%.

During the march, I had contemplated the life of this man, listened to stories from his family and friends, and watched him put one foot in front of the other, unfaltering in spirit.

Colonel beverly skardon crosses his personal finish line at the bataan memorial death march

Despite age, memories, a full life, this man who had marched the same trail and endured the same horrors of Bataan which took my great uncle's life had just completed another yearly pilgrimage, “as a tribute and honor to my Clemson friends,” Otis Morgan and Henry Leitner. “Two and a half years in the prison camp and we became like brothers." For his brothers he marched.

A true testimony to his character and the 3 rules he had given us the day before, “Survival, Loyalty, and Faith.”

For someone like Colonel Skardon, “inspiring” just begins to describe him. But marching with him was inspiring. To me, to the members of Ben’s Brigade, and to every single one of the marchers who shook his hand.

Moments after  Colonel Skardon led the group past the finish line, Ben’s Brigade broke out into the Clemson Cadence:

1-2-3-4
C-L-E-M-S-O-N
T-I-G-E-Rrrrrr-S!
Fight Tigers, Fight Tigers, Fight, Fight, Fight!

A most appropriate ending for this memorable day.


"Today Christian Day"

"You Christian?" The words were spoken in English by a small Japanese man. He had just entered a dark single prison cell somewhere in Tokyo, and was addressing the bruised and bloodied occupant. He carried a few morsels of food for the American prisoner.
"Yes." Said the American flyboy, turned POW.
"Me Christian." Said the little man. "Today Christian day."
The American didn't understand. "What do you mean?"
"Today Christian day." The man repeated.
The American still didn't understand, and the man repeated the phrase a few more times. Then it struck him. Easter was April 1st. It must be Easter.

Last week I had the wonderful privilege of spending the afternoon with my fabulous friend, World War Two veteran and Japanese POW, Fiske Hanley. Mr. Hanley is amazing. At 98, he just goes and goes and goes. Showing me his calendar, I couldn't help but notice it was all marked up in red!

WWII B-29 Bomber

During the war, he served in the Army Air Corps flying the spiffy new B-29 bombers. A couple of years ago, the girls and I were attending an Iwo Jima reunion out in Wichita Falls, TX. The first day there we ran into Mr. Hanley. "What are you doing here?" We asked. "You aren't a Marine."

"Nope." He laughed. "But I'm an honorary Marine." Then he pulled out a certificate from his jacket and said, "I bombed Iwo Jima a month before the Marines landed... most of our bombs missed the target and landed on the beaches and in the water. We killed a lotta fish. But, we did one good thing. The bombs that hit the beach created ready-made foxholes for the Marines when they landed in February. So you see, they made me an Honorary 'Marine Foxhole Builder.'" We all had a good laugh over this.

Little he know at the time of the bombings on Iwo Jima, that within just 2 short months, his entire war would take a drastic change. 


On March 27, 1945, Fiske Hanley's B-29 was shot down over Japan. He was forced to bail out and parachute onto Japanese soil. Out of his entire 10-man crew, just one other managed to parachute to safety.

It was only his 7th mission.

The story that follows of his capture and subsequent torture by the Japanese as a "Special War Criminal" is one of amazing courage.

Landing in a rice field, Fiske was met by a furious mob of Japanese civilians with farm tools and bamboo spears. He barely escaped with his life when the local police arrived and put the two Americans in a back of a truck. Then they headed to Tokyo for interrogation by the Japanese version of the Gestapo, the Kempeitai.

As an American B-29 Bomber, Fiske was considered by the Japanese to be a civilian killer and a war criminal. From then on he would receive "Special Treatment." This included regular beatings, opening his wounds so they could not heal, starvation, and solitary confinement. By the time he was liberated in August of 1945, Fiske had dropped from a healthy 175 pounds to a mere 96.


When I visited him last week, he related a remarkable story to me.

A few days after his capture, Fiske was lying in a single cell. He was in pain from untreated wounds he had received from his crash. Everything he had heard about the Japanese treatment of POWs told him to expect the worst. Considering the welcoming committee that had greeted his landing, the rumors weren't far from the truth.

The door opened, and a "Peon" came in carrying a stipend of food for Fiske. "I call him a peon," he told me, "Because he was the lowest of the low in Japanese society. Nobody cared about him."

The little man spoke in a whisper, "You Christian?"

"Yes." Said Fiske.

"Me Christian." Said the little man. "Today Christian day."

Fiske didn't understand. "What do you mean?"

"Today Christian day." The man repeated.

He still didn't understand, and the man repeated the phrase a few more times. Then it struck him, Easter was April 1st. It must be Easter.

Over the next few days of his captivity there, he found out that the little man's family had been converted by Christian missionaries a few generations back. But because of their social status (literally at the bottom of the totem pole), no one ever bothered to enforce the religion of the land on this simple Japanese family.

Fiske was only held at that prison for a short time, but all the while he was there, the little Japanese man brought him what ever extra things he could sneak in to the cell.

"Easter is on April 1st this year." He added, 73 years later. 

As he told me this story, I couldn't help wondering about the missionaries and the impact their visit had on an American POW so many year later. You never know what lives you will touch down the road... people who will not be born until you are long passed.

Liberation! Fiske is Far left, behind the guy in the white shorts. 

Mr. Hanley would spend 6 months as a "Special" POW," enduring unending hardships... but this brief encounter was a spark of hope amidst all the darkness.

For Our Vietnam Veterans

Today is Vietnam Veterans Day, so we are re-sharing an article from a couple of years ago about a few particular Nam vets who left quite an impact on us, and taught us it's never to late to say Thank You.

A slight diversion from our normal topic... this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Putting aside complicated politics and issues that came out of the war, when our fellas came home they were treated like trash. Many of the vets we've talked to thought that they were going off to fight Communism and save the world, just like their predecessors the WWII veterans.

Coming home, then, only to be welcomed by being spit on, having things thrown at them, and called "Baby Killers," & "Murderers," was very demoralizing and crushed the spirits of many. One vet in particular, Mr. Adam, told us that he was treated so poorly after returning, that he retreated to the confines of his military career; rarely leaving the base, and almost never communicating with people outside his Army life. In the early 2000s, when there was a boost to show proper appreciation for the troops overseas, he felt very bitter. 

Last year when we went as guardians on Austin Honor Flight, we had the pleasure of traveling with many Vietnam Veterans. Before the trip was halfway done most of them were in tears at the gratitude they were being shown -for the first time. After all these years it didn't seem possible for them, but it was! At the end of the trip, we asked one of the vets, Mr. D'Amore what those two days had meant to him. He said two words, "Healing and closure." After all these years, there was finally healing and closure.

In our group was a set of friends (including two pairs of brothers) who were all born and raised in the little town of Granger. They did everything together, even went off to war together. Serving their time overseas, they eventually all came home -together. We like to think of them as the "Granger Boys".

Last year they decided to sign up for an Honor Flight. Gathering at one of the houses, they filled out the applications and mailed them in one envelope to Austin Honor Flight. If they were going to do this, they wanted to do it together. And they did.

Throughout the whole Honor Flight they were practically inseparable. Shedding tears of relief and joy, remembering their comrades, and receiving the welcome they never had. "There was no fanfare," they told us, "We just stood around. This is our welcome home. It's like having a baby, we feel that good about it... when you're baby's born you have tears. And you have tears when you go through that airport." All their lives they had done everything together, and now they had finally received their welcome home -together. Welcome home Granger Boys.

Don't forget these men, the Veterans of Vietnam. They fought in a messy, messy war; many of them coming home with great scars. It's an easy thing to say thank you. As Mr. Mike said, "Just a handshake is worth ten times a medal!"