Area vets to help dedicate memorial in D.C.

Area vets to help dedicate memorial in D.C.

This, Lawrence Shelton says, is what he tells people about his experience in World War II, 41 months and 21 days, mostly in the Army Medical Corps, which took him to Africa, Italy and Germany.

"It's something you can't buy," the 84-year-old Urbana man said last week.

Asked if he would buy the experience if he could, Shelton replied: "In some cases, I'd say yeah, and in some cases, I'd say no."

But good and bad, their wartime experiences were so defining for Shelton and a group of other local veterans that they welcomed a chance to attend the dedication of the new National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

"Being as how they're going to be good enough to dedicate it on my birthday, I thought maybe I should go," Jim Howie of Danville joked. The Navy veteran, who served as a seaman and first loader on an anti-aircraft gun on the destroyer McDermut in the Pacific, turns 77 that day.

None of the local veterans said they worried much about there not being a World War II memorial prior to this, although memorials to the Vietnam and Korean wars already had been raised in the nation's capital.

After they came home from the war, they mostly worried about getting on with life.

"All of us guys were just a bunch of guys doing something one minute, and the next minute we were in the service, and we did our job and came home," said Howie, who worked at General Motors in Danville for 41 years before retiring.

"It never even entered my mind that we didn't have (a memorial)," said Steve Johnson, 79, of Champaign, part of a four-man crew on an Army landing craft moving men and materials for the island-hopping campaigns in the Philippines, New Guinea and elsewhere in the South Pacific.

Still, Harold Wheatley, 77, of Urbana was quick to become an original contributor to the memorial when the 50th anniversary of Word War II spurred an effort to fund one, with former Senator and Vice President Robert Dole, himself a decorated war veteran, spearheading.

"Soon as I heard about (the trip to the dedication ceremony), I called and wanted to go," said Wheatley, a former Army rifleman who served on Okinawa, among other places. "It's something I think every World War II veteran would want to see."

Wheatley's friend Ernie Furrow, 71, of Champaign, a Navy veteran of the Korean War era, is going along. His late father, Ernest Furrow, was a 30-year Navy man during both World War II and Korea.

"I'm going, really, to honor my dad as well as the other World War II veterans," Furrow said. "I think it's (the memorial) fantastic. I know I'll be awestruck when I actually see it."

The trip was put together by the American Legion, through Legion Post 24 locally, and is to include a visit to the White House and Arlington National Cemetery besides the memorial dedication.

The veterans said preparing for their trip brings back memories ranging from fondness to fear, and in some cases profound sadness.

"There's gonna be a lot of tears up there (at the memorial) from guys," Wheatley said.

Phil Pemberton's voice hitched when the 82-year-old Champaign man said he would be thinking of the glider troops he trained in the Army Air Forces, "those men that were part of that training program who I'm sure didn't come back." The retired teacher and educational consultant said he wanted to attend the dedication "to at least pay honor to them."

Shelton recalled identifying the dead as part of his job in the medical corps, but he said that didn't bother him as much as treating some of the severely wounded.

"To come to a wounded person begging you to kill him," he said. "'I don't want my parents to see me like this.' That stuff gets to you."

"There are a lot of guys down at the bottom of the ocean (who) should have gone home," Howie said.

He survived kamikaze attacks, but said the attacks themselves weren't the worst part.

"Just the waiting, it made your nerves raw," he said, "wondering where the hell they were and when they were gonna come at you."

Johnson remembered riding out a hurricane one night in their small ship, not built for heavy seas.

"Those waves were mountain-sized," he said. "Going down into the trough was like going into a valley. It was all night long. We were all beat. We lost a lot of stuff overboard."

The only boat he had been in before the war was a rowboat, fishing with his father in Wisconsin.

But his war experience allowed him to earn an MBA at the University of Chicago on the GI Bill, "something I never would have been able to do." He went to work for Solo Cup and retired in 1997 as company treasurer.

"I think we did our job," Johnson said when asked about his perspective from the vantage point of 60 years. "We did what we set out to do."

Local veterans of D-Day returning to France in June

Last time Carl Hatcher was in France, he dropped in by parachute in the middle of the night and landed in the water.

The Mahomet man, now 78, thought it was the English Channel.

"And I can't even swim," Hatcher recently recalled thinking recently. "I got 150 pounds of equipment. This is a hell of a way to die."

Then he touched bottom in what proved to be only a flooded field and started walking.

Bill Anderson, 79, of Champaign got wet on his first trip to France, too. He jumped off a landing craft into sea water up to his waist. People were shooting at him.

"Them machine gun bullets was like a bunch of bumble bees," the veteran of the Omaha Beach landings in Normandy on D-Day said. "On my mind? To get in as close to the bank as you can get. It seemed to me like it was a mile. I know it wasn't that. But it seemed like it."

"I went five months without a bath or a shower other than just a sponge bath," Anderson added later. "You wash out of a steel helmet. I go to schools and talk to kids and tell them that, and they don't believe you."

Anderson shouldn't have as much trouble getting a shower on his return to France next month, and the arrival should be drier and the trip a lot less dangerous for him and Hatcher.

The longtime friends and fishing buddies, who met after the war, are going back to Normandy for a gala 60th anniversary commemoration of the massive operation on June 6, 1944, to liberate Europe from the Nazis. The event is to include President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II, among other dignitaries.

Hatcher served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, which dropped into Normandy in the early morning hours with the primary mission of securing St. Mere Eglise, a key crossroads town on the way in from the beaches.

Anderson was a foot soldier in the First Infantry Division, the fabled "Big Red One," who landed in the initial waves on the beach dubbed "Bloody Omaha" because of the severe casualties there.

They were still in their teens when they landed.

Both men ended up fighting through Europe and participating in other notable events such as the Battle of the Bulge, the Operation Market Garden airborne landings in Holland and the terrible struggle in the Hurtgen Forest of Germany. Both helped liberate German concentration and labor camps.

"I wonder why I'm even here today, how anybody could live through it," Anderson said.

Hatcher remembered German anti-aircraft fire lighting up the dark like fireworks as they crossed the French coast for D-Day, and hitting the ground in short order after parachuting from a plane that probably wasn't as high up as it should have been. They took the town and spent the next month preventing the Germans from retaking it.

"It's a young man's deal," he said. "We thought we could walk on water, we really did. They had us brainwashed. 'You can whip these three guys, I know you can.'"

Hatcher had plans to return several years ago, but his mother was ill at the time and he ended up passing on the trip. When he saw a tour for the 60th anniversary commemoration advertised in an airborne alumni newsletter he receives, he started thinking about it again. He also started lobbying Anderson to go along on the journey, which also includes time in England, Belgium and Holland.

"I'd been wanting to go the last few years," Anderson said. "I'm looking forward to seeing some of the places I went through ... and talking to some of the people. I'd like to see that beach again just to see how big it was.

"At my age, I figure if I'm ever gonna go, I better go now," he said. "Like I told Hatch, this time there won't be anybody shooting at us."

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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