Lady MacRobert's Reply

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Here is a story of fortitude for you!

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

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

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

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


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Bryan Smothers: 101st Airborne

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

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

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

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

A Story for the Coast Guard Birthday

PC. Jocelyne Paris

PC. Jocelyne Paris

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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A Special Sort of Crusty

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

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

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

“I’m happy to!” I exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

But I was prepared for this. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

He had one of my favorite smiles!

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

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

“I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!” 

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

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

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

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

He chuckled a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Where do you want to go?” I asked. 

“I don’t care. Wherever you want.” 

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

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

explaining how the landing crafts work.

explaining how the landing crafts work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 - - - - 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So handsome! He never lost the smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

lunch date at the museum!

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

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

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

“Here, have my fries,” he said.

- - - -

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

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

I get that.


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

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

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

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

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

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

"a quick hi and a hug"

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

“But it’s 2 o’clock!?” I said. 

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

jubilee and mr. bordeaux at the National wwii museum.

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

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

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

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

ice-cream, okinawa, and architecture 

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, then… you know.”

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

“Now, now, now… don’t go doing that.”

“And I’m going to call you.”

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

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

- - - -

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


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

Photo Credit: Ken Scar

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan (PC CBS News)

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

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

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

PHoto credit: CBS news

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

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

To live without Hope is to Cease to live.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By mile 2, we began to hit the sand.

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

Col. Skardon at mile 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A most appropriate ending for this memorable day.


"Today Christian Day"

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

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

WWII B-29 Bomber

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

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

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


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

It was only his 7th mission.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

"Yes." Said Fiske.

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

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

"Today Christian day." The man repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


The outside of a posted V-Mail


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


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

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


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


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

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/

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

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. 

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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The Boy Who Drew Sunken Spanish Galleons

A few months ago we were driving through beautiful southern California, up and down winding roads, oohing and awing over the picturesque scene. Our GPS beeped and we slowed down, looking at the mailbox numbers for our destination (we've been known to knock on the wrong door before).Then we saw it - a hand-painted signpost of the 101st Screaming Eagle crowned by the word: Airborne. No mistaking... we were at the right spot. 


When Bill Galbraith was a young boy, he once got into trouble in art class for drawing a sunken Spanish Galleon surrounded by the vast ocean, instead of the modernist depiction of the ocean-life the teacher had expected. The teacher marked up his picture, and in return he called her a nasty name.

The years went on and this imaginative young boy grew up (as all children seem to), but he didn't lose any of his creative or resourceful characteristics - though there was certainly a good dash of mischievousness in the mix. All this would soon come to play an unexpected part in his life when he found himself lying in a hospital in England, his future in question, after being seriously wounded in the leg and shoulder during the fighting around Eindhoven, Netherlands. 

Paratrooper to the core, Bill had jumped with the 101st into Normandy during the wee hours of June 6, 1944. The fighting had been awful, but he made it out in one piece and was sent back to England with his unit for more training. When September 17th rolled around, he made his second combat jump into Holland for Operation Market-Garden. Unfortunately Market-Garden did not go as planned... but Bill wasn't around long enough to find out. On the 18th, during some street fighting near Eindhoven, he was hit in the leg by shrapnel from one of the infamous 88's. Crawling around the doorway of a house, he tried to see where the shooting was coming from, hoping to put a stop to it. At that moment he was hit again, this time in the shoulder. Falling back, helpless, he hit against the door of the house. The door suddenly opened, and a pair of strong Dutch hands dragged him in to safety. 

Bill's wounds were nearly fatal for him. If it wasn't for a recent medical discovery, he would have lost his leg and been an invalid for life. Even with this blessing, however, it still took three years of intensive operations and rehabilitation treatments to fully heal his wounds. The process was long and painful, and at times no doubt seemed hopeless. But this is where the tenacious spirit of the little boy who drew sunken Spanish Galleons for school played a part.


A few months ago when we were in California for the Iwo Jima Reunion, we realized we were only a few short hours away from our dear and lovely friend, Mr. Galbraith. After calling him up with short, short notice, we stopped by for a visit. His drive-in was unmistakable with the Screaming Eagle he had painted on a post by the mailbox. It made us smile. He had told us about the wonderful eagle that protected his home, but it was something else to see it in person. His last combat jump might have been in 1944, but he was still a Paratrooper!

During our visit, he talked with us about his life over the years, the bonny Scotch/Irish war-bride he brought home to America, his magnificent paintings and drawings (it was no surprise to see countless paintings of ships sailing in fierce gales, surrounded by brilliant Screaming Eagles!), and walked us down memory lane as we poured through a scrapbook of photos and stories from WWII to his paratrooper reunions in later years. I'll tell you this, there is nothing quite like going through an old scrapbook and listening to the stories about each person, place, or event in the photos. We laughed at the funny stories, awed over the sweet stories, and got misty eyed as he showed us the pictures of his best friends who were lost. A lifetime of stories collected so neatly into one book. 

Of all his fantastic stories, one that continues to stick out is what happened while he was in the hospital. Determined not to be overcome and unwilling to live in a constant foggy state from pain-relieving drugs, this imaginative boy turned United State Paratrooper decided to focus his mental energy on learning poetry. Line by line, day by day, month by month. Replacing pain with verse. Poetry of all sorts, but specifically the works of Robert Service, "Bard of the Yukon." And it worked! Between drawing wonderful pictures and memorizing glorious poems, these mental exercises did not leave much time to dwell on the pain. In mid-1947, he was released from the hospital, and the wounds became a thing of the past. However, 73 years later, he can still recite those verses he learned, whiling the hours away with his hospital chums. Recite *perfectly* I should add. As we sat in his living room, listening to him repeat from memory such classics as Dangerous Dan McGrew, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and The Sourdough Story, we couldn't but pick our jaws off the floor at his impeccable memory for verse. 


There are so many lessons to learn from our dear friend Mr. Galbraith. His devotion to his fellow paratroopers was unquestionable. Never once was it "me" or "I." It was always, "we" or "they." "They were the brave ones." "We were like brothers." The camaraderie and loyalty between these men is surely one-of-a-kind.  

His love for his wife is another lesson for us. An Irish girl, living in Scotland, he persuaded her to come to the unknowns of America and be his wife. Married 65 years with 10 beautiful children (he beat our family by 2!), it's a beautiful story for another time. 

But I think the lesson from this story - the story of Spanish Galleons and Poetry - is that the little boy whose imagination ran away with him in art class later had the impetus to stretch his mental strength and put his mind to work, rather than take an easy way out with pain-medications. The pain went away, but the treasures he has stored in his memory have lasted for close to 75 years. How important is this mental battle! And the rewards reaped afterward are ever so wonderful.

Appomattox and Bataan


152 years ago today, after 4 years of valiant and desperate fighting, General Robert E. Lee surrendered arms, on behalf of the South, to General U.S. Grant. Included in this surrender was our great-great-great Grandfather, John A. Ramsay, Captain of the 10th North Carolina Artillery, his brother Robert Ramsay, and future brother-in-laws Robert, Thomas, and James Beall. Each one of the Ramsays and Bealls distinguished themselves during the war, rising in the ranks and bravely leading their men. Each of them were wounded several times, but recovered to fight another day. John Ramsay, years later would happily recount the stories of his conversations with General Lee, a man he admired greatly. 

But rather than just returning home to a quiet life, John Ramsay recognized the need to help rebuild the South from the tragedies of war, so he dedicated his life to the City of Salisbury (his home-town), following his surveying and engineering interests -including in the construction of one of the town's first sewers. Later he ran for and become Mayor of Salisbury. I think it says something that he was both respected by the old Southerners as well as the new Northerners.

77 years later to the day, on April 9, 1942, our great-great Uncle Private Israel Goldberg, son of Jewish Russian immigrants, surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army and took part in one of the most tragic events in our history, the Bataan Death March. Barely surviving the death march, he died a few months later in Camp Cabanatuan. 

It is amazing to realize that both of our relatives, though on separate sides of the family, and from completely different backgrounds, each took part in such a historical and monumental event as the two greatest surrenders in American history: Appomattox and Bataan. They both had their ideals, they were both fighting for what they believed in. And we are quite proud to be their descendants. 

Ben's Brigade: Colonel Ben Skardon and the Bataan Death March

Sometimes the saying "a once in a lifetime" opportunity can be cliche. The phrase is often used to emphasize the specialness of a certain event or meeting. But other times it can exactly describe something that will truly only happen once and never again. And this is a great gift. Two weeks ago, I was given a gift and "a once in a lifetime" experience when I marched with Colonel Ben Skardon and "Ben's Brigade" during the Bataan Memorial Death March.

Probably my favorite photo from this week. I can't describe the honor it was to march with Colonel Ben Skardon on my great-great uncle's behalf during the Bataan Memorial Death March. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.

You probably don't remember me mentioning it in my last article, because, in fact, I purposefully left it out. It was such an important part of the Bataan Weekend that I could not relegate it to a paragraph or two. Who is Col. Ben Skardon? And what is "Ben's Brigade?"

Col. Ben ("Uncle Ben" or just "Ben") is a 99-year old Bataan Death March survivor, American POW, and member of the Clemson University Alumni, who for the last 10 years has made it his mission to march 8.5 miles of the Bataan Memorial Death March in honor of the friends and servicemen lost that fateful spring of 1942, when America suffered the greatest surrender to an outside enemy in our entire history. Col. Ben was a young captain in the 92nd Infantry PA (Philippine Army), when Bataan surrendered. He survived the brutal march, three years of horrendous Japanese Pow camps, the sinking of two unmarked Japanese POW ships, and countless sicknesses and diseases contracted while in the camps, only to be liberated by the Russians in Manchuria, late 1945, weighing a grand total of 90 pounds. His story is one of determination and perseverance. At 99 years old - nearly 100, these qualities are strong as ever, demonstrated again each year as he treks the difficult 8.5 miles through sand and heat. 

And that is where Ben's Brigade comes in. In their bright Clemson orange t-shirts, hoodies, and caps, the brigade is hard to miss - even in a crowd of over 7,000 runners/marchers. On race day, as Col. Ben stepped down from the van that carried him to the opening ceremonies, he conducted the members of the brigade who had burst out singing the Clemson fight song, cheering him, and taking pictures simultaneously. I've never been into sports too much... but the camaraderie and infectious enthusiasm of the Clemson crowd was too much not to join in.

The truth is that until about a month ago, I had never heard of Ben's Brigade. I had read of Col. Ben, but it had been a few years and in the context of other research I was doing. However thanks to the wonderful world of social media and a mutual acquaintance lending a helping hand, I was introduced to this remarkable, hilarious, and all around swell group of people.

From what I understand, Ben's Brigade initially started as only a handful of people who wanted to march alongside Col. Ben as he made this "pilgrimage," but as he continued to make a return to the Bataan March each year, so did his friends; and the handful of people (made up almost entirely of members of Clemson University - past, present, and future) kept growing and took on the fabulous name of "Ben's Brigade." I don't know for sure, but I think this year there must have been close to 50 members of Ben's Brigade making the march with him. 

As I mentioned, an acquaintance from social media who heard that I was going to march contacted me about Ben's Brigade. On learning that Col. Ben was going to be at the Bataan March and participate yet again, I realized that if nothing else happened that weekend, it would be the greatest honor to walk a couple of miles with him. Imagine, marching the Bataan Memorial Death March with a Bataan Death March Survivor! It's extraordinary. 

My friend put me in contact with one of the wonderful people organizing the group, who in turn welcomed me warmly and invited me to join in their pre race dinner, despite my being a complete outsider! Well, this was all too good to be true, and honestly, looking back on the weekend, I couldn't have planned it to be more perfect. 

The evening before the race, everyone gathered for a dinner of true Mexican food (something you don't often find!) and ultimate southern hospitality (even rarer). My host graciously took me around, introducing me to the members of Ben's Brigade, and within minutes everyone seemed like old friends. When I was introduced to Col. Ben, I naturally told him about my uncle, Israel, the driving purpose behind my trip out to New Mexico. Of all the Bataan veterans I met that week, he was the only one I talked with who was held at Camp Cabanatuan during the same period of time as my uncle. His face fell when he heard the name of the camp, and he asked what month Israel died. "August 1942," I told him. "August," he repeated. "July and August had the highest death rates at Cabanatuan... we lost 100 men per day." And his eyes were moist.

That was when I realized something about him. Even at 99 years of age, after decades of remembering and sharing stories of Bataan, he is still moved by the sacrifices of our men. It was touching and beautiful to me. Col. Ben would laugh and tell jokes, always the life of the party, but he is also deeply sincere. He doesn't make this march each year for the publicity. He does it because he feels a duty and responsibility. He feels he owes it to the men who never came back.

Throughout the evening, despite Col. Ben being enormously popular, I had several opportunities to sit and chat about life, the war, his family's Cajun cooking, or the time his father, a choir boy, sang at President Jefferson Davis' funeral. The stories continued.

Listening to this American Treasure, I felt that the stories I was hearing... about Bataan, Cabanatuan, or pre-war life came as close as possible to listening to the stories my uncle would have shared, had he survived. 

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt.Ken Scar (his awesome photos can be found in pretty much every article about Col. Ben)

Each person I spoke with that evening had a different story of how he had touched his/her life, been an inspiration to them, or given a good dose of humor just when it was needed. I learned that as a newly appointed captain when the Battle of Bataan started, in a very short time his bravery had been awarded with two Silver Stars (3rd highest US military decoration) and four Bronze Stars. I can only imagine how inspired his men must have felt to have had him as a leader. No wonder then that two of his best friends nearly died trying to save his life when he became deathly ill at Cabanatuan! If only that type of leadership and courage could be bottled up! 

After the opening ceremonies on Race Day, Col. Ben and Ben's Brigade gathered at the start line waiting for all of the runners/marchers to get on their way before starting their trek. It was wonderful to watch people stop by and greet the Colonel and his entourage, old friends and first timers. About an hour after the first runner crossed the start line, Ben's Brigade heave-hoed and headed out. It was pretty terrific to watch this great orange crowd, enthusiastically led by Colonel Ben, move forward.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt.Ken Scar (his awesome photos can be found in pretty much every article about Col. Ben). Note: A lady told me that in the 16 years she had been making the March, she had only seen flowers along the way ONE other time! A refreshing sight they were for all runners/marchers.

"You must take a picture at each mile marker to prove you actually did it!" 

The pace could have been considered slow for some people... but considering Col. Ben is nearly 100 years old, it was nothing short of absolutely impressive (I know I'll be fortunate if I'm mobile when I'm 80)!  And it's well known that slow and steady wins the race. At Mile 1, everyone paused to take a picture at the sign post, and Col. Ben gave a little speech about the necessity of taking a photo with each mile marker to prove you actually did it! Then at his command we moved forward.

Because of time constraints and the reality that I still had to complete 24 more miles, I peeled off from the Brigade after two miles. But those two miles were unforgettable. Nothing dramatic or earth-shattering happened, but it was simply the fact that here I was, marching the Bataan Memorial March with one of the men who survived the original Bataan Death March. Between chatting with members of Ben's Brigade and snatching a word or two with Col. Ben, I had to just pause mentally and take it all in. It was terrific. 

At the beginning I said this was a once in a lifetime experience. I think that's right. Everything about it. The March, Col. Ben, the connections with my uncle, the 99+ years of history it involved... I've never heard of another WWII veteran making a trek quite like this. And if you'll excuse a word that is often overused, but so true here: It was amazing. 

Mile 2 was my last mile with the wonderful members of Ben's Brigade, and Col. Ben himself. Right before heading out, I had to get a quick photo with the mile-marker, and longtime friend of Col. Ben, Steve Griffith. Friends for over 60 years, the secret? "Keeping in touch. You have to stay in touch."

So that is the story of Col. Ben and his fabulous Brigade. It's really only a tiny portion of the story. The story of an outsider who became an insider for a couple of days. It was one of the greatest honors for me to be included in such a wonderful group of people, so dedicated and honoring. The short time I had getting to know Col. Ben was truly the highlight of the week. It seemed to bring full circle years of reading and studying about Bataan and my uncle. And he was a living reminder for me, every step of the way.

When we headed out for White Sands, New Mexico, all I wanted was to meet a Bataan survivor and finish the marathon. That desire was more than granted. Not only did I meet many survivors, but I marched with one... even for only two miles. On top of that, I did complete the race -which is always a bonus. After 10 years of marching, who knows if Col. Ben will be up for it next year - at nearly 101 years old. Whether he does or does not... the legacy he has left will continue to inspire. 

Colonel Skardon crosses the finish line at mile 8.5. Photo Credit: Staff Sgt.Ken Scar (his awesome photos can be found in pretty much every article about Col. Ben). 

For the Love of Phyllis: A Valentine's Day Story

Here is a sweet Valentine's Day story. It is the story of Bill and Phyllis Madden. 
* * * * * * * * * * 

In truth, theirs is the ultimate storybook romance if there ever was one. It started with the "puppy love" (as he called it) of a young high school boy, but quickly grew into a mature love and desire to marry the girl of his dreams. To him, Phyllis was as kind as she was beautiful, talented as she was popular, with a genuine heart that only thought of others. And Bill knew she was the only one he could ever love. But there was a problem, Phyllis was dating a guy named "Slats."

Now Slats would have been nice enough, except for the fact that Slats liked Phyllis and Bill liked Phyllis too. "Slats was a nice guy." Mr. Madden told me. "I liked him a lot, but this was war over the woman we both wanted to marry. I would have done almost anything to get her to marry me instead of him. That's how love works, I guess." And how could a poor young Marine compare to the guy who "had a good job, good clothes, and a nice car." Things looked hopeless for Bill until Slats joined the Navy, and Bill found his opportunity to cut in. This didn't last long, however, as he too was soon shipped off to San Diego for training. Phyllis continued to stay in touch with both the Sailor and the Marine, but it couldn't continue this way.

On invitation of her boyfriend, Slats, Phyllis, and a friend named Fern went to stay with an aunt in Los Angeles. Slats was concerned that he was being pushed out of the picture, and hoped to gain some ground by making frequent visits. Phyllis now found herself in a conundrum. Even though she had been dating Slats, she was beginning to take a real liking to this shy, young Marine. Well, the climax of this little love triangle finally arrived. In Mr. Madden's words here is what happened:

"She told me to come there on a day that Slats did not have time off, but 'the best laid plans of mice and Marines gang aft agley.' Slats got someone to take his duty place on the day I was to take Phyllis out. I had hitch hiked to LA and was going to take a cab wherever the girls wanted to go, but we ended up, all four of us, in Slats' aunt's car and headed for the Hollywood Palladium where Harry James was playing and Helen Forrest was singing. I was not too happy with the arrangement, and neither was Slats, much less Phyllis. We got to the Palladium, had some drinks, and listened to that heavenly music of James and Forrest. I quickly asked Phyllis to dance before Slats had a chance to. I was still a teenager and didn't dance very well, but I would have done anything to get her alone for a while so we could talk. Well, we danced, talked, and when the song was over, we stayed till the next one and the next one before we got back to the table with Fern and Slats. He was not happy a bit. I got one more dance during the playing and singing of "Stardust," which became our song. She decided that night that she would choose me to marry over Slats."

Reunited again! This photo of Bill and Phyllis was taken at the hospital where Bill was recuperating from wounds he received on Iwo Jima. 

Bill and Phyllis were married for 69 years, and they truly lived happily ever after. 


"Kelley. With an 'E'"

John Kelley (right)

One of our veteran friends who passed away last year was a fascinating Air Force Captain we met through Honor Flight in the fall of 2014. Actually, it was Mom who first became acquainted with him, and then in the following months, through exchanged letters, we got to know him a little better. We were at the WWII Memorial greeting the flights coming in, and as his guardian had wandered off, Mom went up to chat with him for a few minutes. He introduced himself as John Kelley. "Kelley with an 'E'. Not like the way women spell it." He was 95 and adamant. He wanted to make sure it was differentiated from the more feminine version of the name. 

"You look good in the photo. I look like Hell -warmed over!!"

When she mentioned she was from San Antonio, it opened a floodgate of stories. Captain Kelley had been at Brooks Field, and became well versed with all the local hot-spots during his off time. He described later in a letter, "As I mentioned to you, I took my advanced flight training at Brooks Field in San Antonio. And received Wings following graduation from Brooks Field (December '43). At the time I was dating a student at Incarnate Word College, and having a ball. On "Open Post" at the Gunther Hotel. Mostly dancing up a storm. I never had so much fun in my life. I was a New York kid and grew up listening to Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Sinatra; I never missed a beat in the process.

His stories continued and each seemed to outdo the last one. The months following his Honor Flight we stayed in touch through letters. In fact despite health issues making it very difficult to write, he would send quite the tome relating his experiences in the Air Force. 

"Back in 1943, I was en route to the Aleutians flying the A-24 Dive Bomber. Following the receipt of my winter flying gear, my number one friend, Scotty Alexander, and I took the planes for a test hop. That is where it all started. In the air at about 10 o'clock, Scotty dumped me and we got into a Dog Fight. We chased each other trying to get on his tail for a simulated shot. Well, we "crashed" (mid air collision). Both pilots bailed out and made it okay. I was ready to hit the ground when the parachute opened. I still shake thinking about it. I thought I had it. Scotty was found rolling his chute out of the debris. The next day we received two new planes and an 'ass' charging for committing a 'Bad Act.' It really happened in a hurry. We both were spellbound, but reacted to a real issue. We were terribly embarrassed over the act, and let it be known we were sorry to our fellow pilots. 'Gross' to say the least. We did get to combat and completed our missions. We were lucky to make it. It was exciting times."

A theme we saw in Captain Kelley was a genuine pride in having worked himself up from the ground, starting as a "New York city kid" and rising to officer status in the Air Force. 

"We grew up in Queens, New York. I'm a grad of New York University at Farmingdale, New York. Graduated 1939, took agriculture, played football, and had a ball.... I consider myself a good military man. Took orders well and served (obeyed) well. When I was a cadet, I obeyed my last order first. I got to be a cadet, not too shabby for a New York City kid. I was just plain 'with it' as a new cadet."

A highpoint in his Air Force career occured on August 8, 1945: escorting the "A" Bomb to Nagasaki. "I have a photo of my flight (9 planes) when the B-29 dropped the 'A' Bomb. The picture is a jewel and depicts the way it was. Following I got the flight (4-P47s) in close and said, 'Fellows, this is it. The war is over.' And it was... I ended the war with the 'Atom Bomb' drop on Nagasaki. I actually saw the drop on Nagasaki and personally viewed the devastation (what a mess) - total ruin.

Captain Kelley had a long and varied career in the Air Force until his retirement in 1984. Regarding his service in WWII he said, "I [had] made captain in 1944. I completed two tours of combat -one in Aleutians flying Dive Bombers (A-24s) and at the end of the war P-47s in the Pacific... I consider myself as having a charmed life. Exposed to danger but lucky my life was lightened with Aeroplanes.

The Cute Couple

"Eat your heart out girls. We've been married 70 years." The absolutely darling Mrs. Johnson told us this right after laughingly declaring that the cute (and very tall) Texan was HER man and for us to steer clear of him. Oh they'd had a lot of fun over the years she said. "We were hippies" after a fashion. For their Honeymoon they took bicycles and went all over Norway, camping out and occasionally staying in local hostels.

Before she met Bill, she'd been warned that Marines were a dangerous lot and she shouldn't date them -a rumor probably started by some Navy fellow-, but now she was curious. Finally she got the opportunity to date a very confident (aren't they all though!) Marine. One evening he took it upon himself to teach her some of the drill steps. When he ordered her to march towards him, but neglected the order to halt (hoping she would walk right into a kiss), she saw through his games and decided that yes indeed Marines were a wily lot, but she certainly liked them. Soon after she found herself the tall Texas Marine of her dreams, Bill Johnson, and proposed to him. He accepted and they were married. Miss Personality pretty much describes her to a T. And Gary Cooper 2.0 describes Bill. Together they make the cutest dream couple. And we will all be happy if we can be just half as amazing at 90 as Mrs. Johnson is.

Bill: An All American Marine

Last night I started a brief instagram post with these words, 

"Even the most beautiful things cannot last last forever."

It is true. But in a way, that is what makes them so beautiful. If you'll excuse the cliché, beautiful things are like flowers - we appreciate them so much more when we only get to experience their beauty for a little while. 

Bill Madden (seated) reading the newspaper.

Bill Madden (seated) reading the newspaper.

One of these beautiful flowers was a retired English teacher named Bill Madden. He was soft-spoken and gentle. He dressed in the way you would imagine an old lover of the arts would dress, including a slightly faded, but very neat, blue cardigan. He lived and breathed poetry and could recite countless classics from Keats, the Bronte Sisters, and Emily Dickinson, to the slightly lesser known (but still wonderful) Eugene Field and Alfred Noyes.

Once, Jubilee and I spent a delightful afternoon with Mr. Madden comparing notes on our favorite poets. We had a little disagreement over the merit of Kipling's writings, but that only added to the color of our conversation. Emily Dickinson's "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" brought on hilarious laughter at the peculiarity of her writings. It was all so impromptu and lovely that I shall never forget it. 

But with all these gentle qualities, you would never have guessed Mr. Madden to be a former United States Marine, one of the men who fought with "uncommon valor" on the battlefields of the Pacific. Instead of commemorating his 19th birthday with cake and ice cream, he was storming the beaches of Iwo Jima. There were no candles for him to blow out and the fireworks in the sky were not a celebration of life, but more out of a line from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, "Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them, volley'd and thunder'd. Storm'd at with shot and shell, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of Hell."

A young and adorable Bill Madden

Looking over the island's landscape, he later recalled, "[It] reminded me of the witches scene in Macbeth. Clouds of sulfur fumes steamed up from nearly every crevice of the ghostly terrain."

Mr. Madden survived Iwo long enough to see the inspirational flag-raising and watch nearly all of his close friends blown to pieces before he himself was wounded and evacuated. It took nearly 50 years before he was able to write and talk about the horrors he witnessed on that nightmare of volcanic rock. "Forever impressed on my mind," he wrote, "are the sights and sounds of young boys being ripped apart by the steel fragments of mortar shells. My hand trembles whenever I write about it, even after half a century. I will never forget the unmistakable "ka-zoom" of mortar shells exploding into a clustered body of troops and then the "zing" of fragments of body, sand, and steel flying past my ears as I dived for cover. Life can never be the same once it is experienced under those conditions."

One friend, Red Griffiths, miraculously survived a fearsome bullet that ricocheted around his helmet, entered his neck, and exited his back. Another walked into a machine gun ambush and was paralyzed from the waist down. "So many more of my buddies dropped one by one with wounds: Neilson, Johnson, Lanier, Strome, Mitchell, Rebstock, and Hernandez, to name a few. I myself was buried alive my a mortar shell on the edge of my foxhole, but was dug out immediately by Al. That blast robbed me of my hearing for 24 hours... Even more fearful to contemplate after I was rescued was the smashed but unexploded grenade lying beside my head." And the stories go on. 


My first meeting with Mr. Madden was unforgettable. Jubilee and I had traveled to Virginia Beach for the 5th Marine Division Reunion. It was one of the first times we had traveled alone like this, but the opportunity of being around so many of our wonderful Marines quite put away any concerns. The first afternoon of touring brought us to a local Military Aviation Museum where we all gathered outside before going in. 

Marine Corps buddies, Al (left) saved the life of Bill on Iwo, shortly before being wounded himself. 

"Excuse me," said a soft voice. Jube and I turned around to see a lovely veteran whom we hadn't yet met. "May I please ask what two such nice young ladies are doing in a group of us old people?" We laughed and told him how we wouldn't miss a gathering like this for anything! "I was on Iwo," he said, "And the guy over there saved my life... A mortar shell hit right by me blasting my eardrums and burying me alive. Al came and dug me out, and, if it weren't for him, I would be dead. You know," he continued, hardly pausing to take a breath, "My wife passed away three months ago. And you girls remind me so much of her. We were married for 69 years. She was the love of my life." He pulled out a photo of a gorgeous brunette and showed it to us. In an instant, our laughter nearly turned to tears as we realized how fresh the loss was for this gentle man. 

Jubilee and Mr. Madden at the 5th Marine Division Reunion

Jubilee and Mr. Madden at the 5th Marine Division Reunion

We continued to chat for the rest of the day, beginning to put together the pieces of a life which could be considered that of a truly all American boy. In love with his high school sweetheart (though unsure that the love was reciprocated), he signed up as a United States Marine to follow in the steps of his older brother. Completing bootcamp, he was shipped off to the Pacific for combat, hardly after his 18th birthday, hoping all the while that he would survive to return and marry the girl he'd been in love with for so long. 

Now, let me just pause and take a minute to tell you the story of Bill (Mr. Madden) and Phyllis (his wife). Theirs is the ultimate storybook romance if there ever was one. It started with the "puppy love" (as he called it) of a young high school boy, but quickly grew into a mature love and desire to marry the girl of his dreams. To him, Phyllis was as kind as she was beautiful, talented as she was popular, with a genuine heart that only thought of others. And Bill knew she was the only one he could ever love. But there was a problem, Phyllis was dating a guy named "Slats." 

"It was a picture to show me the ring she bought with money I sent her from overseas because I didn't know what to get her for some special day, a birthday, Christmas, or something. My Marine buddies fell in love with her from her picture and said they were going to write to her and take her away from me.  I said, "ok, just try," and I gave them her address.  Several of them did write to her, but she turned them down diplomatically, as I knew she would." -Bill M.  

Slats would have been nice enough, except for the fact that Slats liked Phyllis and Bill liked Phyllis too. "Slats was a nice guy." Mr. Madden told me. "I liked him a lot, but this was war over the woman we both wanted to marry. I would have done almost anything to get her to marry me instead of him. That's how love works, I guess." And how could a poor young Marine compare to the guy who "had a good job, good clothes, and a nice car." Things looked hopeless for Bill until Slats joined the Navy, and Bill found his opportunity to cut in. This didn't last long, however, as he too was soon shipped off to San Diego for training. Phyllis continued to stay in touch with both the Sailor and the Marine, but it couldn't continue this way. 

On invitation of her boyfriend, Slats, Phyllis, and a friend named Fern went to stay with an aunt in Los Angeles. Slats was concerned that he was being pushed out of the picture, and hoped to gain some ground by making frequent visits. Phyllis now found herself in a conundrum. Even though she had been dating Slats, she was beginning to take a real liking to this shy, young Marine. Well, the climax of this little love triangle finally arrived. In Mr. Madden's words here is what happened:

"She told me to come there on a day that Slats did not have time off, but 'the best laid plans of mice and Marines gang aft agley.' Slats got someone to take his duty place on the day I was to take Phyllis out. I had hitch hiked to LA and was going to take a cab wherever the girls wanted to go, but we ended up, all four of us, in Slats' aunt's car and headed for the Hollywood Palladium where Harry James was playing and Helen Forrest was singing. I was not too happy with the arrangement, and neither was Slats, much less Phyllis. We got to the Palladium, had some drinks, and listened to that heavenly music of James and Forrest. I quickly asked Phyllis to dance before Slats had a chance to. I was still a teenager and didn't dance very well, but I would have done anything to get her alone for a while so we could talk. Well, we danced, talked, and when the song was over, we stayed till the next one and the next one before we got back to the table with Fern and Slats. He was not happy a bit. I got one more dance during the playing and singing of "Stardust," which became our song. She decided that night that she would choose me to marry over Slats."  

They were married for 69 years. 


I already told you a bit about his experiences on Iwo. After meeting him at the reunion, Jubilee and I chatted with him over email, exchanging stories nearly every week. It was frequent for him to talk about Iwo in those emails- the buddies he lost and the nightmarish events that were burned into his memory. But more often he talked about what he wanted future generations to know. He didn't want the sacrifice of those men forgotten, as so many have already done. I know at times he wondered if the price we paid on Iwo was worth it. But I think it was. The freedom we have in America today is an example of that. 

As we continued to talk, he became less the formal English teacher, and more the personal friend. Though this did come with one difficulty. "Call me Bill instead of Mr. Madden," he said. "I give you permission, although I admire you for the respect." I protested. It's not really my habit to call people I respect and who are a great deal older than me by their Christian names. It just doesn't seem right. However Mr. Madden eventually won over. "And you can just make it Bill, not Mr. Bill... We're just Liberty and Bill now." Well that was the end of that.

We talked about family and life. He told me Marines never build their houses at the bottom of a hill, and when our house flooded last spring, I understood why. He gave me valuable advice for our futures: Be careful in choosing a boyfriend - "Don't be in too much of a hurry. Many people rush into marriage and then decide to quit within five years. That's not the way to go. Don't be in a hurry. I know you will use good judgment... I sure hope you girls someday have a man who will love you as much as I loved Phyllis, and still do."

Photo credit: PRWEB

Lastly, he also taught me to be an ardent Chicago Cubs fan... but my wait to see them win wasn't nearly as long as his. In fact, Mr. Madden had been waiting 70 years to see the Cubs play the Series. In late 1945, while he was recuperating in the Navy Hospital in Chicago from wounds he received on Iwo, word got around that in gratitude for their service, the Chicago Cubs were offering free tickets to any of the patients in that hospital. The tickets were given to the Navy officials, who in turn made the happy announcement with one stipulation: That they would be required to "scrub down the deck" and do various other hospital cleaning. Well, gentle though Mr. Madden was, he was not about to be pushed around by some stuffy Naval officer, so he stiffly refused. "They're sure to play the Series another year, so I'll go then." 70 years later as he told this to Jube and me, it was still evident that his dignity had been offended. We had to laugh. But as we all know, the Cubs didn't play the Series the next year, nor the next, nor for many years after that. A staunch Cubs fan, Mr. Madden held out hope. 

This past October, I heard that after all these years he was finally going to be able to see the Cubs play in the World Series. I know he was so excited about it. As I cheered for the Cubs' win, I was so thrilled knowing that his wish had finally come true. Little did I know that night that he had passed away just a few days too early, on November 1st. He never got to see the Cubs win their game.

Even though I knew his health was poor, and we discussed it frequently with each other -the merits and otherwise of possible medications and procedures - it still was a shock to hear. Despite the vivid and harsh impact Iwo Jima had left on him, he still continued to look at life as beautiful, grateful for the many years he had been given. But I know he was happy to go. The last few months of his life he continually told me how much he missed his wife, Phyllis. "You don't know what it's like to live with someone you love for 69 years, and then not have them with you." Still, I'm selfish enough to want him here a little longer. Just one more chat, one more conversation. I only got to know him in the latter part of his life as the years had faded him and ill-health and pain made basic things very difficult, even dreary for him. But still he had shared so much kindness to Jube and me, that it only makes his passing so much the harder. He was truly one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met. Mr. Madden's life story seems to be one of the truest examples of the Greatest Generation. And I know, I for one will certainly miss him.