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Honoring those who served: Mission takes 22 veterans to see Washington, D.C., memorials

Contributed To The Press • Oct 29, 2017 at 5:38 PM

HonorFlight NETN recently returned from its 11th Mission of Honor taking five World War II, 14 Korean War and three Vietnam veterans to Washington at no cost to them to see the memorials built in their honor and thank them for their service to the nation.

An overview of the recent trip by Kathy Matney:

Of all of the wars in recent memory, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation — and as a culturally diverse, free society.

The men and women who served our country during World War II are leaving us rapidly. Veterans from this era are dwindling in numbers as time marches forward.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, around 558,000 American veterans from the war are estimated to still be alive as of 2017.

Over 16.5 million men and women served in the armed forces during World War II, of whom 291,557 died in battle, 113,842 died from other causes, and 670,846 were wounded.

With much of the “Greatest Generation” now in their 80s and 90s, hundreds of these veterans are dying every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Within 20 years, the VA estimates, there will no longer be any living veterans from the conflict.

Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans — World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee went on its 11th Mission Trip to Washington with another group of veterans on Oct. 13, 2017. I was able to be aboard this trip and bring some of the stories home. Read some of the words of those that were there:

Veteran Leslie Jackson

WWII Navy 1943-46 on the LST 803 in the Pacific

In his words: "The saddest thing I witnessed was from my ship, the shooting of two of our own airplanes. They were mistaken for enemy aircraft and shot down. There were no survivors." He often says that, "If it weren't for the atomic bomb I probably wouldn't be here today. Our ship was stationed off the coast of Japan, waiting to invade when the bomb was dropped."

While at the WWII Memorial, a man noticing my LST hat, came and shook my hand. He thanked me for saving his country. He was from Belgium. To him LST was synonymous with Normandy.

Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.

In the ensuing hours, hundreds upon hundreds of men would start to prepare for battle. Young and frightened, they could only begin to imagine what would await them. For many it would be their longest day; for others it would be their last.

Between the high- and low-water marks along Omaha Beach where the 29th and the veteran 1st Division would land, the Germans had placed three distinct ranks of obstacles. The first ran the length of the beach, approximately 250 yards out from the high-water mark; it consisted of steel gate-like structures 10 feet high. They were emplaced irregularly, making it hard for the landing craft to avoid them. Lashed to the uprights were mines that would explode if hit by the boats. Closer in, heavy logs with contact mines secured on top were driven into the sand at an angle so that the top part faced seaward. The final obstructions were some 130 yards from the high-water line. These were barriers of three or more steel rails, crossed at the center and embedded in the sand. Known as ‘hedgehogs,’ they could puncture the bottom of any landing craft attempting to ride over them.

If the men were lucky enough to pass through those obstacles, on the shore awaiting them above the high-water mark were strands of barbed wire and thousands of buried mines. Behind the coast rose steep cliffs, some reaching 170 feet above the water. From this high ground, elements of the German 352nd Infantry Division could overlook the entire shoreline, giving them a tremendous field of enfilading fire. Machine guns were positioned in concrete pillboxes and open positions. Mortars, together with 75 mm and 88 mm guns, formed the final defenses.

Some machine gun nests were almost impossible to spot or hit. And they were positioned so that a burst of machine gunfire that missed one group of Americans was likely to hit other soldiers farther down the shore.

In order to secure the beach and prepare it so vehicles and heavy equipment could cross, the men of the first wave were responsible for securing four passages, or draws, along the beach. These led inland, and each was well defended by troops with mortars, infantry howitzers and antitank weapons as well as small arms.

In the heavy seas, their boats lurched forward, slamming into the towering gray-black waves. Crowded tightly together, many men became violently seasick. With feet awash in water and vomit, they were finally heading to war.

Paul Benfield – Vietnam Veteran

When the American soldiers returned home from World War II in 1945, they were greeted as heroes in the United States. Cities and towns across the country held parades to honor the returning veterans and recognize the sacrifices they had made. But the homecoming was very different for most Vietnam veterans. They came back to find the United States torn apart by debate over the Vietnam War. There were no victory parades or welcome-home rallies. Instead, most Vietnam veterans returned to a society that did not seem to care about them, or that seemed to view them with distrust and anger.

We had three Vietnam veterans on this trip. One of them spoke at the closing ceremonies about such treatment. He proceeded to say that this trip paid the debt in full and made up for all he went through when he came home.

Lowell Powell – Korean War Veteran

Nestled between the epic cataclysm that was World War II and the roiling controversy that was Vietnam, Korea is too often referred to as the forgotten war. The 5.7 million American men and women who served in that war each have their own memories, whether they were on the battle lines, in the air, or in support of those whose lives were at risk. The war lasted just over three years, but nearly 60 years after the guns fell silent, Americans in uniform still maintain the peace along the 38th Parallel, the border between North and South.

This is the info about the sinking of the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown as told by Lowell Powell:

This particular carrier (not the original, I don’t think) is anchored in Patriots Point in Charleston, SC. The address is: 40 Patriots Point Road; Mount Pleasant, SC 29464, phone number 843-884-2727.

Gail and I were taking the guided tour of the ship in the summer of 2003, and a tall elderly gentleman was walking beside us. About three quarters of the way through the tour, the retired naval volunteer guide was talking about the kamikaze attack (a kamikaze was a pilot flying a plane loaded with explosives, and making a deliberate suicidal attack on a target). But this time the plane that did so much damage to the U.S.S. Yorktown dropped a bomb instead in the open hole where the planes would have been raised from where they were stored. The elderly gentleman beside us raised his hand and asked if he could make a comment. The guide said, “Yes, of course.” The old gentleman started with tears streaming down his cheeks “Sir — What was not known about that attack was that a pilot was able to take off from the bombed ship’s runway, and shoot the plane out of the sky that dropped the bomb down the hole where the planes were kept.” When we looked around at the rest of the tour group, I think there was not a dry eye among them. The tour guide said, “Sir, I thank you for that information, and I will incorporate it in my guided tours from now on.”

The carrier was later sunk by a Japanese sub that had been stalking her for quite a while. Gail and I will never forget that tour or that sailor. I still get teary-eyed when I think of that gentleman and the horror that he witnessed and was a part of.

John Eakin, “Mr. Swivel Hips,” World War II Veteran

Every veteran has his or her own war, and each is custodian of a unique story and memories. My goal in Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee is to bring these personal narratives told to me by veterans from all wars. Vivid as if they happened yesterday, these heartfelt accounts make us laugh, cry and remember. The stories are not a formal history of war, but a treasure trove of individual feelings and personal recollections. As I build this unprecedented collection documenting the veterans and their EXPERIENCES of war, I will bring to you a sample of what I have heard. Each contribution makes this trip all the more priceless.

From the words of John Eakin, “ Mr. Swivel Hips,” as we all came to know him during the trip, stated as he departed our bus to go home “All you young folks listen up, when life gets you down just do the twist.” Lol. What a great man and a true example of what we all must do. During these trying times we are living we all could twist a little more and do a little less arguing and fighting with each other.

A lot of kids have not the least idea of what America went through, in other words the tremendous effort that America put into these wars. Our schools are not teaching the true history of our country. As we tear down what made this country we must ensure our children know the truth of what built our country.

———

Even I was amazed at what our country did during these times. Let’s make sure we get these veterans to Washington and Bedford (Virginia) to see these memorials in their honor before it is too late.

The next time your child has show and tell at school, have them speak to a veteran and bring him or her to school to tell their stories. As one World War II veteran told me, in five or six years there will be no more World War II veterans alive to tell these stories.

HonorFlight NETN has just launched a yearlong fundraising campaign called "Purse of Honor/Duffel of $Dough$.” The organization asks that businesses, churches, civic organization, grocery stores, etc. partner with HonorFlight NETN for a day and host the duffel to receive donations of $dough$ in the duffel.

For further information about the campaign, call 423-330-6189. For more information in HonorFlight NETN call 423-330-6189 or visit its website www.honorflightnetn.org.

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