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!"

My Two English Gramps

I think it is no coincidence that the two men who most profoundly impacted my interest and passion in preserving the history of WW2 were born on the same day. Les Womack and Peter Scott, my two English Grandpas. Today would have been their 95th and 92nd birthdays.

I was 14 when I met them. It was my first time in Normandy, France.

Gramps Womack was staying at our hotel on Juno Beach. He had the loveliest lilting Yorkshire accent and was the ultimate gentleman, proud of his service in the British Army during WW2.

Grandpa Scott was touring the D-Day beaches with his Navy chums. He was a "refined cockney," whose years in the Royal Navy had left him with a swagger and a brilliant sense of humor.

Shortly after, between emails, letters, and phones calls, they became my adopted English Grandpas.

Both Gramps Womack and Grandpa Scott were simply the most wonderful to me, and I was very close with them. I have rarely written about them here, partly because the loss of both is still fresh, and partly because sometimes the most precious aspects of our lives are also the most private. However, I will say emphatically that I don't know what my life would have been without them. Certainly, there would be no Operation Meatball.

To have one adopted Gramps is a special thing. But to have unique and separate relationships with two Gramps across the ocean is something I would never have dreamed of being blessed with.

I think of them every day, but especially today. . . on their birthdays.

How to Connect with WWII Veterans in YOUR Area

We've had a lot of folks ask over the years what we have found to be the best ways to connect with local WWII veterans. When we first started Operation Meatball in 2014, this was one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome. The few WWII vets we knew were several States away, so for all practical purposes we had to start from scratch. In fact, for the first WWII Dinner we put on, we really had to comb the newspapers and local care homes for vets. The good news is, once we started to figure it out, it turned into a fire hydrant.

Below I have outlined a few tips which we have found helpful, and I hope you will too.


Honor Flight

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Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.
— https://www.honorflight.org/

There are several way to volunteer. 

  1.  Sign up to be a Guardian on an Honor Flight. This is trickier because most of the hubs only have 1 or 2 scheduled flights per year and already have a long guardian waiting list (unless of course you are related to the veteran, or he has requested you). Also, though the trip is 100% free for the veteran, guardians are requested to make a $500 donation to cover their flight, hotel room, and food during the trip (note: the cost varies according to the location. West coast guardian fees are around $900-1000). That said, If  you were able to be a guardian for a WW2 or Korean War vet on an HF, it would be one of the best experiences you will ever have in your life. Truly. As much as the trip impacts the veteran, I can tell you first hand that it will change your life as well. CLICK HERE TO FIND YOU LOCAL HUB
  2. Volunteering Locally with Honor Flight. You may not be able to go on an HF, but there are PLENTY of activities and events locally which your HF hub will host during the year. Fundraising events, HF Welcome Homes (a great opportunity to make a super flashy red, white, and blue, patriotic welcome home sign), letter collections, and anything else they do. This is a great opportunity to meet your local WW2, Korea, and Vietnam veterans, as well as work with some terrific people with a similar passion.
  3. Mail Call. Each HF that goes to DC has a surprise for the vets (If you are a WW2 or Korean War vet who hasn't gone on HF, - don't read the next sentence. Hehe). In the weeks before the flight, they collect special letters of gratitude from the veteran's family members, friends, and anyone who wishes to send in. Then on the return trip home, they have "Mail Call" just like in their service days. This is one of the most emotional and meaningful parts of the trip for the vets. If you can't make it to any of the HF programs, I highly recommend that you send in letters to your local hub for Mail Call. They are ALWAYS in need of more letters. They can be simple cards which just say Thank you Veteran, or you can be creative and decorate it fancy. Just make sure to check the specific requirements for your hub. 

Visit Your Local Nursing Homes & Assisted Living

Many of your local Care Homes will have a sprinkling of these American National Treasures. If you can sing, play an instrument, or have something similar to offer, contact the activity director for your local care home. The residents and veterans are always happy to have folks come in and entertain them. I know most of y'all already do this over the holidays... but there are still plenty of other opportunities to stop by and visit throughout the year. Think about bringing cards over on Valentine's Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, or Veterans Day. Or just because. 

Though there will be less and less WW2 vets as the years roll on, there are plenty of Korean War and even a few Vietnam vets living in these homes. And they would all be happy for a visit!!


Local Events/ Everyday Life

National holiday events like Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Veterans Day, etc always bring the veterans out. There are numerous other smaller holidays as well, but those of course are the largest. Keep an eye out for what events are happening in your area. Is your local VFW or American Legion having an open house? Maybe your local history museum/holocaust museum/ or something similar is having a guest speaker. These are all easy things that give you the opportunity to meet your local veterans. 

Of course, the grocery store is another awesome place, so keep an eye out for the WWII Vet/Korean War vet caps (for my WW2 readers... PLEASE remember to wear your hats out in public! Thank you). I'll tell you this, once you start noticing caps, you'll start seeing them everywhere. Funny story... about every 2 years I run into the same veteran at Costco. Each time we're both dashing somewhere crazy, but I end up reintroducing myself only to realize we've met before. 


World War Two Events

Going to WWII events is a great way to get your feet wet and get inspired. There are SO many WWII events all over the country throughout the year, that I can only name a few here. But hopefully it'll give you a good idea what to look for.

  1. D-Day Conneaut is the largest reenactment of the Normandy Invasion. But it's more than a reenactment. Set on the shores of Lake Erie, OH, you get to spend 3 days visiting authentic American, Allied, German, and Free French camps, with educational displays and living quarters for the over 1,200 reenactors who attend. It is like stepping back in time. Additionally (and our favorite part of course) is the veterans tent. WWII Veterans have talks throughout the weekend and you get the opportunity to visit with them in a casual and comfortable setting. Generally the 3rd weekend in August. Click Here to Learn More
  2. Reading World War Two Weekend is one of the largest WW2 events/airshows in the country. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, they have reenactors from all parts of the war (The European Theatre, the Pacific Theatre), veteran talks, singing, a hangar dance, and a great selection of WWII planes. The dates are generally the first weekend in June. Click Here to learn more
  3. Currahee Military Weekend, one of my favorite events of the year. This tight-knit community gathers each October to honor the paratroopers who trained at Camp Toccoa during WW2. Making it extra special are the "Original Toccoa Men" who make the trip out each year. Secretly, I think it's just to make sure peeps like us keep running the Currahee mountain (3 Miles Up. 3 Miles Down). Click Here to Learn More
  4. Remembering WWII is another great event for the family. Around the end of September, the entire town of Linden, Tennessee transforms into the 1940s. Over the weekend they have a movie night, a reenactment, veteran talks, and much more. Click Here to Learn More
  5. Airshows: There are dozens of airshows throughout the year. Depending which ones you are closest to, they might have a special Heroes and Legends Tent or Veterans Tent, or something similar which is specifically set up for the public to meet and talk with veterans. 

There are of course many, many WWII events and airshows throughout the year, but these are the top ones that come to mind. If you are looking for one more local, of course you can look on Facebook and Google. 


I may do a part two down the road, but I hope some of the information helps. If you have questions, feel free to ask, and I'll try to get back to you promptly.

If you are new to the WWII community, don't be overwhelmed. Yes, there is a lot to learn, baby steps will get you there just as fast. Also, the good news is, once you start spotting veteran caps and keeping an eye out for local events, the opportunities will really open up. But don't wait. Don't wait until you have a paper to write for school, or even Veterans Day... Start now. Start looking for ways to recognize and thank your local veterans before the time runs out and the opportunity is no longer there. 

Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will tell to you.
— Deuteronomy 32.7

V-Mail: America's Secret Morale Booster in WW2

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I published the below short article on our Facebook last month, but it is so interesting I thought I would share it here on the blog. 

During WW2, millions of letters were mailed to servicemen overseas every single day. This was great news for the soldiers, however the size of the mail oftentimes took up valuable cargo space on ships and planes. To solve the problem, the government created the Victory Mail system (V-Mail). Each letter that was sent V-Mail would be photographed & shipped overseas on a 16mm microfilm reels, then printed out and delivered.

In the above photo you see a soldier holding up two reels of V-Mail film, contrasted by the corresponding number of letters below. It shows you just how powerful this new mailing system was!

It's fun to look up examples of V-mail because besides the regular letters that were sent, servicemen would sometimes draw elaborate pictures or cartoons, humorously depicting the woes of military life. Below are some of my favorite examples.


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SeeBee, J. Spiegelberg, with tongue in cheek in this hilarious cartoon, assures Ruth Spiegelberg that he has ALL the comforts of his home back in the Bronx. Even running water! Everywhere. 


Though just a Corporal, Harve Chrisman has dreams of a great future for himself. 


vmail.jpg

Corporal Edwards forgot to leave out a few things when writing home to his parents. Thankfully, the censor was there to remind him. 


The outside of a posted V-Mail


Thanksgiving grub, served up military style. Probably not as delicious as mother's home cooking. 


A letter from a Daddy (a paratrooper) to his children from "Somewhere in Italy." This letter and the following one are simply precious. 

The paratrooper's letter made it to his children, and this is little Myrna's response. 


In different parts of the world, but PFC Raymer hasn't forgotten his anniversary.


I hope you enjoyed these examples of V-Mail. It was a transition for America, but in the end V-Mail was a great success, freeing up vital space to transport Arms and Supplies for our soldiers overseas.

Texas in World War Two

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On this day, 182 years ago, Texas formally declared her independence from Mexico, creating the Republic of Texas. Though not an "official" government holiday, the State of Texas does recognize it, as well as most Texans, either by the re-reading of the Declaration or a general observance. 

For the birthday of Texas, I thought I'd share with you some interesting facts related to her involvement in World War Two. 


Did you know that, of the 16 million American men and women to serve in WWII, over 750,000 of them were from Texas??

Texans enlisted or were drafted in excess of the percentage of the nation’s population. Although the state had 5 percent of the United States population, it provided 7 percent of those who served in the armed forces.

Texas A&M University alone provided more officers for the armed forces than both of the military academies combined. Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, later declared that Texas had contributed a larger percentage of men to the armed forces than any other state. By the end of the war, 750,000 Texans, including 12,000 women, served in the armed forces.
— Texas Historical Association

A "Few" Notable Texans to serve in World War Two

James Earl Rudder, well known as the beloved commander to lead "The Boys of Point Du Hoc" during the D-Day Invasion was a Texan by birth, born in Eden, Texas, a hop-skip away from San Angelo. His story is an exceptional one, leading his men gallantly from D-Day on, all through Europe and into Germany. After the war, Rudder returned home to a full career including becoming President of Texas A&M University in 1965. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SCAEF) in the European theatre during WWII and later President of the United States, was born in the small town of Denison, Texas. Ike's "D-Day speech," given out on leaflets and read  to the troops on the eve of June 6, 1944, is probably one of the most famous speeches of WW2. It started out, "Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you."

Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War Two American history, had a humble beginning picking cotton in the cotton fields of North-East Texas. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he enlisted, lying about his age to get in. Fighting through Italy, Southern France, Belgium, and Germany, he became one of the brightest Stars in Texas' military history, coming home with many decorations including the Medal of Honor - America's highest military award for valor. After the war, he became quite popular in the movies, including starring in his own biographical piece, "To Hell and Back." 


Lastly, for Texas Independence Day we wanted to share a short story with you which, though it is about a Yankee from Massachusetts, all Texans are sure to understand and relate to. It is an excerpt from the book, "Prisoner of War," by Clyde Fillmore, a WWII Veteran and member of the "Lost Battalion."

• • • • • •  You remember that when we left Singapore in January of 1943, we were forced to leave nine men who were too sick to travel. Well, of these nine, eight were from Texas; the other one hailed from Massachusetts. It isn't difficult to imagine this one fellow's plight nor imagine his misery as he was forced to listen to eight loyal Texans day after day.

In 1944, a B-29 was shot down over Singapore, and three of the survivors eventually found themselves with the nine Americans. The prisoner from Massachusetts was elated and approached them almost with prayerful expectancy. Alas! They were all from Texas.

When the war ended another B-29 came in to take them to Calcutta for hospitalization, where we met them once more. However, the prisoner from Massachusetts had not given up hope, so when the big plane landed, he rushed up to the pilot, a young first lieutenant, and asked him where he came from. In an unmistakable drawl, he answered, "I'm from Texas."

Hope had, by this time, almost died, but being a rather stubborn individual, he did not give up so easily. After about an hour in the air he noticed that the navigator was a full blood Chinaman. He sidled up to him and asked in a faltering voice, "And how long have you been away from China?"

Came the answer, "Why, I'm not from China; I was born in San Antonio, Texas.

February 19: A date personal to me

February 19th is a very personal anniversary for me. It's the day our boys landed on Iwo Jima's volcanic soil. Three year ago I visited Iwo Jima. I walked on the beaches, looked out on Mt. Suribachi, and stood with veterans who had lost arms, legs, and their closest friends. That trip changed my life.

I've just spent the last several days with 14 veterans of this iconic battle in our history, listening as they shared tales and tears from 73 years ago. It was more than just a get together of old war vets swapping stories. It was an intentional time set aside to remember. To remember the 7,000 American lives lost on the island and to recall to mind the most defining moment in their lives.

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Always Kiss Goodnight: A Story for Valentine's Day

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With Valentine's Day coming up, I thought I'd share a sweet story with you.

The article below was written by the American-Statesman a few years ago about a simply darling couple, the Kanters. When I first read this article, I knew I must make their acquaintance, so I invited them to our first WWII Veterans Dinner in 2014. Very happily for us, they accepted the invitation, and the girls and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. Mr. Kanter was completely charming (and very handsome!) and Mrs. Kanter was fabulously spunky. Walking up to an Army veteran at our dinner she declared, "If you see a good looking man in a black sports coat, watch out. He is Navy all the way." When the veteran made a comment about the Army's superiority, she deftly defended her husband and the Navy. Sadly, Mrs. Kanter passed away not too long after the dinner. To know her was an absolute delight. 

With that brief background, here is the article:

Mr. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.


Always Kiss Goodnight

Helen Anders

American-Statesman Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 

It was Halloween night 1944, and a new student at the University of Texas, Irene Wolfson, had a date to a Longhorns football game. Told a blue norther was coming in, but not knowing quite what that was because she’d just arrived from Florida, Irene dressed smartly in a one-button suit with a yellow angora sweater.

“I go out to get in the car,” Irene recalls, “and driving is this sailor with coal-black hair and a fantastic smile.” That, however, was not Irene’s date, although her date was also in the car. The sailor, Marvin Kanter, on shore leave from the Navy, had a date of his own. Still, during the evening when it became clear that Irene had under-dressed for the norther, he lent her his pea coat. The next day, Marvin left to catch a ship out of San Francisco.

“All the way to California, I was picking yellow angora off my pea coat,” he says. His memory of Irene stuck with him just like the angora, and when he was back in Austin — two years later, after World War II had ended — he tracked her down for a date. Then he went home to Missouri and she to Florida, but they corresponded. Irene’s mother saw his picture in her daughter’s room and instantly disapproved.

“He has a weak chin,” she tsked. Undeterred, Irene proposed to Marvin when they got together one weekend in 1947.

“What are your future plans?” Marvin asked Irene, who quickly answered: “I plan to marry you and settle down.” In 1949, they did just that, opting to move to Austin, where Irene quickly landed a job with a fabric store and Marvin worked for a pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

“I don’t think anyone expected the marriage to last,” Irene muses. But here they are, 64 years later. Irene wound up teaching school, then becoming an administrator, serving as assistant principal of Anderson High School for 20 years. Marvin took a job with the Texas Railroad Commission and spent 34 years of weekends officiating at football games, many of them attended by Irene and their daughter, Shelly.

“Remember that time we put hotdog wrappers on our feet to keep warm?” Shelly remembers, and both her parents laugh.

 Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Now retired, Marvin and Irene take a swim in their pool at exactly 4 p.m. every day (unless it’s too cold) and follow that up with a 5 p.m. cocktail hour. They may be out of the business world, but they’re far from idle. They work from time to time as extras in movies shooting in Austin — in fact, they enjoyed a decent amount of screen time behind Sandra Bullock in a restaurant scene in “Miss Congeniality” — and they travel relentlessly, heading out for a tour of interior Alaska just four weeks after Irene had hip surgery. Talking about all this, they grin at each other like newlyweds.

“We have a lot of fun together,” Irene says.

“We laugh a lot, and we try to stay young,” Marvin says. “And whether the day has gone smooth or rough, at the end of the day, we kiss each other.”

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve had a fuss,” Irene says, “but we do.”

http://www.statesman.com/lifestyles/always-kiss-good-night/3rPiyfI7ktv4v9tooYr2RN/

Happy Changes for Operation Meatball

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Dear Friends, 

We are thrilled to announce a significant change with Operation Meatball. 

In order to further our outreach to the veterans and advance our work to meet the urgent need, we have expanded Operation Meatball and formed a 501(c)3 non-profit organization as of December 7, 2017.

The last three years

In June of 2014, Jubilee, Faith, and I created Operation Meatball as our effort to honor WWII veterans. Over the last three and a half years, we have hosted USO style events for our local veterans, made house visits to those unable to travel and kept up a weekly correspondence with out of staters, recorded 3 cds of 1940’s music to give to the vets, worked with Honor Flight hubs around the country, and greeted thousands of veterans at the WWII Memorial. We attended dozens of military reunions and WWII events from California to Washington, D.C., meeting and interviewing veterans. In sum, we have traveled 250,000 miles, collected thousands of stories, and met countless wonderful veterans of WWII. 

Our mission remains the same: to honor World War II veterans while we have them with us. 

The plan for 2018

With funding, we will be able to broaden the work we have been doing over the last several years so that we can quickly reach the rapidly dwindling number of WWII veterans, and capture this fast fading moment in history for our children and yours. The plans so far for 2018 include 18 military reunions and WWII events, interviews with veterans in North Carolina, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, 2 Super Saturdays at the WWII Memorial, 2 USO style concerts, and continuing our house visits and correspondence.

Now we need your help

We lost 33 veterans alone in 2017, with whom we had a special connection. The urgency is heightened as we hear of sickness, hospice care, and loss even in these first few weeks of the new year. Just a few days ago, I read the incredible obituary of a precious veteran I have known for two and a half years and saw regularly, but simply never had the resources to record his story in an interview. He was not one of the “famous” ones who has a household name, but his story was inspiring and even movie worthy. I admit I cried bitterly at the loss. All we have now is a newspaper summary. 

Would you support us? Your tax-deductible contribution to Operation Meatball will allow us to chronicle irreplaceable stories, to toast these worthy ones in their twilight days, and to ensure that their scars and feats will always be remembered. 

Warm Regards,

Liberty Phillips

President & Founder of Operation Meatball 

Fabulous Frank of the RAF

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I'd like you to meet Frank, an RAF veteran of WW2. Frank is simply fabulous. When he was 93 three years old, he zip-lined off the Imperial War Museum's 95ft tall viewing tower (nearly as tall as his years were many) 1,000 feet across the canal to the opposite bank. Twice. He did this for a children's charity. A little earlier, Frank had walked 50 miles in 6 days (remember he was 93 at the time) to raise money for the local Church, St. Pauls. Now at 96, he's looking for new adventures to sign up for and new records to break. 

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In 1940, Frank signed up with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He popped around for a bit, serving as ground gunner for a while, some pilot training, then he was shipped to Canada where he spent 6 weeks studying navigation in Toronto. Capable of any position on the bomber at this point, he was eventually assigned as Bombardier on a Lancaster with 625 Squadron, 1st Group Bomber Command RAF. It was rough going.

"In one 35-hour period alone, he flew back to back missions over Dresden and Chemnitz, with barely a moment’s sleep between 18 hours flying time and briefings. "Some others had it so rough," He said, "that they couldn’t go on. They should have been taken off and given six weeks leave to get them mentally fit. But if you finished you had your documents stamped ‘LMF’ – lack of moral fibre. No-one wanted that.”"*

All in all, he flew 22 missions during the war, and an additional 10 missions afterward, dropping food and supplies for Operation Manna before being discharged in 1946.

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Like many veterans of World War Two, the memories of the war would come back to haunt him in later years, with questions of right and wrong. Each veteran has their own way of dealing with the conflict. As you read with Jerry Yellin, he found his answer in forgiveness. Another veteran I know goes to therapy with Iraq veterans. 

As for Frank, he turned to poetry. If not able find the answers, at least it gave him the opportunity to put into words some of his thoughts.

Fifty years after World War Two / My eldest grandson enquired of the / part I then played and what did I think / about killing people? / Replying to this I recalled  / 'In 1940 I joined the RAF / not for a laugh nor for fun / but because War had begun. / For one who dared, I was scared / up there in the sky - / hoped I would not die...'

Later in a Lancaster Bomer's nose / looking down for the Target Markers. / There! To Port, the Targets lit. / Skipper and Engineer see it too / And the aircraft's course is altered by /10 degrees. / I call, 'Open Bomb doors' and report. / 'Still too far to Starboard: Left - left / Left - left and again left - left. / Keep it steady now Steady Steady.'

With Target under Bomb Sigh's cross / So "pear-switch" pressed; / Bombs all go. / There! Below it's all aglow. / When I call 'Close Bomb doors' / All the crew seems more composed - / When Navigator directs Skipper, / Change course, compass 3-20 degrees.' / Now we're returning to Base. / Will a fight give chase? / Will there be more 'flak?' / All crew hope, maybe pray - / we will see Lincoln Cathedral / when night becomes day. / Not thought or prayer for those we've killed - UNTIL MUCH LATER / Only that another Operation has been fulfilled.

Then at last, the War is over. / And thankful feeling that life is now a "Bed of Clover" and / I am proud to have become a father. / But now for UNTIL MUCH LATER! / Thoughts return of targets bombed / and wondering how many children, / how many mothers did we kill? / In our participation to eliminate / the Nazi ill. 

Until Much Later

FS Tolley - 1995


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Frank will turn 97 this summer. But who's counting years? He’s certainly not. He continues to pop around like the spry young thing he is, putting those much younger to shame.

When we were in Holland last year, we were so pleased to spend quite a bit of time with Frank.  Throughout the weekend, his enthusiasm and energy had us all running to keep up with him.

One particular evening, after a taxing day, he had been taken back to the lodge for an early night. Before we knew it, he had joined our party again with declarations of, "What do you think I am? A child? I'm not the least bit tired. I'm 96. I didn't come to Holland for an early bed!" His semi-irate manner had us all laughing in delight and wanting to be just like him when we are 96. Thanks for the example, Frank.  Though really? How can we ever match up to you?

*Excerpts taken from the excellent article: Lancaster Bomber memories or fundraising WW2 veteran

Long Ago & Far Away: and Other Songs from WW2 by Faith Evangeline (limited supply)

Long Ago & Far Away: and Other Songs from WW2

20 Songs from the World War Two era, performed by Faith Evangeline. Run time 59 Minutes.

Long Ago & Far Away / Fools Rush In / It Had to Be You / I've Heard That Song Before / Embraceable You / Blues in the Night / A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square / Singin' in the Rain / Lili Marlene / When the Lights Go On Again / Stormy Weather  You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To / Under the Bamboo Tree / I Remember You / Night and Day / I'll Be Seeing You / You Go To My Head / Smoke Gets In Your Eyes / begin the Beguine / Que Sera Sera


"Long Ago & Far Away" CD Order Form

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Henry Vaden and the Language of the Eyes

Three years ago this January, the girls and I were given a special gift. The gift of friendship with one of the kindest and gentlest of souls I've had the pleasure of knowing, Henry Vaden. It was a short-lived friendship, just shy of 3 months, but it remains in my memory as one of the most special and unique friendships. 


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It all started in December of 2014, when we received note from a lady (who has since become a very dear friend) writing us to see if we would visit her father, a WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran who lived in a nursing home just a few miles from us. She lived many, many states away and was unable to make it down to Texas. Of course we were delighted to make a visit on her behalf, though we little knew at the time what an impact her father, Mr. Vaden, would have on our lives. 

I've never known the phrase, "The eyes are the window to the soul," to be more true than with Mr. Vaden. Until I met him, I'd never really noticed people's eyes. However since then, I've learned that one can attempt to lie through the mouth, but it's hard to deceive with the eyes. In an instant, before you can even utter words, your eyes have already spoken, giving away what happiness or sadness you may be feeling in your heart at the time. For Mr. Vaden, his smiling eyes spoke a language of their own, even while he did not speak. 

During our visits with Mr. Vaden, the girls and I quickly learned to communicate with him through his eyes. They showed optimism and contentedness. If he felt poorly, they never complained. The constant twinkle in his eyes kept us on our toes. How was he feeling that day? Did he like the song Faith sang? Lunch was better than yesterday? That's good news. 

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One afternoon we brought him an old LIFE Magazine from early 1945.

During WWII, Mr. Vaden had served in the 106th Infantry, barely escaping capture by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Years had made the details of his war a little foggy and hard to remember, so I thought bringing this LIFE might bring back some forgotten memories. Flipping through the magazine, the girls and I gave him a chatty commentary on the photos and articles. We watched his eyes scan the pages with much interest, looking for what was familiar to him, laughing simultaneously at the way we rambled on.

Did he remember this General? 

His eyes said, "Not really."

Do you remember when the Germans advanced here? 

"Yes." His eyes said.

Oh, here are some photos from the Battle of the Bulge. Was it terribly cold there?

"Brr. Too cold," He conveyed. "Turn the page." 

My favorite part came when we arrived at a full-page advertising a new General Electric Radio with the fabulous Carmen Miranda, well known for her wacky hats, platform shoes, and tongue-twisting latin music. We didn't even have a chance to ask, "Do you remember Carmen Miranda?" before his face said it all.

"Of course I remember her!" His eyes seemed to say. "How can you forget her fruit-salad hats!?" 

His expressions were so hilarious, we all burst out laughing. Our follow up question was, did Mr. Vaden's wife ever wear one of the funny little hats like Carmen Miranda? Well... maybe not as crazy. 

"Oh did she ever!" He almost rolled his eyes. But it was followed by a genuine smile saying, "They might have been funny, but I loved them."

And that is how our weekly visits went. Some days Mr. Vaden felt well enough to say a few words. There was one morning I'll never forget. As we walked into his hospital room, he greeted us with a bright smile and a verbal, "Good morning girls!" We were so surprised that we just stood there for a moment astonished. "You look so much better!" We finally laughed.

"I feel better!" He answered back with real words.

He spoke with a twinkle in his eye as if to say, "Ha. I thought I would surprise you. You never know what to expect from me!"

And he laughed. The most wonderful laugh. We had heard from his daughter that he had the most wonderful sense of humor. Of course he did. 

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You really can't underestimate this power of speechless conversation until you have tried it with someone. It is compelling. On days when he didn't feel so keen, and Faith would just sing him a song or two, we would watch his eyes as he sang along. Hymns, songs from the 40s, the 50s, 60s; he knew almost all of them. I remember clearly being often moved by the expressions on his face as he listened. That's another thing that should never be underestimated. The power of music to bring back memories long forgotten. Once when Faith sang, "White Cliffs of Dover," such a multitude of thoughts crossed his face, sweet memories mixed with some bitter ones, maybe from the war? I watched in awe wondering what a beautiful life this man must have lived and just what a blessing it was to know him.

As Mr. Vaden began to decline, it was harder and harder to say goodbye after each visit. We never knew when it would be the last time, and we had fallen in love with this dear man. My last visit with him was in early March, 2015. I was supposed to head out of town on a business trip in a day or two. He was sleeping peacefully, so I whispered goodbye to him and left. He passed away while I was gone.


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It's been almost exactly 3 years since I first walked into his nursing home. But I can honestly say those weekly visits with him changed my life. In his quiet way, with his beautiful smile and twinkling eyes, he taught me so much. He taught me about Contentedness. I doubt he would have complained about anything, even given the opportunity. He was always Grateful. If it was a sunny day, he expressed gratitude. It was a rainy day, he expressed gratitude. Even when he felt most ill, there was still a twinkle of Humor about him.

He was Patriotic. The war was a long way back in his mind. Hard to remember things. But he was so proud of the service he gave his country in WWII. I often spoke with him about how the people of France and Belgium still remember his service. His face would beam with noble pride over it.

And how important was Family to him? You only had to mention a name and his face would fill with the deep love he had for his family. No matter the day, he always made an effort to pass a message along to his beloved daughters. 

He also opened my eyes to a different type of friendship. Not your regular friendship, but a very, very special one. A type of friendship that doesn't require many words because the kindness of heart is expressed through the eyes and smile. And what a smile! 

On that first visit, the girls and I hoped to bring a little joy to Mr. Vaden. But instead, he was the one who always brought joy to us!  I wouldn't trade anything for those weekly visits or his beautiful smile. 

I will always be grateful for my brief friendship with this precious, godly soul. I know I often thank the Lord for putting it into his daughter Angela's heart to contact us. And our continued friendship with her has only added to the wonderful blessing of knowing the man with the wonderful smile, Mr. Vaden.

Wounded on the 15th of January

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I've written about him before as one of the most remarkable men we’ve ever met. A real man’s man, true soldier, patriot, and completely charming gentleman, are just a few of Mr. Gene Gilbreath’s many wonderful attributes. But today, in honor of him and the 73rd anniversary of a significant day in his life, we thought we’d share with you what he told us about this particular day:

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Early the morning of January 15th, ’45, there was a small patrol of us (six of us I believe), going from Cobru, Belgium to Noville. Probably two thirds of the way up, this fellow who was leading the patrol came back and said, “Gene, I just can’t do this any more.” He gave me a Thompson, I gave him my M1, went on up into Noville.

We located a somewhat open garage right close to where we went up, and we stayed there the rest of the evening -or rest of the night. Between 7 and 8 the next morning I was on guard duty, and the boys were awake and I told my squad leader, “I’m gonna go scavenge up some blankets.” (because we had no heavy clothing). I went out and went up the street in Noville, toward -well it turned out to be toward the church- and this first house I went in, up and down and nothing. Absolutely nothing. No sheets, not even a piece of paper. So I came back down, and as you can see, these sidewalks are very narrow. Just as I turned to go in to the second house I heard this big noise. Loud noise. Well, I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, and I don’t remember a lot of pain. It was just I knew I was shot bad, but I don’t remember a lot of pain.

I’d been hit in the chest and hit the ground bleeding and sucking blood. I did a little praying, and I called for the medics. The medics didn’t come. I did that three times and I finally decided, “I’d better get outta here.” I didn’t see the guy that shot me; I haven’t found anybody that did. Any rate, I managed somehow to get this Thompson over this shoulder, held this arm like this, and walked back to where the boys were (which was probably a hundred and... maybe 200, 300 feet maybe). They gave me a shot of morphine, and my squad leader and I started back to the aid station -which was about a mile. I got within, probably a 100 yards or so, I ran out of steam and he carried me the rest of the way and put me on the jeep.

And that’s the last I knew till 10:30 that night in a field hospital in Luxembourg, Belgium... It broke my collar bone, and of course screwed up these radial nerves. Of course broke this arm pretty bad. And I’ve got about this much shorter... Perhaps a half-inch shorter left arm than the right. But radial, radial nerve damage was, was really the most serious part of it."

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Mr. Gilbreath was shipped to England where he spent the next several weeks recovering, than he was sent home for more treatment. His war was over. A couple of years ago, we had the privileged and honor to visit the exact location where he had been wounded and hear from him just how it happened. We could almost see everything as it happened, so many years ago.

Though his stint in the Airborne was shorter than he would have liked, if you ask to him today he will tell you that being in the 101st Airborne was one of the most defining things in his life. Thank you Mr. Gilbreath. 

Unpublished Highlights from 2017

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Well, we've reached the end of 2017. And what a year it's been. There have been a lot of bittersweet emotions throughout the year as we closed out our third year with Operation Meatball and started into our 4th. Over the last few months we've undergone some changes which I'll go into later. However, with all the blessings intermixed with sadness, defeats, and victories, we can truly look back on 2017 as a blessed/successful one. 

I initially wanted to write an in-deph review of the year, as we did in 2016. However, time does not allow, and quite truthfully, I don't want to try your patience to the breaking. Instead, I offer you highlights from some of our un-blogged about events this past year.


My Favorite Professor

In April, after 2+ years, I was reunited with one of my wonderful Iwo Jima veterans (and all around favorite professors), Mr. Bill P. 

Mr. P. and I first met on Guam in 2015, during the 70th anniversary of Iwo Jima. We hit it off right away as we chatted about history, education, politics, and how it relates to us today. I was particularly struck at the time with the foresight and wisdom he had had as a young Marine to make certain decisions that would completely shape his life and future for the very best.

He retired from Texas Tech before I was in grade school. Now, in his own methodical way and soft Bronx, NY accent, he teaches with a wisdom collected from 93 years of life experience, captivating the listener and leaving him wanting more. I've often told him that if I could have picked a favorite professor to study under, he would have been No. 1. 

It was just great getting to visit with him and have our conversation pick up where it had left off on Guam, 2+ years before. He even showed me the 92 textbooks he'd written over his life-time, 5 of which received Texty Awards. I'll never look at another textbook the same again.


The Flying Horsemen Come to San Antonio

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In October, San Antonio was invaded by the extraordinary Flyboys and family members of the 449th Bomb Group Association, the Flying Horsemen. And what a terrific invasion it was! By the very kind invitation of the association, Faith and I spent 3 memorable evenings with them, getting a first-hand, crash course history lesson on the Flying Horsemen.

Between January 8, 1944 and April 26, 1945, the 449th Bomb Group flew over 250 combat missions out of their base in Italy. Their losses were great as their targets were often the most heavily defended ones in Europe. "From the time they arrived in Grottaglie until they departed at the end of the war, the 449th lost a total of 135 aircraft. Of those, 111 were lost in combat and 24 were non-combat related losses." (449th Bomb Group Association). But their indomitable spirit persisted, making them "one of the most distinguished and decorated combat units of World War II."

 Harvey Gann and his darling wife.

Harvey Gann and his darling wife.

But this indomitable spirit went further than combat missions. Several of the veterans in attendance were ex-POWs. One in particular, a native Texan, Harvey Gann, was captured on January 30, 1944 and sent to Stalag Luft 4 near Grosstychow, Prussia. During his 15 months imprisonment, he attempted escape three times and finally on the fourth attempt, he was successful. However, by the time he arrived safely behind Russian lines, the war was within days of ending. "And to think I could have just waited," he laughingly told me. 

Each night there was something special planned for the reunion. The first night was a fun, "Get Acquainted Party." Folks dressed up in the smart styles of the WWII era, there was group singing and a special anniversary cake for Mr. & Mrs. Harvey Gann, who were celebrating 71 years that day.

A little snippet from Squadron Night at the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Lt. Ed West (B-24 Navigator) & Faith sing, "I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen." Mr. West has the most remarkable memory for songs, and this was just one of several he sang for us.

The next evening was Squadron Night, a personal favorite for me. This evening was all about celebrating the four squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group: 716th Squadron, 717th Squadron, 718th Squadron, and 719th Squadron. The veterans and family members sat at tables which represented their Squadron, and just like Texans, whenever an opportunity came up to applaud or cheer on the squadron, it was duly taken.

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During the evening, there was a terrific panel where each veteran was given an opportunity to share some anecdotes from the war or (in one delightful instance) sing a few wartime songs. This was followed by a fascinating lecture on the Willow Run Factory, a B-24 Bomber manufacturer owned by Ford Motor Company and based out of Michigan during the war. At the peak of her operations in WWII, Willow Run was producing 1 B-24 Liberator per hour! I can honestly say I never thought I would be so interested in a factory, but the history of Willow Run and her current restoration projects blew my mind. 

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Saturday night, the final banquet was held at the Tower of the Americas, a memorable location to close out the reunion.

As an outsider and onlooker, I have to say how much I loved seeing the enthusiasm and personal pride that was had for each Squadron and the 449th Bomb Group. This wasn't just an annual social get-together. It was a genuine and concerted effort to honor the men of the 449th BG and educate the younger generations on their sacrifices in WWII. Everyone I talked with at the reunion was so knowledgable about the 449th and spoke with such ardor about their relatives that I kept walking away from these conversations greatly moved and motivated to learn more. 

The amount of planning and coordination that went into the entire reunion was outstanding. I really must thank the organizers, specifically Denise Reigal, for including us in this special, special reunion. It was such an honor to meet your veterans, listen to their narratives, and even share a few songs with them.

Though the weekend was short, our hearts were quite captured by the Flyboys and family of the 449th Bomb Group.

If you are interested in learning more about the 449th Bomb Group Association, I highly recommend you check out their website. It is full of easily accessible information and content which will keep you reading for hours. I have greatly enjoyed pursuing the articles and documents they have on the website. https://449th.com


The Airborne Demonstration Open Hangar Day 

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Definitely one of the personal highlights of the year was an impromptu trip up to Oklahoma to see the Airborne Demonstration Team. It happened at the end of October when I was in between events in Fort Worth and discovered my free day happened to align perfectly with the last day of ADT's Jump School and Open Hangar Day. Adding to it, a couple of paratrooper vets I knew were already up there, so naturally I couldn't resist the short trip.


Twice a year, the ADT holds a Parachute Jump School, concluding with their Open Hangar Day and Wing-Pinning ceremony for the students who complete all qualifying jumps. It's quite a thrill to watch the students wings pinned on by WW2 and Korean War airborne veterans. The girls and I attended Open Hangar Day a few years ago and never forgot the experience.

Our parachute school is a rigorous nine day course located at the historic Frederick Army Airfield in Frederick, Oklahoma. Prior army airborne veterans will tell you to a man that our training is more detailed than what they received at the Army Airborne School. The student is also immersed in an atmosphere of a bustling WWII training facility. Qualifying jumps are made from our two WWII era aircraft, the C-47 Boogie Baby and the C-49 Wild Kat.
— www.wwiiadt.org
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The moment you step back into the hangar it is like going back in time to 1942, as a fly on the wall to one of the greatest creations produced in WWII, the American Paratrooper. The sights, the sounds, the smells, it all reckons back to the era of the WWII paratroopers: Men who were reckless enough to jump out of a plane into combat in the pitch darkness of midnight or broad daylight; and brave enough to take on a half-dozen Germans single-handed. "Any one of us paratroopers was as good as 6 Germans!" An 82nd Airborne vet once told me, "We were the toughest of the tough, and baddest of the bad." (I have to add... they may have once been the toughest of the tough, baddest of the bad, but now, mellowed a bit with years, they can also be called sweetest of the sweet)

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It was a wonderful day spent exploring the hangar, watching the students complete their training, and catching up with the vets. Something about the atmosphere of the hangar, an atmosphere so similar to their bootcamp days, brings back old memories to the vets.

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Besides being back in the Hangar and catching up with my lovely paratrooper vets, a highlight to the highlights of the day and long-time dream come true was to fly in the C-47, Boogie Baby. But not only fly in a C-47, but go up with one of the "sticks" (groups) making their final qualifying jumps for the ADT Jump School. Truly exhilarating, thrilling, and electrifying are just a few words to describe it. 

It wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention my seat-mate during the ride, the fabulous Ms. Mabel. Ms. Mabel is a 90-year old firecracker, full of spunk and energy. From farmer girl to mayor of her town (and a bit of basketball and other athletic sports in between) she has lived life to the max. Today she had come with her husband, a WWII Navy vet, to attend the Open Hangar events and was invited to go up with one of the sticks. Of course she was ecstatic and was bouncing around like a kid the whole way up to the Boogie Baby, and throughout the entire flight she cheered on the fellows about to make their jump, wishing them the very best success. I joked with her that I was sure one of them would be willing to swap spots if she wanted to make the jump too. 

It was a whirlwind trip up to Oklahoma, but worth every bit. The folks at ADT are terrific, and the energy and excitement around the hangar is absolutely infectious! It was so good to be back after 2 years. 🇺🇸


More Highlights

As I'm writing this, I'm remembering more and more highlights from 2017, and it's just impossible to include them all. So here are a few more. And maybe someday down the road, I'll have it written up for the blog.


Toccoa Military Weekend

Toccoa Military Weekend. One of my favorite events of the year. This tight-knit community gathers each October to honor the paratroopers who trained at Camp Toccoa during WW2. Making it extra special are the "Original Toccoa Men" who make the trip out each year. Secretly, I think it's just to make sure peeps like us keep running the Currahee mountain (3 Miles Up. 3 Miles Down). 

Toccoa Currahee Military Weekend 2016


Memorial Day Memories

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"A special moment from our friend here, Mr Bordeaux, who told us last month about two friends he grew up with in the late 30s before the war. They were very close, and spend a lot of time together. However, war came and they all enlisted and went their separate directions. Mr. Bordeaux to the Pacific, and Grover Scoggins and Preston Hooper to Europe. He never saw either of them again. A few years after the war he found out they had both been killed somewhere in Europe, but he never knew where, or how, or when. They were close friends, but over the last 70 years, he hasn't talked about them very much at all.

"Last month as Memorial Day came up, I remembered that once a couple years ago he had mentioned losing a couple of friends. So we asked him for their names and took down what little information he could remember. Thankfully, in today's world, it is easy to do quick research on pretty much any serviceman, so it didn't take more than a few minutes to locate their final resting places. The next step was getting a picture of their graves to print out and give to him in person. He'd become very emotional when he told us about growing up with him, and we thought that having something physical he could hold onto and look at would mean a lot. So we mentioned it our friend @ww2veteransmemories and he happily offered to take photos of their graves. More than that, during a local radio interview, he took time to talk about them.

"Yesterday, at our monthly Fort Worth luncheon, I presented these photos to Mr. Bordeaux. He couldn't believe that after all these years he finally got to see the last resting place of his childhood friends. At the same time we gave him the photos, another veteran came up and declared that he too had grown up on the street over from Grover Scoggins. For the next few minutes, the two veterans talked about Scoggins and Hooper: reminiscing about the days they grew up together. It was a touching and unforgettable moment. 70 years later, of these four friends, two of them, now in their 90s, live quietly in Fort Worth, Texas, and two of them sleep peacefully at the Omaha American cemetery in Normandy, forever young. 

Written Memorial Day 2017


Fort Worth Veteran Luncheon

We couldn't make it to every one of our Fort Worth Veteran luncheons this year, and they are just terribly hard to miss. The veterans who come every month have become like family to us over the last several years, but it only made us treasure each month we can make it all the more. 


Veterans Day with Daughters of World War Two

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If you're still reading this, thanks for sticking around. And thank you for following along our journey with Operation Meatball the last 3 1/2 years. 

We wish you a very Happy and Blessed New Year.

The Flying Horsemen Come to San Antonio

 The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

In October, San Antonio was invaded by the extraordinary Flyboys and family members of the 449th Bomb Group Association, the Flying Horsemen. And what a terrific invasion it was! By the very kind invitation of the association, Faith and I spent 3 memorable evenings with them, getting a first-hand, crash course history lesson on the Flying Horsemen.

Between January 8, 1944 and April 26, 1945, the 449th Bomb Group flew over 250 combat missions out of their base in Italy. Their losses were great as their targets were often the most heavily defended ones in Europe. "From the time they arrived in Grottaglie until they departed at the end of the war, the 449th lost a total of 135 aircraft. Of those, 111 were lost in combat and 24 were non-combat related losses." (449th Bomb Group Association). But their indomitable spirit persisted, making them "one of the most distinguished and decorated combat units of World War II."

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But this indomitable spirit went further than combat missions. Several of the veterans in attendance were ex-POWs. One in particular, a native Texan, Harvey Gann, was captured on January 30, 1944 and sent to Stalag Luft 4 near Grosstychow, Prussia. During his 15 months imprisonment, he attempted escape three times and finally on the fourth attempt, he was successful. However, by the time he arrived safely behind Russian lines, the war was within days of ending. "And to think I could have just waited," he laughingly told me. 

Each night there was something special planned for the reunion. The first night was a fun, "Get Acquainted Party." Folks dressed up in the smart styles of the WWII era, there was group singing and a special anniversary cake for Mr. & Mrs. Harvey Gann, who were celebrating 71 years that day.

A little snippet from Squadron Night at the 449th Bomb Group Reunion last evening. Lt. Ed West (B-24 Navigator) & Faith sing, "I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

The next evening was Squadron Night, a personal favorite for me. This evening was all about celebrating the four squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group: 716th Squadron, 717th Squadron, 718th Squadron, and 719th Squadron. The veterans and family members sat at tables which represented their Squadron, and just like Texans, whenever an opportunity came up to applaud or cheer on the squadron, it was duly taken.

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During the evening, there was a terrific panel where each veteran was given an opportunity to share some anecdotes from the war or (in one delightful instance) sing a few wartime songs. This was followed by a fascinating lecture on the Willow Run Factory, a B-24 Bomber manufacturer owned by Ford Motor Company and based out of Michigan during the war. At the peak of her operations in WWII, Willow Run was producing 1 B-24 Liberator per hour! I can honestly say I never thought I would be so interested in a factory, but the history of Willow Run and her current restoration projects blew my mind. 

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Saturday night, the final banquet was held at the Tower of the Americas, a memorable location to close out the reunion.

As an outsider and onlooker, I have to say how much I loved seeing the enthusiasm and personal pride that was had for each Squadron and the 449th Bomb Group. This wasn't just an annual social get-together. It was a genuine and concerted effort to honor the men of the 449th BG and educate the younger generations on their sacrifices in WWII. Everyone I talked with at the reunion was so knowledgable about the 449th and spoke with such ardor about their relatives that I kept walking away from these conversations greatly moved and motivated to learn more. 

The amount of planning and coordination that went into the entire reunion was outstanding. I really must thank the organizers, specifically Denise Reigal, for including us in this special, special reunion. It was such an honor to meet your veterans, listen to their narratives, and even share a few songs with them.

Though the weekend was short, our hearts were quite captured by the Flyboys and family of the 449th Bomb Group.

Related Reading: Remembering a Statistic: The Crew of the B-24, "The Lady in the Dark"

If you are interested in learning more about the 449th Bomb Group Association, I highly recommend you check out their website. It is full of easily accessible information and content which will keep you reading for hours. I have greatly enjoyed pursuing the articles and documents they have on the website. https://449th.com