WWII vets make last Fayette-based Honor Flight
It was a trip to remember and never forget. The final voyage for Fayette Honor Flight brought some 80 veterans of World War II to see their memorial in Washington D.C. free of charge Sept. 15.
For the seventh and last time, the veterans got a motorcycle and police priority escort to Hartsfield International in Atlanta. On their flight up, the veterans were treated with a special “mail call” with letters written by local schoolchildren.
Local volunteers who paid their own way helped squire the WWII veterans around Washington to various sights including the Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam and Korean war memorials.
The WWII memorial featured pillars representing each U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia and a series of poignant bas relief sculptures that depicted scenes from the war, which claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans.
More than 16 million served in uniform during WWII, and at least one of those present on Wednesday’s trip admitted to lying about his age so he too would qualify for the military.
Each one on the trip could say they participated in a pivotal time in history, each in their own way. The Citizen had the opportunity to interview several of the men while they toured the WWII memorial.
Bob Firth of Social Circle was drafted at age 19 while he was in college. He served as a combat medic in the 102nd infantry division. The infantry fought through the Sigfried line across the Rhone River and then the Rhine River, Firth said.
Along the way, Firth saw some gruesome scenes as he took care of those wounded in battle. One of the most memorable of those occasions happened when a bunch of troops became ensnared in a minefield. Combat engineers had to probe the ground with bayonets to find paths to each man, Firth explained.
One of the medics was rescuing a soldier but stepped over the soldier and onto a mine.
The resulting explosion, Firth said, “sticks in my mind.”
Firth also recalled being shot at “by snipers, artillery, machine guns, everything you can think of. I remember some of it, but I’ve forgotten a lot of it too.
Ralph Evans of Blairsville was 18 when his military service began, and he served in India as a B-24 gunner. The most harrowing experience was when the aircraft, already aloft for 16 hours, became lost as it ran out of gas, but ultimately a British airfield was secured for landing.
Evans recalled the word of the surrender of Japan.
“It was exhilaration because we felt like peace would be coming, but I didn’t think it would happen that quickly. With that knowledge we said, ‘Amen, praise the Lord,’” Evans said.
Ernest Pound of Woodstock, who also volunteered for military service, had a rather unique view on the surrender ceremony. He witnessed the landing of the Japanese contingent that ultimately negotiated the surrender as they landed at his base in two bombers with a P-38 escort before disembarking to an American craft bound for Manila to discuss the terms of the surrender.
“It was incredible and it was enjoyable, after all the things they had put us through,” Pound said.
Vincent Ghiotto of McDonough volunteered for the Navy at age 18 and was stationed at the Philippines during the war. He worked on a crew for a landing craft tank and helped unload supplies coming in from ships who stayed safely off the coast.
One of Ghiotto’s most vivid memories of the war was General Douglas MacArthur’s triumphant return to the beach at the Philippines. He recalled watching as the general got off the landing craft before it reached the beach, landing the general in water up to his waist.
“The boat could have come up on land, he’d have had no problems,” Ghiotto recalled. “... That was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
Walter Hall of Jackson County, drafted at age 23 in 1943, served in the south Pacific as what he called “a pencil soldier” who looked after the records of enlisted men in his division.
“I was an island hopper. Got a lot of miles,” Hall said.
When news of the surrender broke out Hall was in the Philippines and walking to his office. The day was Aug. 14, 1945 and it had special meaning to Hall. It was his birthday.
Hall also recalled graduating basic training and the sorrow of soldiers who were leaving wives behind.
“Some of those guys who just got married, they were crying. It was a sad time. It wasn’t bad though. I don’t want to do it again, but it wasn’t bad.”
As so many WWII veterans are dying off each day due to their advanced age, there was an impetus to get them flying again in a quick manner. And so it has come to pass that Honor Flight Fayette, with support from more than a thousand local volunteers and donors, managed to take nearly 500 local and area WWII vets on the trip of a lifetime, one for the record books.
And you can mark it down as one more trip for freedom too, in celebration of the defeat of the German and Japan forces that terrorized Europe and southeast Asia and posed a strong threat to America.