Veterans share bonds of duty, commitment to freedom
From the men who stormed the beaches to the women who broke gender barriers and flew military aircraft during World War II, veterans were honored Monday at regional events in the Charleston area.
Some veterans faced immense armies in a battle for world domination, while others fought guerillas and insurgents, and many more served in key supporting roles.
Older veterans recall lonely weeks waiting for a letter from home, while younger ones video-chatted with family members from posts overseas.
But all shared the bonds of duty and service, and many shared the horrors of war and combat.
“Please never, never take the freedoms we enjoy for granted,” said retired Marine Col. Myron Harrington, the keynote speaker at North Charleston’s Tribute to Veterans at Park Circle.
At the event, World War II veterans mingled with those who served in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts. Some wore dress uniforms, some wore fatigues, and others came in black leather vests.
Jackets, hats, patches and pins identified groups within the larger family, such as submarine veterans and Vietnam combat veterans.
“Stuff like this, it brings us together,” said Waymon Atchley, a 49-year-old Army veteran from Summerville.
Atchley served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and in Somalia. The last enemy he faced was not a nation’s army, but gun-toting Somali insurgents who were often just children.
“That’s why I have post-traumatic stress,” said Atchley. “A 7-year-old with a gun.”
Ask 92-year-old Navy veteran Hugh Keller about his wartime experience, and he’ll explain the isolation of being stationed in the Aleutians, a chain of volcanic islands between Alaska and Siberia where U.S. forces fought the Japanese during World War II. Some men fell into despair, he said.
“We were getting ready to invade Japan, and I didn’t expect to come home,” said Keller, who later served in Korea and lives in Hanahan. “The atomic bomb was the best thing that happened.”
Harrington noted the long military history of the Charleston area and the many monuments to service, such as the Naval Base memorial at North Charleston’s Riverfront Park and those at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant.
“The Vietnam base camp (at Patriots Point) brings back memories of my youth, and a war that was little understood or appreciated,” Harrington said.
At Patriots Point Monday on board the aircraft carrier Yorktown, women aviators, especially those barnstorming pioneers called Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) were honored with a presentation featuring 91-year-old Bernice Falk Haydu, a WASP veteran.
Also recognized was Capt. Lindsey Moynihan, a C-17 pilot who has flown 116 combat sorties in recent years and holds a civilian job with Delta Airlines.
The Veterans Day ceremony included a tribute to the 38 women pilots who died in accidents during World War II.
More than 25,000 women answered the call to assist the war effort by applying to the experimental WASP program. A little more than 1,800 were accepted, and 1,074 completed training.
It was 1943, the war was underway, and the Air Force had to solve a pilot-shortage problem. All the men were deployed to two theaters of war, or getting trained for action. Yet someone had to move aircraft, personnel and supplies domestically among 120 U.S. military bases across the country.
Women provided the answer.
Haydu said discrimination was widespread, and some in the Air Force refused (at least initially) to train the women. Female pilots had to travel to a base and back home on their own dime, and if they were killed, their bodies were sent home at the family’s expense, without any military recognition for their service.
Haydu told the audience one female pilot was killed because a male flier who was “flirting with her” brought his plane too close to hers, causing a mid-air collision.
Haydu said she became a pilot in her 20s. Her family did not have enough money to send her to college, so she became a secretary. Eventually she enrolled in a night course on aviation to further her education. Afterward she took a flying lesson.
“The first time I was up, I fell in love with flying,” she said.
Haydo was accepted into the second WASP class of 1944 and earned her pilot wings Sept. 8 that year.
“That was one of the proudest days of my life,” she said.
The WASPs mission was not limited to ferrying aircraft from base to base. They learned how to maintain the engines; they learned Morse code (eight words a minute, minimum); they studied math and performed daily calisthenics. They towed targets for shooting practice and made numerous night flights. They slept on cots, shared two commodes, sang constantly and generally were trained to do everything the men did, except perhaps gunnery.
Fifinella, the female gremlin invented by writer Roald Dahl and drawn by Walt Disney, became their mascot.
Haydu flew Cessna UC-78 and AT-17 Bobcat twin-engine advanced trainers, and she was active in the military for a year.
At war’s end the program was summarily disbanded, despite promises, Haydu said, that the women pilots would be able to join the Armed Forces formally, and despite the assurance that they would achieve veteran status if the program were successful.
Finally, in 1977, when Haydu was serving as president of the WASP organization, Col. Bruce Arnold, son of WASP program innovator Gen. Hap Arnold, helped Haydu and her colleagues get the recognition they had been promised. Arnold secured the backing of Sen. Barry Goldwater, himself a former ferry pilot, and the women’s veteran status was secured.
In 2009, President Barack Obama bestowed upon the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal.
Now, Haydu was in Charleston to share her story. Among those impressed was Moynihan, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1997, worked as a military assistant to Sen. Strom Thurmond and petitioned the Air Force for a waiver that would allow her to fly military missions despite poor distance vision.
While women took center stage aboard the Yorktown, in North Charleston, the now-elderly men who served in World War II were often singled out for attention.
“I think what leads us, as men in the world today, is knowing men who are true men,” said Mayor Keith Summey, as he spoke about trips the city arranged to take World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. and New Orleans to visit war memorials and museums.
Wayne Wood, of Hanahan, is an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, but Wood said he came to the event to honor the memory of older veterans.
“I come out for the World War II vets,” said Wood.
“My dad passed last year, and he was a World War II vet,” he said. “There aren’t so many left.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552