“They died to save their country and they only saved the world.”

Memorial Day Special from the Operation Meatball Archives // July 28, 2014

Have you ever heard someone say, “When I die, put this on my gravestone.” You probably have. Chances are you have even said that yourself a couple of times. But have you ever stopped to really consider how you will be remembered after you die?

For as long as I can remember, my father has always made it a very important part of our education to bring us to cemeteries, and the older the cemetery, the better. This has always a special part of family trips for me, even when I was very little. Some of my favorite memories of the New England coast are visiting the graves of the founding fathers and mothers of America. This is not because I have a weird fascination with death or anything else macabre and dark, but because I love learning about the men and women who shaped history. Multi-generational families can be found buried in one plot, such as the John Adams family and the Cotton Mather family. Then there is Cole’s Hill in Plymouth which holds the graves of many Pilgrims including William Bradford and William Brewster, as well as the grave of missionary Adoniram Judson, all men who left legacies that have lasted hundreds of years.

There 4,648 men buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. The majority of them are from the United Kingdom.

Today, you can learn about anyone or anything on the internet if you just type it in. If you are more patient you can read about your subject of choice in books, letters, journals, newspaper articles, sometimes even film and documentaries. Yet I have found a very intimate way to get a personal glimpse into someone's life is to look at their gravestone. What is written on someone’s gravestone is the final statement that will be read about them for the next 200 years. The person might have been long forgotten, but their epitaph, the words on the stone marking their remains, will give testimony to their life in one way or another. 

When I am dead and in my grave, 
And all my bones are rotten. 
While reading this you'll think of me 
When I am long forgotten!

As in all writing, the spectrum between profound, morbid, mundane, humorous, and even absurd exists on gravestones. This grave from Nova Scotia takes on a bit of the tongue in cheek: 

Here lies Ezekial Aikle:
Age 102
The Good Die Young  

And not all are truthful. The Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary says of the word epitaph, “The epitaphs of the present day are crammed with fulsome compliments never merited. Can you look forward to the honor of a decorated coffin, a splendid funeral, a towering monument--it may be a lying epitaph.” 

Sometimes, if you pay attention, a phrase, a quote, or even as much as a sentence can give the reader an especially distinctive and even profound summary of that person's life. Were they of noble character? Or a villain? Were they loved by family? Or did they die lonely? What is written on that stone could very well be the ultimate summation of that person's life.

At the centre of this peaceful cemetery a solitary rock monument is covered in wreathes and notes from the families of the fallen.

One of the most moving aspects of our time in Normandy was visiting the Omaha Memorial and Bayeux War Cemeteries. Both were special and unique. At Omaha were rows and rows of plain white crosses, with only the name, date, state, and regiment. It was magnificent in its simplicity. But the British War Cemetery in Bayeux surprised me by its beauty. Walking into it was truly like walking into a piece of England. It had a peacefulness and tranquility about it that was enhanced by the well tended gardens surrounding each grave and going on down the uniform rows. There are 4,648 men of varying nationalities buried in this cemetery, but the majority of it is made up of the flower of England’s youth. 

There was so much to take in, but the most poignant part for me was to see the inscriptions that were written on almost all of the graves- quotes or last messages from the family of the deceased. Of the 4,116 English, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers buried there, there is not much we know, who they were, what were they like, etc. But what we do know is this, what is written on their epitaphs tells us a story that is one of the greatest and most powerful stories that has ever been told: A loving son, a brother, or husband did his duty for God and country and willingly sacrificed his life for the lives of his loved ones and future generations. 


"He asked life of thee, and thou gavest it him.Even length of days for ever and ever." Lt. Patrick Shaw, age 22, Royal Armored Corps.

“Greater love,” says the Bible, “hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This was the text for many a gravestone. I wish that I could write an article on each epitaph, and the meaning and essence of what they communicate to future generations like you and me. But alas for time. Instead, I have included below some of the epitaphs that most struck me. Some are elaborate, others more plain, but they each communicate a message; of bravery and courage, of love and heartbreak, sometimes very personal. 

Signalman P.H. Ellis’s grave spoke of a loving mother: “My Only Child, he gave his all. Till We Meet Again -Mother.” Somewhere in England, the mother of P.H. Ellis lived out her life without  grandchildren to renew her youth because her son “gave his all.”

For Private S. Coles of the Royal Army Medical Corps it was a a duty well done: “He died his country to defend, A British soldier’s noble end.”  

The wife of A. Fishwick, Royal Engineer, would always remember her husband as one who:  “Gave his heart to home, His soul to God. Fought for King and country wife and baby.” 

"I've anchored my soul in the haven of rest, in Jesus I'm safe evermore." W. A. Hill, age 22, the Green Howards

Many Englishmen were still remembering the futile losses of the first World War; thought to be the “war to end all wars.” But it was not; and it is very probable that the suffering and the bloodshed was in the forefront of the minds of those who inscribed “He made his sacrifice for us. Grant it is not in Vain” on the grave of Royal Dragoon R.J. Colley after his death. 

A very beautiful one that can ring true to the heart of every Englishman was Royal Marine, J.R. Rigby’s: “There’s some corner of a foreign land that is forever England.”

As a lasting memory to Lieutenant T.W.R. Healy of the RAF, it was chosen to have this inscription written on his grave: “I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.”  Would that all could say as his stone said, for truly he had. 

It would take a long time to properly go through and catalogue all the epitaphs which were written in that cemetery, but, certainly, one of the ones which moved me the most was the grave of Paul Abbott Baillon of the Royal Air Force who died November, 1940, age 26. His grave simply stated, “One of the few.” That one simple phrase communicated more about valour and heroism than a thousand words in the Telegraph or Wallstreet Journal could have. What do I mean by this, and what does it mean, “One of the few?”

Royal Air Force Pilot Officer Paul Abbott Baillon: "One of the few"

P.A Baillon: One of the few who had so gallantly defended England during her darkest hours when invasion seemed imminent, and the hope of a empire nearly gone. One of the few RAF pilots (544 to be exact) who gave their lives during the Battle of Britain. One of Churchill’s few. The few he spoke of when he would make the remark that would forever go down in the annals of history, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Yes. P.A. Baillon RAF, was “one of the few.”

As I write this now, in retrospect, and remember the words I read on these markers, words of the courage of youth, the heartbreak of a wife, the love of a mother for an only son, and the duty of a soldier, this verse from the poet G.K.Chesterton keeps coming into mind. “They died to save their country and they only saved the world.” How true this statement is. They died to save their England. Our boys died to save America. And instead, they saved the world. What beauty in their sacrifice. What can we do to pay them back in some small way for the sacrifice they made? There  is nothing we can do to fully repay it, but we can try by remembering these men, the veterans of WWII. 

Along the top of the Bayeux Memorial frieze is this latin inscription: "We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land". It is a fitting epitaph.

How grateful I am for this little look into their lives and character as I read these epitaphs. Stop in a cemetery and take a look. 

English Graves

Were I that wandering citizen whose city is the world,
I would not weep for all that fell before the flags were furled;
I would not let one murmur mar the trumpets volleying forth
How God grew weary of the kings, and the cold hell in the north.
But we whose hearts are homing birds have heavier thoughts of home,
Though the great eagles burn with gold on Paris or on Rome,
Who stand beside our dead and stare, like seers at an eclipse,
At the riddle of the island tale and the twilight of the ships.

For these were simple men that loved with hands and feet and eyes,
Whose souls were humbled to the hills and narrowed to the skies,
The hundred little lands within one little land that lie,
Where Severn seeks the sunset isles or Sussex scales the sky.

And what is theirs, though banners blow on Warsaw risen again,
Or ancient laughter walks in gold through the vineyards of Lorraine,
Their dead are marked on English stones, their loves on English trees,
How little is the prize they win, how mean a coin for these—
How small a shrivelled laurel-leaf lies crumpled here and curled:
They died to save their country and they only saved the world.

G. K. Chesterton

Back to the Island

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When I went to Iwo Jima in 2015 with my dad, it fulfilled a dream I'd had since I was 8 years old. It completely changed my life, and I was pretty sure that my first time there would also be my last time.

But next Monday, I will be helping escort 6 veterans (including one of my dearest of friends) back to Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. I'm still waiting for reality to hit. But I am deeply grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for this opportunity to re-live those childhood dreams all over again and in the company of such heroes.

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Consequently, I have been studying like a madman in preparation. I feel like the word "excited" is an inadequate one to describe how I feel about returning to Iwo and making my first trip to Saipan and Tinian. The history of these islands is one that I feel so deeply connected to.

Iwo was my first introduction to WW2 when I was 6 or 7 years old. And some of the first stories of war I ever heard were from veterans of Saipan who described what it was like to watch the poor brainwashed natives take their own lives by jumping the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of what they had been told were "cannibal Americans."

Over breakfast one morning, a Marine (*see endnote) showed me a picture of the first Japanese he ever killed and the cave where he was wounded by a grenade. Another one showed me the volcanic ash that was still in his hands.

I have shared tears with hearty Marines who were making their first return to the battlefields; some of whom had left an arm, a leg, and hardest of all - their best friend.

But it wasn't just a rollercoaster of hardcore memories that makes my connection so deep. Along the way, I was a adopted by this special group of fighting men and given a second family. My Marine Corps family. All these extra uncles who declared I had to run any boyfriends by them for approval first, swore to protect me (in various forms of Marine Corps terminology), and were there to help me through some pretty rough times.

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Going back to Iwo is pretty personal to me. More than the dress blues (which are gorgeous btw), more than the battle facts and statistics - because honestly, none of the adopted uncles are statistics to me - my Marines are living, breathing human beings who went through hell, but still managed to go on and live normal lives.

So what is the word I’m looking for to describe how I feel? Grateful? Heart-full? Thoughtful? Exuberant? I don't know. For now, just consider these words to be the placeholders until I do find the right one.

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** Note: The story of that Marine and the photo is not a story of the glorification of death… rather it is part of a beautiful story of forgiveness. When the Marine showed me the photo (one his buddy had taken), he was still angry with the Japanese. He had 70 years angst and bitterness built up that was coming to a climax. By showing me the photos, he was trying to share his story and find clarity in the mental conflict he was still fighting. He needed answers. All week I spoke to him about this, and others did as well… tskaAnd incredibly, the day we went to Iwo Jima, he was able to go up to a Japanese veteran and shake his hand. It was the first Japanese man he'd been willing to talk to since the war. The rest of the trip following that, he was happy and light-hearted. A month later, he passed away. I think he had finally found the deep peace and forgiveness he needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Peoria Honor Flight / May 8, 2018

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

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

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Notes from May 7:

 

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

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

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

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


Flight Day!

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

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

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


Arrival in DC!

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


National World War Two Memorial

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

Photo credit: Greater Peoria Honor Flight

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

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

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

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

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Two of our WWII,s. 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Surprise visit from a few of my BWI Brownies!


The Vietnam Wall

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

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

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

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


Air Force Memorial

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


Welcome Home

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.