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

$14 + $1.99 (shipping)

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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

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

https://449th.com/willding-crew/

https://449th.com/willding-crew/

Remembering that tonight, 73 years ago, the B-24 Bomber "The Lady in the Dark," was hit by flak, causing her to crash during a bombing mission over the Brenner Pass in Italy. With one exception, (Frank Visciglia, killed while attempting to bail), all crew members survived the crash. 3 were taken prisoner by the Germans, and the rest arrived safely behind American lines.

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A few months ago we had the honor and pleasure of meeting one of the survivors of this crash, Radio Operator, Bud Rosch, at the annual 449th Bomb Group Reunion. His fabulous personality captivated us, and his singing stole our hearts. When I realized that tonight, December 28, was the anniversary of his plane's crash, out of curiosity I started reading the after-action reports written by his crew members (https://449th.com/willding-crew/). It was remarkable. The 449th Bomb Group lost an awful lot of bombers in Italy during the war. There are plenty of statistics which will tell you that. But there is something about reading the reports and then putting a face to it which immediately takes a statistic and makes it personal.

I can't say if Bud Rosch always remembers December 28 as the day the, "The Lady in the Dark" went down. But I do know he will always remember his crew. Guys like Wilding, Tuttle, Stringham, and Visciglia, living, breathing men who he served with so bravely during the war.

For us, it's certainly worth marking the day on the calendar. Not for the date's sake, but for the sake of guys like Frank Visciglia who became a statistic when he didn't make it back. Remember him, Bud Rosch, and the rest of the crew of "The Lady in the Dark," and at least to us, they will never become statistics.

Example of a B-24 Bomber in WWII. "Twinkletoes," from the 716TH Squadron, 449th Bomb Group.  (Courtesy https://449th.com/collins-crew/)

Example of a B-24 Bomber in WWII. "Twinkletoes," from the 716TH Squadron, 449th Bomb Group.  (Courtesy https://449th.com/collins-crew/)

Jerry Yellin: The Fighter Pilot Who Found Forgiveness

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December is a busy month for everyone, but amid all that's going on, we wanted to take a moment to remember a dear friend who just passed away: Captain Jerry Yellin, WW2 Veteran, P-51 Pilot, and a man who left an undeniable legacy.

At all military reunions I attended with Jerry, whenever I turned around, there he was exhorting the younger men and women. He spoke so kindly and with such sincerity that anyone listening couldn't help but be drawn to his every word.

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At one reunion, I walked through the hotel lobby and saw a huddle of enormous basketball players. Then I saw Jerry. He had them hanging on every word as he shared a message of forgiveness, hope, and love. I had to smile.


When World War Two ended, America and the rest of the world was ready to move on. But Jerry Yellin couldn't. The memories were too difficult. He experienced a grief and guilt from them that dragged on for years. He even contemplated taking his life.

For Mr. Yellin, the war was a hellish necessity, essential for halting the spread of Nazism and Japanese aggression. But he also spoke forthrightly about its costs, including the mental anguish over memories of combat that nearly led him to suicide. He recalled with particular horror the experience of landing on war-torn Iwo Jima for the first time, where, “There wasn’t a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun... The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away.”
— The Washington Post
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His wife helped him through much of his PTSD, but the real turning point came when he learned his son was going to marry the daughter of a Japanese man, trained during the war to be a Kamikaze pilot. He could hardly believe it at first. So many of his friends had been lost at the hands of the Japanese, and now his prospective in-laws were to be the very enemy he had fought against. 

Mr. Yellin, a captain in the 78th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Forces, counted 16 downed pilots in his unit during the war... “The feeling that one has when a buddy dies? You just can’t emulate that. We have a burden civilians will never understand.”
— The Washington Post

It was at this time he realized he had to make a decision. Continue to live with his mental suffering and bitterness, or release the hate he'd stored up for years and turn to forgiveness and love. He chose forgiveness. With this change, hope and life was restored, and he devoted the rest of his years to spreading a message of peace and love. In fact, he soon came to consider his son's father-in-law, a former enemy, one of his dearest friends.

Learning to forgive our enemies is a message that never gets old. Thank you Jerry for setting such a beautiful example for us. 

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Musical bond: Brenham vet's friendship with sisters on mission

Many thanks to Chris for writing such a sweet piece for Veterans Day on our dear Honor Flight veteran, Mr. Twiggs, and our friendship with him. ❤


Musical bond: Brenham vet's friendship with sisters on mission

By Chris Wimmer / Brenham Banner [The Banner Press]

On Sept. 26, 2014, Keith Twiggs ran headlong into Operation Meatball and he didn’t even know it. He arrived in Washington, D.C. with dozens of World War II vets on an Honor Flight from Austin. None of them had any idea Operation Meatball was lying in wait.

As the veterans exited the plane, they were each seated in wheelchairs and pushed across the tarmac by guardians. A young girl was handing out yellow roses to each man as he passed and when Twiggs reached her position, the procession paused.

Someone called out, “Virginia, I want to get your picture with him.”

Virginia Phillips stepped closer and had her picture taken with Twiggs. Then the veterans were on the move again. Twiggs and the other 48 men in the group embarked on their day of travels around the nation’s capital.

The following day, the vets visited the World War II memorial.

A young woman with dark hair and wardrobe from the 1940s began the program by singing one of Twiggs’ favorite songs, “Begin The Beguine.” The tune was written by Cole Porter and made famous by Victor Shaw in 1938.

When the song was finished, Twiggs began to learn of three sisters — Jubilee, Liberty and Faith — and their three-year journey to honor the men and women who of World War II.

The trio were from San Antonio and had found out that a group of veterans from Texas would be visiting D.C. that weekend. It was the perfect time to kick off a quest they called Operation Meatball.

Frank Sinatra Went Bad

“I was in the second row, about the center,” Twiggs said. “So this gal who sang the first song, came directly to me. I have no idea in the world why.”

When the program at the WWII monument finished, the performers mingled with the veterans. Faith Phillips walked straight up to Twiggs.

“He said, ‘Hey, you sang ‘Begin The Beguine.’ I love that song,” Faith said.

They formed a connection instantly. The song was also a favorite of Faith’s grandfather. Though she was only 14, she loved “old” music. She had followed that song with a Glenn Miller standard, “In The Mood,” and Twiggs had another message for her.

“My wife and I, our first dance was to ‘In the Mood’ when went to school together up in Oklahoma,’” Twiggs said.

The musical bond between Faith and Twiggs deepened a moment later when they both realized something: they didn’t like Frank Sinatra.

To clarify, they didn’t like Frank Sinatra after 1950. Before that, he was great.

“Everybody likes Frank Sinatra but I’ve always said — you can hate me for this — but I don’t like listening to Frank Sinatra after 1950 because his voice got so commercialized,” Faith said. “When he was singing with Tommy Dorsey, that’s when he had that amazing tone.”

Twiggs put it more bluntly. “When he went out on his own, that’s when he went bad.”

Friendship Fated

Call it fate, call it luck, call it coincidence, but whatever you call it, the stars aligned that weekend in 2014 for a small group of Texans.

The Phillips sisters received their love of history, and specifically the World War II era, from their parents, Doug and Beall. In 2011 and 2014, the family visited Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day and the trips proved to be life-changing experiences for the sisters.

“We came home and said we have to find a way to meet more veterans and spend more time doing this,” Faith said.

Faith was 14 years old, Jubilee was 16 and Liberty was 18.

“So we said we’ll dedicate the next three years (to meeting veterans) and technically the three years is up, so we’re recalibrating how forward into the next phase,” Liberty laughed.

The girls speak from the Twiggs’ living room in Kruse Village. Jubilee was not able to make the trip, but five other members of the Phillips clan have stopped for a visit on the way home from a wedding in Georgia. Faith and Liberty are there, as well as their mother, Beall, and younger sister Virginia with younger brother Providence. It is the third reunion since their introduction in Washington, D.C.

On this visit, Twiggs broke out his trombone, an instrument he says might be older than him. He turns 94 on Nov. 18, but his father bought the horn in the late 1930s from a pawn shop and there is no way to know its age. It was dented and without a case, but Twiggs played it throughout high school.

He acquired a case at some point in the horn’s history, but even that article is older than all the guests admiring the relic in the living room.

The Phillips family loved it immediately. At the end of the day, as they packed up to head home to San Antonio, Twiggs gave them the trombone as a gift.

The horn came into his possession roughly 80 years ago in Seminole, Oklahoma and now it will live on in San Antonio.

Service

Twiggs grew up in Seminole surrounded by oil fields, but he was never big enough to work the rigs. When he was 11 years old, he met his wife Elizabeth in the tiny town of Slick, about 40 miles south of Tulsa. She was nine at the time and Twiggs’ family was visiting her family for a Sunday luncheon.

A year later, Elizabeth moved to Seminole when her father’s job with Gulf Oil transferred him to the area. She and Twiggs lived no more than 100 yards apart and were close throughout high school. At 17, Twiggs moved to California. Those two years and the three he spent in the service were the only five years he and Elizabeth have been separated.

They married in 1947 and April 15, 2018 will mark 71 years of union.

Twiggs was a natural mechanic and when he entered the military his abilities quickly stood out. He had spent some time helping build Highway 59 outside Houston and had worked in the shipyards in California before he received his draft letter.

He reported to the dry dock in San Pedro and was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi to receive training on B-24 bomber engines. He bounced from Texas to Michigan to Utah and eventually received his discharge while he was in California.

He quickly married Elizabeth and 65 years later, their lives would intertwine with a family from San Antonio that had a love of WWII history.

After their fateful trip to Normandy in 2014, the Phillips sisters decided to host and attend events that honored WWII veterans. The girls dressed in the style of the 1940s and Faith began to build a repertoire of songs from the era.

No one remembers how the plan came to be called Operation Meatball, but the name stuck. They started a website and a blog to chronicle their experiences. They took photographs aplenty and Faith recorded some classic songs of the day. And it all started in Washington D.C. on a weekend in September.

Jubilee, Liberty, Faith and Virginia were part of the greeting committee as multiple Honor Flights arrived at the same time. Faith sang during the greeting and the next day, a woman remembered her and quickly asked her if she’d be willing to perform again.

The woman happened to be with Twiggs’ group of veterans from the Austin flight. Faith sang two songs that resonated with Twiggs and then ended up speaking to him when the program finished.

Twiggs and his wife Elizabeth began to correspond with the Phillips family. They exchanged letters, phone calls and emails and Faith sent photos and CDs of music. The girls traveled to Kruse Village for visits and actually performed for residents on one of the trips.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Keith Twiggs was unsuspectingly snared by Operation Meatball. A friendship was formed that exists to this day as a family from San Antonio strove to honor the nation’s oldest veterans

Musical bond: Brenham vet's friendship with sisters on mission

Day of Infamy: Pearl Harbor 76

Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

It's a day that most people don't recall, 
But so many Americans had taken a fall. 
So many lives were taken on that day, 
And very few survivors are now gray. 


It was a peaceful morning calm as can be, 
Until the tragedy no one was able to see. 
The world was at war but it wasn't our fight, 
But that would soon change overnight. 

It was a land of beauty and such paradise, 
But it would soon be held in Satan's vice. 
The air was filled with an ocean breeze, 
But our tranquility they would soon cease. 

Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

The enemy arrived with a sneak attack, 
And we didn't have enough time to react.
They came in so fast and had hit us hard, 
Because they caught us off guard. 

As quickly as they arrived they were gone, 
In this vicious assault right after dawn. 
So many innocent people were killed, 
Leaving many voids to never be filled. 

As the enemy returned back out to sea, 
There was devastation for the world to see. 
The mission now was to rescue and save, 
And find others who were bound for a grave. 

Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

When it was over there was only one thought, 
To return the wrath that they had brought. 
We weren't a nation at peace any more, 
After the Japanese had just declared war. 

Pearl Harbor by Jon M. Nelson 

(Thanks to my friend Lydia for introducing me to this beautiful poem)


We've been on the move quite a bit the last several months, but this last week I happened to be in San Antone for a couple of days and was thrilled to finally make it to the Pearl Harbor Day program at the Nimitz Museum. Everything the museum puts on is done with excellence and honor to the veterans of World War Two. Their December 7 program (with keynote speaker, Captain Clarence Franklin Jr. US Navy) was a beautiful memorial service recalling the memory of the 2,403 men who lost their lives and the 1,178 men wounded when the Japanese so treacherously attacked us at Pearl Harbor, 76 years ago.

It was a great program and regardless of the terrible weather, it was standing room only. 


Hugs for one of my favorite Pearl Harbor vets, Jim Leavelle. Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

Hugs for one of my favorite Pearl Harbor vets, Jim Leavelle. Photo Credit: Austin-American Statesman

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A delightful surprise was seeing my friend, one of the sweetest Texans and a Pearl Harbor veteran, Jim Leavelle. Mr. Leavelle was stationed on the USS Whitney at Pearl Harbor on December 7. Thankfully, his ship was untouched during the bombing and the crew spared. But many details of that day remain etched in his memory. 

Mr. Leavelle is also known from his work as a former Dallas Homicide Detective and "the man in the tan suit" from the iconic photo of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.

But even more than the "famous" events Mr. Leavelle was a participant in, it's the lesser known stories he has to tell which I enjoy the most. The stories of life as a detective in the 1950s and 60s and 97 years chocked full of incredible experiences have kept me for hours, listening to them. He's a wonderful man and real American National Treasure. 

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Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific and the Nimitz Foundation for putting on such an excellent Pearl Harbor Day program. 

3 Years Ago Tonight...

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It's hard to believe that 3 years ago tonight we hosted our very first Veterans event: a Commemorative dinner honoring World War II veterans at Dick's Classic Car Garage and Museum in San Marcos, Texas. There were so many tremendous parts of that evening that will stand out to us forever.

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We had 15 World War II veterans come with their wonderful families. Monsieur Maurice Renaud, son of the Mayor of St. Mere Eglise during WWII and now the President of the AVA Association was gracious enough to be our guest speaker for the evening. He gave an inspiring talk on what it was like to be a 4 year old boy during the invasion of D-Day and growing up going to following anniversaries, surrounded by many of the most famous names of D-Day. 

Every event we have put on since has been special in it's own way, but this particular  dinner will always be first in our hearts. This was the first time we had ever really hosted anything like this, and it was quite intimidating doing it on our own. But it was a remarkable experience and we felt deeply privileged that so many heroes of World War II would be willing to come to a dinner program put on by 3 little San Antonio girls (We were only 14, 16, and 18 years old!) 

Thank you, Veterans, for giving us this opportunity to honor you!


We had photos printed out for the veterans to sign, as souvenirs for the guests

We had photos printed out for the veterans to sign, as souvenirs for the guests

Mr. Erwin Davis. We met Mr. Davis the previous September up in DC when he was there for his honor flight. What a sweet man! 

Mr. Erwin Davis. We met Mr. Davis the previous September up in DC when he was there for his honor flight. What a sweet man! 

Colonel Glenn sang along with every number Faith sang.

Colonel Glenn sang along with every number Faith sang.

Best location! Dinner between vintage cars. 

Best location! Dinner between vintage cars. 

Mr. Don Salter and Mr. Pratt. Quite a set of characters.

Mr. Don Salter and Mr. Pratt. Quite a set of characters.

Mr. Jim Broughton. Veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. 

Mr. Jim Broughton. Veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. 

Mr. Don Chandler has many fantastic stories, and not just from WWII. About 30 years after the war, he would go back to an island he had stationed on, and work with the missionaries there to build a church for the natives.

Mr. Don Chandler has many fantastic stories, and not just from WWII. About 30 years after the war, he would go back to an island he had stationed on, and work with the missionaries there to build a church for the natives.

Special guest singer, Virginia Hope, joined Faith in singing Que Sera Sera. 

Special guest singer, Virginia Hope, joined Faith in singing Que Sera Sera. 

Faith and Mr. Joe Glavan USMC


Faith and Mr. Joe Glavan USMC

Mr. RW Pratt. Keeps you on your toes with his hilarious sense of humor. 

Mr. RW Pratt. Keeps you on your toes with his hilarious sense of humor. 

Mr. Renaud and Mr. Alford

Mr. Renaud and Mr. Alford

Mr Don Chandler sharing his experiences from the war. 

Mr Don Chandler sharing his experiences from the war. 

The setting was just perfect!

The setting was just perfect!

Love and Yellow Roses

Several months ago I was walking around Arlington Cemetery shortly before sunset and I saw a beautiful sight I can never forget.  

10 hours on a bus + 3am morning. = I look homeless

10 hours on a bus + 3am morning. = I look homeless

As a last minute decision, I had taken the overnight bus from Raleigh, NC, where I was visiting friends and arrived early on a Saturday morning ready to meet the nine flights of WWII, Korean, and Vietnam veterans about to arrive at the WWII Memorial.

Cleaning up and leaving the bus station around 6 am, I started the two and a half mile walk to the WWII Memorial. It was a rainy and gloomy morning. I’m sure Uber could have done the job as well as my feet, but I couldn’t resist the idea of walking around D.C. in the wee hours of the morning when there was not a car in sight, and the only ones on the streets were the trash-man and a periodic runner. “Peaceful” and “D.C.” are two words that do not go together… but that morning they did. 

From half-past 8 in the morning to a little after 4 in the afternoon, Honor Flights arrived from all over the country: Oregon, Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, California, and more. As Honor Flight days always are, it was an A+ day. In fact it was better than A+. The last few weeks had been pretty rough with the loss of a few very dear friends and an unusually stressful schedule. So being at the Memorial with my Honor Flight friends was like a soothing and reinvigorating balm.

Each Flight has it’s State’s personality, and I love it. Some are more reserved and quiet, while others are boisterous and want to make sure all of D.C. knows they are having a swell time. Tennessee came full of deep Southern drawls. Wisconsin was definitely full of Cheese. But for all the cultural differences, they all had at least one thing in common: they were true-blue Americans who loved their country. 

One of the Tennessee boys. We compared notes on our Southern relatives from the Civil War.

One of the Tennessee boys. We compared notes on our Southern relatives from the Civil War.

Even when everyone is bundled up to their necks in rain coats, you can always spot a Marine.

Even when everyone is bundled up to their necks in rain coats, you can always spot a Marine.

When I complimented this darling lady on her soft hands she said to me, "Honey, I don't wash dishes any more so I don't have dish-soap hands." 

When I complimented this darling lady on her soft hands she said to me, "Honey, I don't wash dishes any more so I don't have dish-soap hands." 

During a lull in the flights, I walked over to the Vietnam Wall. The first time I visited the wall I was greatly moved by the thousands and thousands of names carved into a beautiful black wall. Scattered up and down the entire memorial were dozens of people from many different countries, taking etchings of these names and remembering the men who died during the Vietnam War. Among our group was a number of Nam Vets. To watch their faces was a priceless memory. There were many tears shed and beautiful memories recalled. It was absolutely touching. 

Today's visit to the Vietnam Wall was no less touching, but this time I had come to remember a specific person, Don Farris. Don flew choppers in Vietnam and was a real-life Santa if ever there was one. In the few years we’d known him through Honor Flight, he’d quite wrapped his way around our hearts. Then, a short month before this visit to D.C., he suddenly passed away. This visit to the Wall was for him. 

The "BWI Brownies." Motorcycle escort for many of the Honor Flights that come into D.C. Don was a faithful member of this great group of fellas. It was so good to see them all again. 

The "BWI Brownies." Motorcycle escort for many of the Honor Flights that come into D.C. Don was a faithful member of this great group of fellas. It was so good to see them all again. 


Late that afternoon, the last flight departed the WWII Memorial. It had already been a full day, but since I still had a couple of hours before my bus left, I decided to go visit a few old friends. 

And this is how I found myself wandering around one of my favorite places in D.C.- Arlington National Cemetery. You’ll hardly find a more beautiful and peaceful place for quiet contemplation than this final resting place for America’s heroes; especially at sunset when the crowds have gone (I must have looked a sight walking through the cemetery wearing a 1940s dress, flip flops (no more heels for me!), a backpack, and carrying a dozen yellow roses, but thankfully there was no one around to tell me). 

The roses I had brought were for a couple of veteran friends I knew were buried there, specifically for one handsome 4th Division D-Day vet who had forever left an impact on our hearts with the whimsical tunes he played on the harmonica, his descriptive and moving stories from the war, and his deep and enduring love for his country. We’d communicated regularly through mail, and he was like family. But then one day, the letters stopped. I never got to say goodbye to him, and that was hard. When I picked out the roses that morning, I made sure they were yellow. We’d given him roses the first time we met him, and the next time, he had played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for us. 

It was good to see his grave, and it was good to say goodbye, “Until we meet again.”

Leaving Mr. Cason, I walked towards the entrance of the cemetery. It was a bit of a distance, so it gave me time to process the day. I turned down one of the avenues, happened to glance over to the other side of the road, and saw a touching sight. A few graves over from a large oak tree was an elderly man sitting on a fold-up chair in front of one the the clean, white graves. Next to this grave was a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The sun was close to setting, and all the surrounding graves were covered in that warm, comforting glow.

I stood there for several minutes watching him. He just sat there. Maybe saying a few words. Maybe sitting in silence. Whatever the case, his devotion for the beloved passed one was obvious. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. 

Just as he stood up and started to pack his chair, I had a sudden urge to go talk to him. Walking up, I timidly said, “Sir, I couldn’t help but notice you… may I give you a rose?” He turned around and smiled quietly. I glanced at the grave and noticed it was a lady’s name. “Is this your wife?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said in a shaky voice. “We were married 59 years.” His eyes started to fill. Seeing this, all of the emotions of the day, the Honor Flights, the veterans, thinking about our friend Don, the dear one I had just said goodbye too, and now this storybook picture of love… it suddenly broke, and I burst into tears. “Please take a rose for her.” I said. He smiled gratefully and put the rose in the bouquet by the grave.

“Are you visiting a family member?” he asked kindly.

“Just an old friend I haven’t seen in a while.” I told him. 

“Well thank you for the rose,” he said, still teary. 

“No, thank you!” I exclaimed.

I am never going to forget this moment. I didn't learn a lot about the man I met in Arlington, as we only talked for a few minutes, but it was enough. “Until death do us part,” is what they say, but it was evident that here, even death couldn’t stop his love.

When you step outside of your home, you never know who you are going to meet. You never know if you are going to have a regular hum-drum day or, like this day, meet a person with a story that touches you to the core. Sometimes I wonder how many little stories like this I have missed, or even passed up unwittingly. It's definitely an incentive to stop and talk to more people. Thank you, dear stranger, for showing me a picture of true love.

Dedicate a mile of the Marine Corps Marathon to your favorite Marine!

With 15 days left before we run the Marine Corps Marathon we wanted to make a special offer to y'all.

As you know, Jubilee, Faith, and I are running this marathon for the Iwo Jima Association of America to raise money to bring veterans back to Iwo Jima. 

For a donation of $10 or more, we will dedicate ONE mile of the marathon to a Marine of YOUR choice. 

How this works: 
1. Send us his name and time of his service in the Marine Corps. Optional: Unit, location of service, and/or a photo.

2. During the marathon we will have a printed certificate with your Marine's name and information on it, as well as the name of the sponsor (you), and we will take a photo with his certificate, for you, in front of his dedicated mile.

3. Please make sure to include your email address so that we can send you the photo afterwards.

Though we only have a limited number of spots, you are welcome to sponsor as many Marines as you would like, with separate donations. Reminder: Each dedicated mile is $10. 

Click Here to Dedicate a Mile to YOUR Marine

 

Gung Ho! The Marine Raiders Reunion

Last Tuesday, Mother and I decided we didn't have enough going on, so we hopped in the car and drove to San Diego for the WW2 Marine Raiders 75th Anniversary Reunion. We'd only heard about the reunion a few days earlier, and though we had talked about going, we didn't make the decision until about 3pm Tuesday afternoon. By 8pm, we were on the road. 

Of all the impromptu things I've done, this has to be one of the most rewarding that I can remember. For three days, we received a crash course on the Marine Raiders of WWII, the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands Campaign, and the brutality of war contrasted with the physical endurance and courage man is capable of enduring. As I write, my head is still spinning from everything we experienced. 

The Marine Raiders of WWII were a highly trained branch of the Marine Corps who, though only in operation for a little over two years (1942-1944), were very effective in Pacific Theater campaigns. Three of the men to play a significant role in the founding of the Raiders were Col. Merritt Edson, Col. Evans Carlson, and the President's own son, Col. Jimmy Roosevelt. Their goal was to form an elite fighting unit similar to the British Commandos. This fighting force would be able to make quick and efficient guerrilla-type raids on the Japanese-held islands, helping to pave a way for the Army, Navy, and regular Marines. The volunteer Raiders were hand-selected by Edson and Carlson based on the skills they had excelled in during bootcamp. After selection they were sent off for more specialized training. 

By Summer of '42, they were ready to head out. Edson led the 1st Marines Raider Battalion (Bn), Carlson led the 2nd Bn, Lt Col. Harry B. Liversedge had the 3rd, and Col. Roosevelt the 4th. Under the leadership of these men, the Raiders soon adopted the names "Edson's Raiders" and "Carlson's Raiders."

On August 7th, 1942, the 1st Battalion made their landing on the Island of Tulagi, thus opening up the Guadalcanal Islands Campaign. Tulagi resulted in a victory for the Allies, but it was just the start to a long, long war. Early September of '42, was the Battle of Bloody Ridge, or the "Battle of Edson's Ridge." It was a success for the Raiders, but only after a fierce fight. Many of the Raiders we spoke with reckoned back to Bloody Ridge as one of the hardest moments of the war for them.  

One of them, PFC James Campbell, told us of an incident when he was assigned to watch over the dead and wounded men on part of the Ridge. Right around daybreak, the Japanese, hiding in the trees that overlooked his part of the Ridge and a nearby field, saw him and sent a brisk fire his way. He dove into a foxhole for protection, but unfortunately it wasn't big enough. The fellow who had started to dig the hole had neglected to complete it, leaving it just a bit too short for Campbell's very tall frame. Crouching down and holding his legs to his chest as best as he could, he managed to fit in the hole with just his knees sticking up above ground. "I'm laying there and the bullets [were] hitting all around my knees. That's it." He recalled. "I'm gonna be shipped out of here with a hole in my knees!"

At that moment, "An Army fighter plane of all things showed up." said Mr. Campbell, "The Army!" Fitted out with a machine gun, it came over the ridge and spotted the Japanese among the trees.  The plane started shredding them with fire, and that was the end of it. Campbell's knees were spared. But it was one of the few times during the war he was sure he was a "goner." 


The more you read about war, the more potential there is to "get used to it." But I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing grown men break down remembering their lost comrades. It grabs at your heart like few things. I've never been quite so affected as when a tall, strong, brave Marine - trained to endure the toughest fighting and the most grotesque warfare - broke down in tears as he explained to me the mental war he's had to relive for the last 75 years. As I sat at an empty table with him the first morning, he told me story after story from the Battle of Bloody Ridge, scouting patrols that went awry, and friendly fire. At one point, he extended is arms out and said through tears, "I've had men die in my arms! People don't understand. You NEVER get over it."

A little while later, a tender-hearted Submariner cried telling us that the worst moment of the entire war for him was preparing 5 Raiders for burial at sea. "Cleaning them, making sure the fluids were out of their bodies, then putting them in the sacks, covering them with the flag... I can't forget it." He said through tears. "We said a prayer and released them." He felt a kinship to these Raiders. He had delivered them from island to island, and now 75 years later he still felt responsible. He had been only 17. But they were all only 17. 

Another Raider, one who had survived at Guadalcanal, Bloody Ridge, the Solomons, Guam and all sorts of hell, became very emotional when I asked him about Sugar Loaf (a bloody, bloody battle during the Okinawa Campaign). He said simply, and with great meaning, "We lost so many good men." There was a long pause. "It was terrible." And it had been. He was the sole survivor of his 12-man squad. 


There are countless stories from this reunion and not all of them are tear-jerkers. 

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. 


On the drive home, Mom and I talked about the themes of the week. We are still sorting through them all, but here are a few that really stood out to us. 

Theme:

The Raiders we talked to seemed to have a deep sense of respect for their officers and an understanding of authority. They saw authority as a good thing and integral to their life, their health, their safety, and the overall success of their mission. 75 years later, and many years older than the highest ranking men around them, they still feel a duty to show the same deference and respect that they would have shown in 1942. Our society today is so egalitarian that a 25 year-old considers himself the peer of a 75 year-old, and often lacks the demonstration of honor to a man, not only his senior in years, but also in wisdom and life experience. I spoke to one Raider who received the Navy Cross and was later commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. When Korea came around, he was recalled and sent to the front lines serving as a Rifle Platoon Commander. This position was difficult for him because he did not consider himself an officer. "I never went to Officer Training School," he said. "I didn't know what to do. So I just had to copy what I had seen my officers do in the Pacific." Years later, a Marine Corps General befriended him as a peer, but again the disparity in rank was a challenge. Not because he felt he was less of a Marine, but because he had so much respect for the position and rank of the younger man. 

 

Another Theme:

The habits and disciplines that you develop early on will stick with you - for better or for worse. Through the intensive training ingrained into them and the brutal combat that the Raiders endured over such a long period of time, many of them were able to excel in later years with a strong work ethic and a general tenacity of spirit. It was inspiring to hear one Raider who, at 93 years old, continues to push and better himself through rigorous athletic training and competitions. A motto of the Raiders states that they are never done being assessed and never done being challenged. Another says, "If you are not moving forward, you have failed." These are not just principles for military combat, they are principles for all of life. 


There was so much to absorb, and we are still taking it all in and processing what we learned. As long as I can remember, I have wanted to meet a Guadalcanal veteran, and last week I had the honor of meeting 16. It was a tremendous blessing, and I am looking forward greatly to reading and learning more, as we have only scratched the surface.

A Few Stories for Purple Heart Day

August 7th is recognized as Purple Heart Day. A day when we remember the military who were wounded in the service of our country. Over 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been given out over the years since this special decoration was instated, and it is estimated that over 1 million of them were given out during World War Two. This is an enormous number. 

A few years ago I wrote about two specific Purple Heart recipients… but today I thought instead of recounting one story, I’d highlight a couple of Purple Heart veterans we have had the honor of knowing. 

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Fiske Hanley’s B-29 was shot down in March of 1945. He was captured by the Japanese and held as a “Special War Criminal," during which time he was brutally tortured by the Japanese secret police, otherwise known as the Kempei Tai.

Dan McBride received 3 Purple Heart's during WWII. The first one came not too long after D-Day. On patrol one night, a soldier came up to him speaking German. "I pulled up my rifle, and he pulled up his. We both shot, and we both hit — but I hit more." Mr. McBride escaped with a wounded arm. The next one would be in Holland after he was blown off a dyke by mortar shells, crushing his ankle. "The medic stuck a needle through my boot. I had to walk out of there, and I could hear the bones grinding." His third Purple Heart came in Bastogne when he was hit in the knees from tank shrapnel. He would take part in four of the major battles in Europe: Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and Southern Germany.

USMC PFC, Jim Skinner, was wounded by a grenade while excavating a cave during the fighting on Guam in 1944. He recovered just in time to participate in the Battle of Iwo Jima. For years and years afterwords he suffered with great bitterness and anger towards the Japanese. In March of 2015, he returned to Iwo Jima for the first time since the fighting. During his trip there he was able to find forgiveness to his former enemies, even so far as shaking hands with one of them. He passed away a few months later. 

USMC Sgt. John Coltrane was wounded in the arm by a piece of shrapnel during the Battle of Midway. However he never received a Purple Heart for this as his senior officer and Corpsman were both wounded or killed. 

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Birney "Chick" Havey served in the Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Besides a Purple Heart, he also received the Silver Star (3rd highest military award) and numerous Bronze Stars. A few months later he would be one of the first men to liberate the horrendous concentration Camp Dachau.

Darroll "Lefty" Lee (centre of picture) was wounded on February 28, 1945, during the battle of Iwo Jima “There were five of us in this group, a fire team, we were moving up… and we were running across an open area. I don’t know if it was a Jap rocket or if it was an artillery shell, never heard it of course. It landed and the thing that saved me was that sand — it landed and it buried itself… into the sand, and when it exploded it blew me up into the air. I think I was blown 20 to 30 feet — I don’t even remember. Of the five, three were killed and two of us were blown into the air. I remember I was bleeding from the nose, mouth, and ears and couldn’t hear, couldn’t hear a thing. When I came to I was just peppered with little slivers — like the corpsman said when we got back to Saipan, we thought they were freckles. Didn’t get it in the eyes, just amazing, but the concussion knocked out my hearing. When they hauled me back then I remembered the corpsman, what a guy, he crawled up there and pulled me back into a hole and all I can remember is his name, Harris, his name on his dungarees. I often wonder if he ever made it.”

Lee Cason nearly lost his life on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944, when his leg tangled in the landing craft's ramp chain. Then he nearly drowned as he waded to shore under heavy fire from the Germans. And again as he made his way up the beachhead. But it wasn't until a few months later that he received his first of two Purple Hearts during the Battle of the Bulge. 

Bataan Death March survivor and Japanese Prisoner of War, Col. Ben Skardon certainly has a lot of history behind his Purple Heart. During the Battle of Bataan he inspired his men greatly, and at 100 years old, he his still continuing to inspire. 

Charming Stanley Zemont tried to downplay his Purple Heart, "It's not much. Just a wound I received from shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge." 

Two magnificent Marines: Al Pagoaga and Bill Madden. Life-long friends, they came out of the fighting on Iwo Jima with indelible memories and permanent external scars. Bill Madden was buried alive by a grenade blast, only surviving when his friend, Al, dug him out just in time. Besides shrapnel wounds, he went completely deaf for 24 hours afterwords. A few days later, Al Pagoaga was hit by a mortar blast that killed three of his friends and left him missing part of a leg. 


All these men (and so many more that we have not mentioned), have paid a price to serve our country: for the rest of their lives they will carry personal scars - badges of honor - reminding them what it takes to keep a country free. We are deeply grateful to them. 


Bob Lake: Our First Honor Flight Veteran

So many things have happened in the last few years with Operation Meatball. Even when we try and keep tight records on all that goes on, some things still slip through the cracks. However, there is one afternoon that will always be as clear as the day it happened: September 23, 2014. The date's easy to remember... it was the day before my 18th birthday, but even more significantly, it was our very first experience greeting Honor Flights at the WW2 Memorial. Our very first flight was Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). And our very first veteran was Bob Lake. 

Our first meeting back in 2014. 

Our first meeting back in 2014. 

Immediately following GPHF's program at the Memorial, we met Mr. Lake. He told us that he had turned 18 the day the Japanese surrendered, August 14, 1945. What a day!! For his trip to DC, he had brought with him a newspaper clipping of a cousin who died overseas during the Korea War.

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When we left him at the memorial, we thought that was goodbye. But after the trip, we sent him a few photos and a note through the GPHF headquarters, and shortly after we were surprised (and pleased as punch!) to receive a card from him. Over the next three years, we exchanged letters, keeping up on each others lives. A year after our meeting, his beautiful wife, Jeanette passed away just shy of their 65th anniversary. But he kept going, and we were happy to see his face periodically in the Honor Flight Welcome Home photos. 

With all this background, coming to Peoria meant a visit with Mr. Lake was a must! And such a delightful visit it was. In today's world of social media: email over letters, texting over phone calls, coffee dates over house calls, it's a pretty special thing to be brought into someone's home. It's personal. 

Holding a bottle of dirt from the "Dust Bowl."

Holding a bottle of dirt from the "Dust Bowl."

For several hours, we poured over pictures as Mr. Lake told us stories of growing up in Kansas during the Great Depression, followed by the lesser known (but still infamous) Dust Bowl or "The Dirty Thirties." A period in the mid-1930s when the ever-growing, over-worked farmland of the mid-west revolted and covered several states in literal Dust Storms. And there was no escaping. Mr. Lake described several times when he and his brothers were surrounded by the choking dust winds without any warning. A nearby barn saved them, but it was miserable.

After these storms passed, everything in sight would be covered in dry dust. The poorly insulated houses were no exception. Tables, chairs, beds, food, rugs, everything was covered. The severity and destruction of these storms eventually caused Mr. Lake's father to take his family and move back to Illinois. But not before collecting a bottle of this ruinous dust. 

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I couldn't have been happier to see Mr. Lake again after these last few years. It was like our whole experience with Honor Flight came full circle. Our first experience with Honor Flight, a brief meeting at the WW2 Memorial, long-distance friends, and finally back together. We are so looking forward to many more years of happy friendship with this wonderful man. 

Operation Meatball Goes to Illinois: Breakfast With Heroes *or* Abbott and Costello Meet Their Match in Harold and Barney

A real highlight for us during our time in Peoria was getting to attend a special weekly breakfast get-together of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans from Greater Peoria Honor Flight. And what a treat it was! Whenever you have the opportunity to sit at a table of men who served our country, it is an honor and an unforgettable experience. 

The very merry group who gathered around the tables this morning were the same fellas who came in by storm the day before and had left everyone holding their sides in laughter and hilarity. 

I was delighted to find a seat down at one end of the table next to none other than Abbot and Costello 2.0 a.k.a Harold and Barney, the two life-long friends. We chatted, laughed, and I listened to stories of their escapades and adventures in the local circus. 

Barney: "You're from Texas?"

Me: "Yes!"

Barney: "Do you know Stinky?"

Me: (laughing) "I don't think so. Where does he live?"

Barney: "Have you ever heard of Seagoville, Texas?"

Me: "Nope." (Despite living in TX all my life... I still don't know all the towns) 

We looked up the town and find it right next to Gun Barrel City, another town I'd never heard of. They both ended up living in the suburbs of the Dallas suburbs. Yes, that's really what they told me. After all, 100 miles away is still the suburbs, right? 

Harold: "Yup. That's where he lives."

Barney: "If you ever go up there, give him a call. Tell him I say hello."

Me: "Okay."

Harold: "Better not. He'll probably hang up on you when he hears Barney's name."


So much laughter later, we got around to talking about Harold's service in the Marine Corps. Mr. Berg in fact is one of the very last of the elite Marine Corps Raiders. In a sense, the Raiders were the precursor to the US Special Ops Forces. Their job was tough and called for an even tougher type of guy. I've only had the opportunity to meet one other Raider, Bert Stolier of the WWII Museum. He participated in some of the hardest fought battles of the Pacific including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima.

For Mr. Berg, his time as a Raider was none the less hard. He participated in the fighting at Guadalcanal, Guam (where he was bayonetted in the leg by a Japanese soldier they had presumed dead), Saipan, Bouganville and New Georgia. Later, he received injuries in the face, shoulder, chest, and hand by an enemy grenade. Fighting on Okinawa was brutal, losing all 12 men in his squad. That he survived at all is truly a miracle.

Nearly 92 (in fact we practically share a birthday... just separated by one day and a few years), he is still as plucky a fellow as ever. He told me that within a few days following our visit he would be returning to the Guadalcanal for a special memorial service he would be presiding over. We are a blessed country indeed to have such men as Harold Berg willing to serve, whether it is as a teenager on the battlefields of the Pacific, or as a nonagenarian willing to make the extremely arduous journey back to those same battlefields, just so that the memory of our boys and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. 


The rest of the breakfast went splendidly. With enough time for everyone to finish their meals, Faith pulled her ukulele out and soon both tables were singing merrily along to different war-time favorites. A few eyes got misty on "I'll Walk Alone." Others reminisced during "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." And they all joined in for, "You Are My Sunshine." It was marvelous. 


Phyllis Piraino and two of GPHF's very wonderful veterans. PC: Greater Peoria Honor Flight. 

Phyllis Piraino and two of GPHF's very wonderful veterans. PC: Greater Peoria Honor Flight. 

I must take a moment and thank our sweet and amazing friend, Phyllis Piraino, Vice-President of GPHF. Though we had never officially met until this trip, we'd  kept in touch over the years since the girls and I first met the Peoria flight in D.C. And honestly, it felt like we had known her forever. Her genuine love for America's veterans, coupled with a tireless enthusiasm (no small potatoes!) for her work with Honor Flight is a rare quality to find. Throughout the week, we were completely inspired by how Phyllis and the fabulous staff of GPHF have worked not only to send veterans to D.C., but also to include and incorporate the entire community of Peoria as well. Giving anyone - from the oldest to the youngest - the opportunity to thank the men who have served out country. And isn't that what makes the whole Honor Flight experience so special for these dear veterans? 

Our few days in Peoria couldn't have been lovelier, and though we've only been home a short while, we are already planning and scheming ways to get back up there. Thank you Greater Peoria Honor Flight for a superb visit and for sharing your time and veterans with us!!


Click HERE to Learn More about Greater Peoria Honor Flight