Local WWII Vets taks trip on Honor Flight

Published 8:46 pm Friday, April 23, 2010

William L. “Billy” Jackson (Col. Ret.) struggled to find words to define the experience provided to him and about 90 other World War II veterans through the Wiregrass Honors Flight. The Honors Flight to Washington D.C. on April 17 to view the World War II Memorial was one of four Wiregrass Honors Flights offered to veterans at no cost.

“I just don’t know the words to express my feelings,” Jackson said. “It was a most humbling experience. As I looked around there at the memorial, most of the veterans seemed to be remembering those who will never stand where we stood. My feeling was that we were representing those who weren’t there – those who never came home from the war, those who died before the World War II Memorial was erected and those who will not have the opportunity to travel to Washington. Only a small number of us will stand there in honor.”

Jackson said hearts were touched by the memorial and hearts were heavy in its shadows.

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“You could look at the faces of the veterans and their guardians and know that their hearts were touched,” he said. “But, you know, when we came home from World War II, we went straight to work. There were no parades for us and we didn’t expect any.

“Many of the World War II veterans had been away from home from three to five years. We were anxious to go on living. We never thought about a monument or anything to honor our service. That just wasn’t anything that was important to us at the time.”

But standing at the Alabama pillar of the World War II Memorial, Jackson said he realized it is important that the service of the hundreds of thousands of World War II veterans be recognized and honored.

“There were a lot of veterans there in wheelchairs and you saw tears in the eyes of so many,” he said. “Those tears showed what the memorial meant to those who came home and the caring for those who didn’t. It’s hard to explain what this experience meant to me, and I’m sure it is for all of those who made the flight. We were all touched by what we saw and by the remembrance of what others had sacrificed.”

Even days after returning from the Honor Flight, Harold Watkins couldn’t hold back the tears as he remembered the sea of white crosses at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Each one of those crosses means that someone’s loved one didn’t come home,” Watkins said, as he brushed a tear from his eye. “And, there are crosses in other countries, too. Crosses that we’ll never see but are there marking boys buried far from home.”

Watkins was only 18 years old when he was called by Uncle Sam in April 1945.

“The heavy fighting was over when I went in,” he said. “I didn’t see the horrors of war that others did. I was one of the more fortunate ones.”

Watkins completed basic training the day Japan surrendered. He served on a Navy transport ship in the Pacific.

“We made trips as fast as we could go bringing soldiers home,” he said. “They were happy men to be going home. When I was in Washington, I couldn’t help but think about all of those who never got to come home. More than 400,000 who never got to come home.”

Watkins said he knows how blessed he is to have come home. He also is fortunate to have been able to stand before the memorial that was erected in honor of the band of veterans of which he is proud to be a member.

“I’m proud I had the opportunity to serve,” he said. “And, I am proud that I got to see the World War II Memorial. But it’s really for those who didn’t come home. They are the ones we need to honor.”

And, it was just by happenstance that Watkins was able to make the trip with the Wiregrass Honor Flight on April 17.

“I read in the paper about the flight and my wife called and there had been a cancellation so I got to go,” Watkins said. “It was something to behold. Something I’ll never forget.”

But it is that sea of crosses that stands out most in his mind.

“Those are the ones that deserve to be remembered,” he said.

Joe Gilchrist of Troy wasn’t in the ticket of the battles of World War II and his thoughts were of those who were in the thick of battle and never came home as he stood at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gilchrist, a veteran of the WWII’s Army Air Corps, said he was like so many others on the Wiregrass Honor Flight that day who were in awe of the memorial that was erected in their honor – those men and women of “The Greatest Generation.”

But it was those crosses at Arlington that moved them to tears.

“Those men buried there gave their all,” Gilchrist said. “No one can do more than that. They never had a chance to see the World War II Memorial. We are the lucky ones.

“The World War II Memorial is impressive, and I was so fortunate to get to see it along with other veterans and my grandson, Richard, who was my guardian on the trip.”

Gilchrist said the memorial that was dedicated in 2004 came too late for many WWII veterans.

“Our generation of veterans is dying at the rate of about 1,200 a day,” he said. “Many of them died before they could see the memorial and others aren’t able to make the trip. But these Honor Flights have made it possible for thousands of veterans to go to Washington and see the tribute to their service.”

Gilchrist entered the Army Air Corps in 1942 when he was 22 years old. He served in North Africa and was mustered out in 1946. He was in aircraft radio maintenance and spared many of the horrors of the war.

Gilchrist said when he hears stories about the Battle of the Bulge, where nearly 20,000 Americans were killed; he can’t even imagine what it must have been like.

“So many of the stories of World War II will never be told because those who lived them just can’t talk about them,” Gilchrist said. “Maybe we need to hear those stories … or maybe we don’t.”

Perhaps some of the WWII veterans who stood at the Alabama pillar on April 17 could have told stories of those battles. But the day was one of intense camaraderie – of being with those who were part of a war like no other.

The Wiregrass Honor Flight veterans returned home to a heroes welcome. A large enthusiastic crowd awaited the veterans and greeted them with cheers and thunderous applause. Families greeted their loved ones with tears of joy.

“This was a great opportunity and we all appreciate those who made it possible,” Gilchrist said. “For many of us, these Honor Flights are the only opportunity we’ll have to visit the World War II Memorial and to visit it with other veterans.”

Emmitt Boutwell described the Honors Flight one of the greatest experiences of his life.

“I’d never seen the World War II Memorial; I’d never been to Washington and I’d never flown on a commercial airliner,” Boutwell said.

He couldn’t get over the way the Wiregrass Honors Flight was organized to take care of the veterans.

“There was somebody at every turn making sure that we were all right,” he said. “When we went through customs, we had to take our shoes off. I sat down to put mine back on and a lady came over to do it for me. I told her I could put my shoes on but she said that was what she was there for. I was king for a day.”

Boutwell said all the sites in the Capital City were impressive to him from the slum section to the huge government buildings to the war memorials and those to the country’s great leaders.

“I enjoyed all of that,” he said. “It was really something to see.”

Arlington Cemetery put a lump in the throat of most veterans and Boutwell was no exception.

“The Changing of the Guard wasn’t exactly what I expected,” he said. “There was just one guard and he walked about 75 feet, stood about 30 seconds and walked back. It was impressive though.”

Because the flight was about an hour late getting off the ground, the veterans missed seeing Sen. Bob Dole but did get to view the laying of the wreath at the Alabama pillar of the WWII Memorial.

Boutwell served with the Army in Europe and was a part of the Blitz of London. He was discharged on Nov. 22, 1945, and had not been with a group of men from WWII since then.

“What impressed me so much was the attitude of the men,” he said. “There were a lot us with ailments and about 30 in wheelchairs but nobody complained. We were just all so proud to have the opportunity to go to Washington and see the memorial and to be together.”

Boutwell said many of the veterans were drafted into service.

“That’s the way most of us got into the service,” he said. “Nobody asked for war. It was forced on us. It was forced on me but when I came back home, nobody owed me anything. I owed my country and I knew without a doubt that the United States was the greatest country in the world. I had been to other countries and I knew we had the number one nation. I was proud to serve and we all appreciate the memorial but especially for those who didn’t get to come home. The real heroes.”

Alan Gunter had been working for more than a year to get his dad, Bill, on a Wiregrass Honor Flight. But it didn’t look like he was going to make it.

On Thursday before the Saturday, April 17 flight, Bill Gunter was in the hospital where he had been for more than a week with pneumonia and there was little sign of improvement.

Alan’s wife, Deborah, was staying at the hospital keeping Gunter encouraged and praying. But the doctors said Gunter’s chances of making the Honor Flight were not good.

At 6 a.m. on Friday, Deborah Gunter was back at the hospital and she noticed a huge difference in her father-in-law.

“When Dad woke, Deborah said he was alert, talkative and hungry,” Alan Gunter said. “He ate all his breakfast and seemed to be a new man. At noon, the doctors noticed the vast difference in Dad’s countenance and Deborah began working to convince the doctors that he might be strong enough to make the trip. It worked.”

At 4 a.m. on Saturday, April 17, Alan and Bill Gunter were on their way from Troy to Dothan. And the trip for both of them was nothing short of amazing.

“When we arrived at the Baltimore airport, the plane was boarded by a Rear Admiral who personally thanked the veterans for their service,” Gunter said. “As we exited the plane, there was a long line of young sailors who greeted each veteran and thanked them for their service. When we got into the terminal a line of civilians was there to thank them also. As we boarded the buses, sailors were standing at attention and saluting the veterans.

“We gathered at the ‘Alabama’ pillar for a ceremony to all the servicemen of Alabama. The monument is truly a magnificent example of artistic expression and symbolism. There is one pillar for each state and territory of the United States. Huge bronze eagles and a large fountain represent victory in the air and at sea.

“But there is an interesting emphasis on the fact that the states were united in this war. Everyone at home and abroad was working to rid the world of a true axis of evil. Many stopped to thank the veterans for their service.”

When the Wiregrass Honor Flight returned to Dothan, the Army band was playing John Phillip Sousa marches. Soldiers were standing at attention and many dignitaries were on hand to provide an encouraging word.

“We still cannot believe that it really happened for us,” Gunter said.

“It was nothing short of a miracle.”