Monday, April 12, 2004

Memories of heroes


For the fighters of World War II, a new monument is a chance to tell their stories - and to recall those who gave their lives.

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Old friends sat around a long barroom table at American Legion Post 72 in Mount Carmel one afternoon last week, laughing and swapping well-worn yarns, tales from the decades-old event that bound them together for life: World War II.

[img]
Staff Sgt. Don Bates servedin the Intelligence and ReconPlatoon of the 3rd Division of the US Army.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
Eleven men and one woman, all in their late 70s and 80s, who share a memory of a time long ago when, as wide-eyed youth, they were called on to serve their country and save the world.

"For all of us, World War II was the most important part of our lives,'' says Bill Bayer of Mount Carmel, who served in Europe with a combat engineer unit attached to Patton's Third Army. "That's what made us what we are. That's why we have this camaraderie, even after all these years.''

In about six weeks, they will travel together on a charter bus to Washington, D.C., for a four-day celebration culminating in the dedication of something many of them believe is long overdue - a National World War II Memorial on the National Mall, a lasting monument to the 400,000 of their comrades who died in World War II and the 16 million who served.

About 117,000 tickets were sold for the dedication events, and tens of thousands are on a waiting list should more tickets become available.

It is a memorial that has been in the works since 1987, when U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, introduced legislation after a veteran approached her at a fish fry wanting to know why there was no tribute to World War II veterans among Washington's many monuments.

After years of controversy over the scope and location of the memorial - many believed it would spoil the view between the Washington and Lincoln monuments - Congress stepped in three years ago to allow construction to begin.

But only about $16 million of the $193 million cost was borne by the federal government; the rest came from donations, including millions of small individual donations made by veterans like those gathered around the barroom table at Post 72.

Today, the veterans of Post 72 can sit and joke about their wartime experiences, remembering the best parts while letting the more disturbing memories stay locked away.

Vurdis Brashear of Mount Carmel - known to his friends at Post 72 as "Mike," served in the South Pacific with the Navy Amphibious Force. He had the whole table laughing as he recalled the "worst day of my life.''

"There was a supply ship on the way to our base with a load of Pabst Blue Ribbon," Brashear began. (The fellows who had already heard the story - most of them, probably - started smiling even before he got to the punch line.)

"Don't you know they sunk that ship before it got to us? That was one bad day.''

These are old men and women now, slower of step, struggling to read fine print, waking up each morning to the aches and pains that are the price they pay for living a long life.

But after looking in their eyes and hearing them summon up, in crystal-clear detail, their 60-year-old memories, it is not hard to imagine them as young men and women, wearing the uniform of their country and serving in World War II, liberating Europe from Nazi oppression, crushing the Japanese war machine in the South Pacific and coming home to build a nation, prosperous and free, for their children and grandchildren.

It seems an impossible task. Yet it is what they did, all those years ago. And they never asked for thanks; they simply came home and got on with their lives.

But, soon, they will be thanked just the same.

On May 27, these 12 will load onto a charter bus in Clermont County for the 600-mile trip to Washington, where they will be part of a four-day event.

Hundreds of other Cincinnati area veterans, along with hundreds of their families and friends, are making the pilgrimage that, for some, will be the final bivouac for old warriors whose ranks are being thinned every day by age and illness.

Croswell Bus Tours, the company taking Post 72 to Washington, sold out its seats on 11 buses months ago, with the American Legion Post picking up the $499-per-person price of the tour.

Veterans who booked bus tours long ago will have a place to stay; others are scrambling for hotel space in a city that expects to see in the neighborhood of 200,000 people arrive in town that weekend.

Concern over the crowds has prompted organizers of the dedication to urge veterans without tickets to visit the memorial some other time. The memorial will be open to the public later this month.

Dozens of local groups from American Legion posts, VFW halls and Disabled American Veterans chapters have organized trips through travel agencies and bus lines. Many more will go on their own with family members.

One of those is Elmer Taylor, 82, of Erlanger, who served in the 14th Armored Division as it made its way through Europe to the heart of Germany in 1944-45.

But, like many of the veterans headed to Washington, he will be going as much for his friends who were killed in action, as for himself. Two of his buddies, Richard Cady of Miamitown and Ray Liscow of Avondale, died in battle within days of each other.

"I don't know why I was spared,'' Taylor says. "But I know I need to go there to honor them. Not for me. For them.''

Like Taylor, each of those hundreds of Greater Cincinnati veterans going to Washington has his or her own story to tell. Each has unique memories of sacrifice and sadness, triumph and tragedy.

There is Dale Griffin, an 84-year-old retired lawyer and resident of a retirement community in Hartwell. He was a soldier on the beaches of Normandy 60 years ago when it was learned that he was the only soldier in his division who could speak French - he took four years of it at Walnut Hills High - and found himself spending the rest of the war at the side of Gen. George Patton as his interpreter.

"I was just this kid from Cincinnati, but here I was with the big man himself,'' Griffin says. "I can hardly believe it, even now.''

There is Mary Ann Leugers, a 75-year-old woman from Amberley Village, who did not serve herself. But, in her mind's eye, her brother Jack will always be the teenaged boy who joined the Navy in 1942 and was lost at sea.

She is going to Washington with another brother to honor Jack.

"Even now, I can hardly think of him without tears coming to my eyes,'' Leugers says. "So young, so full of promise. I owe it to him to be there.''

And there is Walt Santel, a Mount Airy man who would not be here today if it were not for a quick decision he made 60 years ago, lying on a German forest floor, his knee shattered by a Nazi soldier's bullet.

It was Valentine's Day 1945. Santel was flying a bombing mission over Germany in a B-26. The plane was shot down; the crew bailed out, drifting down to a farm field as a platoon of German soldiers shot holes in their parachutes. Santel hit the ground hard, popped up and began running for his life as German soldiers pursued him into the woods. A bullet exploded his kneecap.

"That was the end of my run,'' Santel says.

He thought, for an instant, of pulling out his .45 handgun and firing at the approaching Germans.

"Then, I thought, I do that, I'm dead for sure,'' Santel says.

Instead, he was captured and spent three months as a prisoner of the Nazis, drifting from one abandoned building to another as the German army retreated in the face of the Allied onslaught. He received little more to eat than a daily bowl of potato-peeling soup and an occasional crust of dark rye bread smeared with lard.

"It was a bad stretch of time,'' Santel says, "but a lot of guys had it a lot worse. A lot of guys didn't come home.''

Fading generation

The generation that served in World War II is fast disappearing, dying at the rate of 1,400 a day nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs projections estimate the number of World War II veterans who will survive into the near future. In the table below, the first number is the VA's estimate of the number of living World War II veterans on Sept. 30 of this year. Below are projections of how many will be living in years to come:

Ohio
2004: 172,931
2010: 81,560
2020: 8,340
2030: 117
Kentucky
2004: 52,274
2010: 25,755
2020: 2,858
2030: 43
Indiana
2004: 81,110
2010: 38,711
2020: 4,108
2030: 60

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E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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