They were 26 men with 26 stories. They came from across East Texas and northwest Louisiana, and for the most part didn’t know each other.
Some had not talked much about that time in their lives, when they were 18, 19, 20 … setting out from small towns in America for Europe and the Pacific, joining an international effort to end the Second World War.
Twenty-six men left Tyler and Shreveport May 29 for a three-day adventure on the Brookshire’s / Super 1 Foods World War II Heroes Flight. By the time they returned home late Saturday night, they were swapping jokes and stories with new friends and anxious to tell family members about what they had seen.
Brookshire’s has hosted eight Heroes Flights since 2010, successfully taking 250 veterans – men and women from all branches of the service – to Washington, D.C., where they toured the Capitol Building, spent an afternoon at the World War II Memorial, watched the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, enjoyed dinner and entertainment in their honor, explored the National Air and Space Museum and visited monuments to the Air Force, Navy, Marines, Korean War, Vietnam War, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The schedule was tight, but in the quiet of Arlington National Cemetery or amid the splash and spatter of the fountains at the World War II Memorial, they found time to remember and reflect. The veterans, now in their late 80s and 90s, looked back on a time of war and hardship, so long ago but still fresh in their minds.
Over the years, many of these men had shared little, preferring instead to put those memories away in the footlocker with their Eisenhower jackets and victory medals or in the trunk with their sailor’s caps and photos of occupied Japan. Some simply held them inside – near those emotions that surface when the flags are lowered and “Taps” is played.
But on these few days in the nation’s capital, the group comprising the Heroes Flight shared much … finding a common bond with new friends, relating familiar experiences, understanding the tears and laughing at old jokes.
WOUNDED AT IWO JIMA
Ben Weber, of Pollok, a former Army sergeant who led two squads ashore to assist the Marines at Iwo Jima, struggled to tell his story at the base of the Marine Memorial.
“I saw the flag go up on Mount Suribachi,” he said, making sure to mention the memorial was based on the second flag-raising, not the first. “I thought it was wrong to take the first flag down,” he said, emotion etched on his face. “I saw that flag come down and got upset about it. I thought something had happened. It bothered me a lot.”
“I was on the island 18 days,” he said. “They asked us to see what we could do about the airstrips, because they wanted to get the B29s in. I said, ‘Hey, we’ll take a crack at it.’ We didn’t do so good,” he said with a smile that quickly faded.
“I was running,” he said. “When I tried to run faster, it (an antipersonnel bomb) hit me.” Weber said he lost sight in one eye and “a chunk of this leg,” and spent the rest of the war in a Marine hospital.
“There were just 18 of us,” he said. “We lost three on Iwo Jima.”
Paul Franklin, of Doyline, La., stood near a bubbling fountain on the edge of the WWII Memorial’s Pacific Pavilion and shared how he had helped save the life of Tojo, Japan’s prime minister.
As first sergeant of Headquarters Battery, 124th Field Artillery Battalion, 33rd Division, Sixth Army, he served in the Philippines and was preparing for the final assault on mainland Japan when the atomic bomb brought the war to an end.
He was assigned to the Occupation forces as first sergeant of Sugamo Prison, where 400 high-ranking Japanese Army officers and officials were held.
“They considered them to be war-mongers,” he said. Among them was Tokyo Rose, the American-born Japanese woman who broadcast propaganda to American troops, and Hideki Tojo, the Japanese prime minister directly responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“A guard found Tojo lying on the floor of his cell in a pool of blood,” Franklin said. “He tried to commit suicide by cutting his wrists, and was about to bleed to death. We’d all get in trouble if he did that; we had orders to keep him alive, so we could execute him legally.”
“We took him and sewed him up, gave him two or three blood transfusions, then assigned a guard to stay with him,” Franklin said. Tojo was found guilty of war crimes by an international tribunal and hanged in 1948.
As Franklin finished his story, a crowd of school children queued up next to him, wanting to shake his hand.
Claude Grisham, of Holly Lake Ranch, fought back emotions as he watched Tom Brokaw’s presentation on D-Day at the IMAX in the National Air and Space Museum. Sitting among the small contingent of fellow veterans and volunteer guardians, he whispered and pointed to where he waded ashore on Utah Beach.
An Army platoon sergeant in K Company of the 315th Infantry, 79th Infantry Division, he came ashore five days after D-Day as part of the 1st Army’s invasion force and was immediately thrown into the battle for the port city of Cherbourg.
After Cherbourg was secured, Grisham’s regiment was attached to Patton’s 3rd Army on the front lines. He was wounded on July 19 and spent the rest of the war in an Army hospital.
Despite the enormous obstacles faced by Allied units on D-Day (June 6, 1944) and the high human toll of the Invasion of Normandy – 209,000 Allied casualties, including 37,000 soldiers killed, in the first two months – Grisham said he always had confidence. “I never once thought it wouldn’t work,” he said.
INFERNO AT SEA
Struggling to deal with his emotions, Mel Toalston searched the walls of the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington for something dedicated to his ship, a heavy cruiser he had served aboard in the Pacific. A plaque dedicated to the USS Guam (CB-2) brought a momentary smile.
But there were tears in his eyes; his mission not yet complete.
His memories, he said, were of March 19, 1945, and a sister ship, the USS Franklin (CV-13), a large aircraft carrier hit by two bombs from a Japanese dive bomber.
Fifty miles from the Japanese mainland, the big carrier was dead in the water and burning. Crew members who were not lost in the flames battled to save the ship. Navy records list 724 dead and another 265 injured.
Toalston said many of the injured and dying were brought aboard the Guam, and he was deeply affected by their suffering.
“It bothers me a lot,” he said, recalling the many burials at sea that followed as the Guam escorted the stricken carrier back to its stateside port.
And so it went, as soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen shared small glimpses into what they had experienced.
Liston Barber, of Martin’s Mill, and Zeke Ziober, of Tyler, discovered they had both survived the massive typhoon that struck the U.S. fleet in October 1945. Barber, aboard a small landings ship (LSM-433) and Ziober, riding a wooden-hulled minesweeper (YMS-425) bobbed amid the 35-foot waves that sent 12 ships to the bottom, grounded 222 and damaged another 32 so badly shattered they were abandoned.
Navy veteran Jack Hawkins, of Tyler, a landing craft driver, was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrender documents were signed, as was JB Glaspie, of Tyler, who served on the destroyer USS Lofberg, and Bob Kent, of Bullard, who served as a combat air crewman on the carrier USS Shangri-La and was a member of the first liberty party to go into Tokyo.
Glaspie said the trip brought back “lots of memories good and bad.” The good memories, he said centered on Tokyo Bay and the end of the war. The bad, he said, came later during his service in the Korean War, when his ship was hit and he lost comrades.
Despite some perceptions that World War II veterans returned to heroes’ welcomes and ticker-tape parades, few veterans experienced that. Some – like Weber and Grisham – came home on hospital transports. Others stayed on as occupation troops in Japan and Germany and came home months after the war’s end, treated to a donut, a cup of coffee and a train ticket home.
Bill Bagwell, of Homer, La., who served in a tank division as the war in Germany ended, stayed as part of the occupation of Germany. His fondest memory, he said, was the “eyes right” command before Gen. George Patton as the tanks paraded in victory through Nuremberg Stadium.
Carl Griffin, a former Marine from Winnsboro, came closest to a hero’s welcome. He remembered coming home after 32 months in the South Pacific.
“We were on an aircraft carrier headed to California,” Griffin said. “As we neared San Francisco, the planes took off, and when we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, they flew over it. The bridge was crowded with people yelling, waving flags and singing with a band playing ‘God Bless America.’ I remember how grateful we felt.”
“Some say we were the ‘Greatest Generation,’” Griffin said. “I doubt that, but I do know that every man, woman and even children were seriously dedicated to the war effort in some way. Also, I believe that we could not have accomplished what we did in four years without divine help.”
Almost every member of the Heroes Flight commented on the “unbelievable” welcome they received at Reagan International Airport, where they were greeted with cheers and applause throughout the airport. Nothing can top that, a few said.
But they had yet to enjoy the spirited greeting awaiting them in Tyler as they emerged from the American Airlines jetliner at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport.
As flags waved and cameras flashed, a terminal full of cheering family members and applauding well-wishers brought the veterans home to the victory parade most never got and none will forget.
FROM EAST TEXAS:
Archie Allen, of Mineola, (Coast Guard)
Liston Barber, of Martin’s Mill, (Navy)
G.A. “Bo” Bobo, of Longview, (Navy)
Allen Brown, of Tyler, (Navy)
J.B. Glaspie, of Tyler, (Navy)
Carl Griffin, of Winnsboro, (Marines)
Claude Grisham, of Holly Lake Ranch, (Army)
Jack Hawkins, of Tyler, (Navy)
Howard Hunt, of Holly Lake Ranch, (Air Force)
R.J. Johns, of Longview, (Navy)
Bob Kent, of Bullard, (Navy)
Taylor Paul, of Tyler, (Army)
Lewis Vawter, Jr., of Marshall, (Army)
Don Warbritton, Jr., of Marshall, (Navy)
Ben Weber, of Pollok, (Army)
Fred Wernette, of Tyler, (Army)
David Yarbrough, of Tyler, (Army)
Zeke Ziober, of Tyler, (Navy)
Bill Bagwell, of Homer, La., (Army)
Paul Franklin, of Doyline, La., (Army)
Charles H. Higgs, of Shreveport, La., (Marines)
John Jackson, of Winnfield, La., (Navy)
Lee Solice, of Shreveport, La., (Army)
Mel Toalston, of Mooringsport, La., (Navy)
Dick Whittington, of Shreveport, La., (Navy)
Marcus Wren Jr., of Minden, La., (Army)