This guest column was submitted by John W. Tilford, a former Veterans Administration employee, veteran of the Vietnam War and Hoosier Honor Flight organizer for World War II and Korean War veterans.
Polly, my wife and Hoosier Honor Flight co-pilot so to speak, scans the Bloomington Herald-Times obituaries daily looking for our veterans. We try to send the application form to the family as a remembrance of their veteran’s day in Washington, D.C. Polly’s file of application forms has dwindled these nine years after our fourth and last flight.
Monday she saw the notice for Navy World War II veteran Harold E. Moore, age 95. It was our privilege to take him on the second Hoosier Honor Flight, the first on a chartered 737, thanks to the generosity of Bloomington area donors.
All veterans are special, but WWII veterans saved our freedom by their service in a war with no prize for second place. If they had lost, there would be no United States of America as we know it. They won, and Harold was in Tokyo Bay to witness the victory ceremony. His destroyer, the USS Buchanan DD-484, carried Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the battleship Missouri to accept the Japanese surrender.
How appropriate — if we can use that word in conjunction with the close of an Earthly life — that Harold’s passing came so close to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the turning point in the western European theater of the war.
In May, Polly saw the obituary for Charles Wier, age 97. Army Airborne 1st Lt. Wier was on our first flight.
I remember Charlie most for a one-way flight he never took — he would have been among the first wave of troops in the first phase of Operation Olympic, jumping into the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyushu. He was, effectively, a walking dead man upon receipt of those orders. We now know the Japanese actually had nearly three times the U.S. planning estimate of defensive forces on Kyushu. Lt. Wier was saved by President Harry Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons.
Russell Watson, Navy yeoman, was Polly’s and my personal friend. He was also on the first Hoosier Honor Flight. Russell passed away in March 2013 at age 92. His wife, with him during peacetime duty at Pearl Harbor, thought the loud noises she heard that Sunday morning might be volcanoes. They weren’t. Mildred and Russell survived Dec. 7, 1941, just as he later survived two ships being sunk out from under him in the Pacific.
Polly’s uncle Ben Bruce Jr., Army artillery officer in the European theater, was also on that first flight. He passed in March 2014 at age 94. As I told Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while introducing Ben in the Pentagon in 2002: “Major Bruce’s battalion fired more rounds across the Rhine than any other battalion in the war.”
Ben broke down when speaking at a Scottish Society of Greater Bloomington meeting, remembering what he had seen in combat: “Why can’t people just get along?”
Polly had asked Ben earlier at the same meeting, “Are these pictures what Greenock, Scotland, looked like when you arrived on the Queen Mary?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Ben replied. “It was night and everything was blacked out.”
The four veterans listed above went on after their roles in WWII to work at RCA and farm; to become a published and consultant geologist; to teach school and retire as principal of Batchelor Middle School; and to instruct athletics at Indiana University and serve as president of the Monroe County Community School Corp. board. Four who served others their entire lives. Four whose service spanned from the beginning of the war to the end. Four of the 16 million who served.
Polly’s file of applications will soon be empty. We will not see their like again.