JOE BIDDLE: Final honor flight stirs memories, patriotism, appreciation
By Joe Biddle, Sports Columnist
Vincent Henry Wolters first wanted to go to the Atlantic side of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
After all, he was one of the American soldiers who helped his country defeat the Nazi war machine as Adolph Hitler’s Germany threatened to control Europe and ultimately the world.
Wolters was part of almost 100 WWII veterans who participated in the sixth and final Music City Honor Flight to our nation’s capital May 8.
It was a tiring day for those veterans, most of who are in their late 80s and 90s. Many were in wheelchairs. Vincent Wolters was able to walk all day on his own two legs, just as he did as the 3rd Infantry landed on Normandy Beach, as he did after fighting the German tanks at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest and across Europe.
His company wasn’t the first wave to hit the beach on D-day.
“I don’t think any of them lived,” Wolters said.
It wasn’t a piece of cake for the men with Wolters in the 358th Infantry. He showed me a copy of the Embarkation Personnel Roster after the blood had been shed, the bodies bagged up for burial and the wounded were in various stages of repairing multiple wounds that haunt them to this day.
There were almost six pages of names, each single-spaced with serial number, name and rank. After each name was WIA, KIA or a blank space. The vast majority of America’s Greatest Generation were either wounded in action or killed in action. Very few infantrymen had nothing by their names. Vincent Wolters was spared.
Wolters had been drafted when he was 17 years old. He had six months left in high school. He wasn’t alone. There were approximately 20 neighborhood kids in Wolters’ hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey that also enlisted.
Only two of them survived. Though wounded several times, Corporal Vincent Wolters was one of them to return to the country they saved. He tried twice to join the Marines. He flunked the colorblind test.
“I couldn’t see a number on the paper. They wouldn’t let me in,” he said. He then tried the Navy. Same result. The Army finally took him.
On the flight to D.C., I asked Wolters how afraid he was going into Normandy.
A man of few words, he looked at me and said: “I was scared every day.”
Some of the WWII veterans are now stooped over, others are frail and fragile as they fight the physical challenges in the winter of their lives. One veteran died only a few days before we made our flight.
Wolters was like many of the veterans who quietly walked around the memorial. There were many scars left on those battlefields. All the marble and fountains in the world can never heal those wounds.
Wolters’ unit went into a German concentration camp, not one of the larger or more well known ones. But its impact on a teenager is still there today.
“It’s why I hated the Germans so much,” Wolters said. “It made you sick.”
There are 4,000 gold stars on the WWII Memorial’s Freedom Wall. They represent the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives.
Wolters is now living in Monterey with his wife, Joan. He wrote about his experience in a book, “My Badge of Honor: A History of Our Company in World War II.” That badge of honor was his Combat Infantry Badge.
The book is very frank and to the point. There was nothing glossed over. He told of the 13-day trip across the Atlantic Ocean on an English ship, the Duchess of Bedford. His battalion walked up the narrow gangplank and was led below deck to the ship’s cargo hold. There were no beds or bunks. There was one door and a hatch cover.
The door was open during the day, closed at night. The door was guarded 24 hours to prevent soldiers from coming on deck without permission. Seasickness was rampant. The cargo hold became a vomitorium.
“I became so seasick that I prayed for a torpedo to come through the bulkhead where I was lying,” Wolters wrote.
Wolters described the conditions aboard the ship.
“We were all so seasick we would have jumped overboard if they hadn’t kept us locked in,” he said.
They survived the trip only to fight the German army, the weather and terrain on foreign soil. The Americans had three months of basic training before they were asked to defeat one of the most powerful militaries in the world.
Almost 70 years have passed since. The WWII veterans are dying off every day. Soon there will be none. The Music City Honor Flight has now taken more than 600 veterans to Washington. To a man, they return saying it was something they will remember the rest of their lives. While the trip was at no cost to the veterans, they had spilled their blood all over Europe and in the South Pacific.
I was one of approximately 40 men and women chosen to accompany the group as guardians, to make sure we didn’t lose a veteran and to attend to any needs they might have.
“We have never lost a veteran,” one of the organizers, Gary Drennon, said. “We misplaced one, but we found him.”
They got to walk around the WWII Memorial for an hour, before busing by the U.S. Capitol and Navy Memorial. They visited the Vietnam Wall, Korean and Lincoln Memorials. Next stop was the Air Force Memorial and arguably the most impressive stop on the tour, Arlington National Cemetery.
There are 330,000 graves filled with soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice. The small marble headstones can be seen at every turn. They are enlarging the cemetery to keep up with demands. The graves of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan are visible, as the sod is still new. Brothers and sisters in arms will forever be laid to rest there.
I saw the grave of Congressional Medal of Honor winner Major Audie Murphy, a WWII war hero, who would go on to be a prominent actor in cowboy and war movies. The hallowed ground was overwhelming, really.
We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Words can’t describe it. The elite unit was allowed to stand down during a vicious hurricane recently, yet decided they would carry on as usual.
I met Jacob Davenport, from Murfreesboro and a Blackman High graduate. He is a 20-year old honor guard who was on leave and decided to join the Honor Flight.
According to Davenport, there have been 613 soldiers since 1958 to earn the coveted Honor Guard ID badge.
“I love it,” Davenport said of the duty that few qualify for. “The thing I really like is being able to honor the men who died for our country.”
The return flight was quiet. The cabin lights were turned down. The U.S. Airlines flight attendants served dinner aboard the red, white and blue decorated chartered flight. Everyone was in a reflective mood, exhausted from a long, long day.
When they arrived back at Nashville International Airport, a cheering crowd welcomed them home. Some were family, others friends, and others just patriots who wanted to pay their respects.
It had been close to a 15-hour day, but a day that was worth every second. After all, these are the soldiers that ensured our freedom.
Wolters noted that the Honor Flight was on May 8.
“That’s the day the war in Europe ended,’’ he said of VE Day.
Job well done, soldier. Job well done.
Posted on: 5/16/2013