Sgt. Homer Garrett's war began and ended in a flash. Approaching Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion, his landing craft hit a German mine and exploded. Ninety-six members of his battalion were killed in the blast that put him in the hospital for 10 months.
Seventeen-year-old Art Elchek marched off to war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He would learn of Japan's surrender nearly four years later serving with two squadrons of PT boats in the Pacific.
Navy nurse Helen Horbury, home with her sailor boyfriend Cliff to announce their engagement, saw joy turn to despair when informed by her parents that her brother Don, a B-24 pilot, had been shot down and was missing.
Army Air Corps Capt. Al Gallo was shot down over Austria, escaped capture and returned to pilot B24 bombers.
The experiences of these veterans — a sampling of the 33 East Texans flying to Washington, D.C., as guests of the Brookshire's/Super 1 Foods WWII Heroes Flight — could not be more different. However, all share a common bond.
During their youth, all 33 took part in one of the world's greatest calamities — global war that would result in the deaths of 2.5 percent of the world's population.
Between 1939 and 1945, more than 16 million American men and women would join the service; 241,559 of those would lose their lives; and another 670,846 would be wounded.
All who served have stories to tell. Here are just a few:
“We lost some of our men on that LST,” writes Juke Burnham in an online story, “Remembering the Men of LST 523.” The large landing craft came across the channel at Utah Beach and hit a mine in the water. “She just blew up and everybody below the deck perished and most above the deck survived. A good friend of mine and the best friend I had in the war was on the deck. He was Homer Garrett. He told me later that he just had a feeling and he didn't need to be down below.”
Garrett, of Lindale, said his life since the war is one of gratitude for the many blessings we enjoy. He believes the real heroes of the Army's 300th Combat Engineers Battalion were “great young men” who lie today on Utah Beach.
“I have been blessed to be an American and live my life in this great country,” he said. “I know the price of freedom.”
“I'm not a hero. I'm a survivor,” he reminds those in the audience, “but I know many heroes.”
He likes to talk about those he believes fit the “hero” label — men like Chuck Lindbergh, a man he met and worked alongside after the war. Lindbergh was a Marine and one of the first flag raisers on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Lindberg's group of flag raisers never became as famous as those in the second flag raising.
Elchek tells of the long trek across the Pacific in the USS Silenius, a converted shallow-draft LST, and of riding out typhoons off the coast of Okinawa. He tells of the two squadrons of PT boats (32 and 37) assigned to the Silenius and taking part in some of their missions. The wooden fleet patrolled the Solomon Islands, harassing the Japanese Navy by “busting barges” that supplied troops on the islands.
Elchek joined the Navy one day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and stayed in the service until well after the war was over. When he arrived back in the U.S. four months after the war ended, “no one greeted us,” he said. “We got a donut and a small carton of milk ... but civilian life was a relief, he said. “Three years, 11 months and five days. During the war, that will age one in a hurry. It was a relief to make it.”
HELEN & CLIFF HORBURY
“I was sitting at the beach on the base at Quonset Point, R.I.,” Helen writes. “I was sitting on a platform raft in the water, and a young man on the beach pointed to me and told his friend, 'I'm going to marry that girl.' His friend said, 'Well, you have to meet her first.' The young man swam over to the raft where I was sitting, and we talked about 10 minutes. He got my name and barracks number before he left.
“A month later, we both had leave time,” Helen writes. “We went to Punxsutawney, Pa., to visit my parents. They were so sad and quiet; I thought they didn't like Cliff. When I asked my mother if she had reservations about my choice of fiancée, she replied, 'No, we've just learned your brother, Don, is missing in action. His last airplane radio transmission was, “On fire, going down.”'”
Cliff describes those war years as “a time of global uncertainty, yet we found personal happiness. It was also a time when everyone faced the unknown with dignity and courage.”
Before the war ended, he would fly 34 combat missions over Europe.
On the mission that saw his plane shot down over Austria, civilians on the ground rescued him and returned him to his unit.
Gallo sums up his feelings about the war in this way: “Our country was unified by the threat of the German and Japanese enemies. We all developed a strong sense of patriotism, for we loved our country. We all sacrificed in order to help protect our beloved America. We must keep our military strong, and I pray that no other generation will be faced with such threats to our very existence as a free people.”
THE HEROES FLIGHT
A public send-off, with country superstar Trace Adkins singing the national anthem, will begin at 6:15 a.m. Thursday in the parking lot of Brookshire's on Rice Road.
After a whirlwind tour of the nation's capitol and military monuments, the group of veterans and two dozen volunteers will return to Tyler about 7 p.m. on Saturday. The public is invited to welcome them home as well.
There is no charge for the veterans selected for the trip. World War II veterans interested in possible future opportunities can apply by calling 903-534-3976 and requesting an application.