PLATTSBURGH — After 67 years, local veterans will experience a sense of closure alongside those with whom they fought in World War II.
Although the war ended in 1945, the memorial in Washington, D.C., wasn’t completed until 2004. Many veterans haven’t had a chance to see this testament to their service and sacrifice yet.
And about 800 World War II veterans die each day.
“The greatest generation of our country is leaving us,” said Danny Kaifetz, director of North Country Honor Flight.
Kaifetz and a board of eight others are making it their mission to enable as many veterans as possible see their monument in Washington, D.C.
“I haven’t seen any of the monuments,” 93-year-old U.S. Army veteran Francis G. Delumyea said. “It’ll be a nice trip to Washington to see what they’ve come up with (to honor WWII veterans).”
The veterans get five-star treatment on the flight, Kaifetz said. For them, all expenses are paid. A “guardian,” which may be a family member, is assigned to each veteran, and medical personnel travel with the group to ensure the veterans have the care they need.
The first flight is set for Saturday, May 18, and five area veterans have already signed up.
Their stories are ones of strength, bravery and resilience.
VALUE OF PEACE
Merwin I. Cowles was 18 when he was drafted to the U.S. Marines in September 1943. After boot camp, he was made squad leader for an amphibious tractor that was used to transport the wounded who were stranded on islands in the South Pacific to a hospital ship nearby.
“Anybody that says they’re not scared is full of s---,” Cowles, now 87, said.
He fought at the battles of Sugar Loaf Hill and Okinawa, and war had a lasting impact on him.
The value of peace was a lesson learned in the war, he said.
Cowles flipped through an album of black-and-white photographs from his time in the South Pacific, many of them highly graphic portraits of the horrors of war.
”The Japanese, they never stopped fighting,” he said. “It was murderous.”
In August of 1945, Cowles and some of his comrades saw a plane flying overhead and were told it would drop the atomic bomb on Japan.
Upon his return to the United States, he refused to buy anything made in Japan for years, he said.
Gerald B. Edwards, 92, was a fighter pilot in World War II. He enlisted within 10 days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Flying came naturally to him.
“When you get off the ground, it’s like being turned loose. You have to get there to believe it,” he said, with tears in his eyes.
Edwards flew with the famous Checkertail Fighter Squadron of the 325th Fighter Wing of the Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force.
The P-51 planes could reach speeds of 400 mph, Edwards said.
“We shot down more planes than all the others,” the Yonkers native said.
And they never lost a bomber plane they escorted, Edwards added.
“The bombers called us their ‘little friend.’”
His missions required him to fly from Africa north to Italy and farther north to Germany.
The painting “The Band of Brothers and the War’s Last Prize” by John D. Shaw, shows Edwards’s plane flying over Eagles Nest, Adolf Hitler’s retreat, as American soldiers of the Army 3rd Infantry Division celebrate below, drinking Hitler’s champagne and smoking his cigars.
Not only did he fly in World War II, but he continued to risk his life, flying planes for the military in the Vietnam and Korean wars, something a lieutenant colonel would not ordinarily do.
“It was my job,” he said.
In a briefing before one mission, Edwards was told he would get “either a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) or a Purple Heart.”
In other words, it would either be a dangerous, potentially deadly mission or a great success.
He was to fly for two hours only 50 feet above the ocean waters to avoid detection on enemy radar.
“We met the enemy climbing,” he said.
Before he knew it, an enemy plane was only 100 feet from him.
The plane dove, and he followed.
“I squeezed the trigger, and 100 rounds went into his cockpit,” he recalled.
He lives a quieter life now on Willow Hill Farm in Keeseville with his wife, Julie.
BEACHES OF NORMANDY
Napoleon “Nap” Light will accompany Cowles and Edwards on the North Country’s first Honor Flight.
He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1942 at the age of 20.
Light traveled to various bases on the east coast for training, and he set sail for a 10-day journey to England with 5,000 other troops in January 1944.
A member of the 30th Infantry Division, he was on the beaches of Normandy just a few days after D-Day in June 1944.
His company traveled east from Normandy into northern France, then to the Rhineland, where Light crossed the Rhine River into Germany.
The American and British troops were joined by Russian forces, and they all continued to push their way into Germany from their position about 35 miles east of the Elbe River, Light said.
Germany eventually surrendered, and Light was honorably discharged.
BUILDING SUPPLY ROUTE
Delumyea, who is originally from Rouses Point, served in the 1,160th Service Command Unit of the U.S. Army as a stationary diesel electronic operator, supplying and maintaining electro-diesel power plants for combat troops, he said.
After serving in the Pacific for about seven months, he was transferred to Alaska, where the Army began building a highway in March of 1942 known as the “Shortcut to Tokyo” that was intended as a supply route. At that time, the United States feared an invasion of the Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands.
Delumyea said he may have been reassigned from the Pacific to Alaska because of his experience working outdoors with electrical equipment and his upbringing in Rouses Point.
The weather and natural environment in the Adirondacks is somewhat similar to that of Alaska, he said.
About 1,600 miles was completed in eight months.
“It was just a bulldozed dirt road. That’s all it was,” he said of the “virgin territory” that was cleared to make room for the route. The effort to clear the harsh terrain was tremendous.
“We’re not talking about a straight line,” he said.
The completed road extended from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Delumyea and 11,000 others in six engineering battalions worked in harsh conditions, with temperatures often 35 degrees below zero.
He used a two-layer mummy sleeping bag to keep warm.
“You had to be adaptable,” he said.
If a generator stopped, it was Delumyea’s job to get it going again. Troops passed through stations spaced every 50 miles along the highway and needed hot meals from the kitchen, which operated around the clock, he said.
The camps were power plants and refueling stations for military equipment.
Delumyea met his wife, Virginia, in Lake Placid upon his return to the North Country after an honorable discharge in 1945.
“Virginia is my angel,” he said. They had five sons and were married for 63 years before she died recently.
“As you look back, it was a dream.”
The Army taught Delumyea self-discipline, he said.
“The military never leaves you.”
’ONE OF THE LUCKY’
Robert O. Brooks was 18 years old when he left Dannemora and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served 17 months of combat duty in the Pacific Ocean aboard the USS Topeka CL-67.
Brooks was accompanied on the ship by about 1,400 officers and enlisted soldiers.
“I will not dramatize my service. We were just young kids,” Brooks, now 87, said. “I was one of the lucky ones (who survived).”
The USS Topeka endured a hurricane on her maiden voyage and was forced to return to Boston harbor for repairs. It then continued on to Pearl Harbor in May of 1945 and then to Tokyo Bay in September, returning to the United States in October.
’NEVER A HERO’
A common thread of the veterans was their modesty and humbleness.
”I was never a hero,” Brooks said. “I just did my job.”
Delumyea didn’t boast of his service either.
“I wasn’t a hero or anything,” he said.
Many would disagree.
“It’s the last time they’ll ever be honored,” Kaifetz said. “We’re all tourists at the World War II Memorial except the veterans. They own it.
“In history, there’s no question about it. They changed the world.”
Email Felicia Krieg: firstname.lastname@example.org
The first flight departs for Washington, D.C., Saturday, May 18. Space is still available for veterans and guardians. A second flight is set for Saturday, June 15. There will also be two fall 2013 flights: mid-September and mid-October (exact dates have not been set yet). Applications, Honor Flight updates and other information is available at www.northcountryhonorflight.org. Donations may also be made online through the website. For questions, contact Director Danny Kaifetz by phone at 834-9901 or by email at honorflight@char ter.net. North County Honor Flight's Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/NorthCountryHonorFlight.
North Country Honor Flight will hold their next meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1505 in Keeseville. All five veterans who have signed up for the first flight will be in attendance. The public and all interested applicants and family members are welcome to attend. The social hour following the meeting starts at 7 p.m. Board members can assist veterans with their applications at this time.
A Cabin Fever Party fundraiser will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, at VFW Post 1505 in Keeseville. Food and drinks will be available for purchase. For more information, call 834-1505.
A screening of the feature film "Honor Flight: One Last Mission" is set for 7 p.m. Saturday, April 6, in the E. Glenn Giltz Auditorium at Hawkins Hall on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus. Tickets go on sale Friday, March 15, on North Country Honor Flight's website. Tickets will also be sold at SUNY Plattsburgh and most veterans' organizations, including area VFW, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans' posts. Ticket prices to be determined. For more information on the film or to view the trailer, go to www.honorflightthe movie.com.