COLUMBIA – Three South Carolina military veterans crossed generations to share memories and war stories during a daylong visit to the World War II memorial this week in Washington, D.C.
“It brought tears to my eyes. At first, I didn’t know where they were coming from, or why,” said Gordon Rettke, 89, a former Navy pilot, after the trip. “It was a strange feeling. Then I realized I had repressed those feelings, the feelings for those who’d died. You had to do that, then, in order to continue to function.”
Rettke and Army veteran Charles Shaw, 88, were escorted on Wednesday’s Honor Flight by 47-year-old James Moye, a fellow Sumter resident who pulled convoy duty in Iraq in 2004 with the South Carolina Army National Guard.
The three men were among the 100 World War II veterans and escorts on a tour set up by the nonprofit group Honor Flight of South Carolina. The organization, which began putting flights together in 2007, is trying to get as many World War II veterans as possible to Washington to see the memorial built in their honor on the National Mall.
Shaw said he was injured during the allied push into Italy 1944 and still carries shrapnel in his head after a bullet pierced his helmet.
“It just wasn’t my time to go,” Shaw said.
The former infantryman said he was nearly overcome by the sight at the World War II memorial of the rows and rows of gold stars, each of which represents thousands of military deaths.
“Seeing all those gold stars, all those stars that represented those who didn’t come back, those were the real heroes,” Shaw said in a telephone interview after the flight.
Rettke recalled that he’d shared a bunk room with five other young men during flight training. “Only two of the six got out of the Navy alive,” he said.
Wednesday’s trip was paid for by a $60,000 gift from the 20 Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. Moye works for Black River Cooperative, which covers Sumter.
He said he volunteered to be an escort after he heard about the trip at a company meeting. He didn’t know either Rettke or Shaw well before the trip.
Moye said the day was hectic, with stops at the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
Moye said his companions were very reflective on the tour, which lasted from 4 a.m. to nearly midnight.
“We shared some heartfelt stories,” the energy engineer said.
The three talked about how different the World War II military service was compared to the Iraq conflict, with subjects including conditions in barracks to the speed of communication, Moye said.
“We talked about technology, about how modern times has made combat more controllable, and about how troops are able to use GPS systems” to pinpoint their location on a battlefield, Moye said. “We talked about how quickly information gets out today, when before it would be days or months before they could get information back to headquarters.”
Supporters organized a flag-waving send-off in Columbia, and an equally boisterous welcome upon their return, the men said.
“I’ve never been so well-received in my life,” said Shaw, who still goes to work daily at his family’s lumber business in Sumter.
One woman at the airport planted big, red lipstick kisses on each elderly veteran’s check, they said.
“My wife just got something and wiped it right off” once he got home, Rettke said with a chuckle.
Moye said he would be eager to take another such flight. Honor Flight organizations near Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Charleston have announced at least three more flights this year, organizers said. The organizations have flown about 2,000 veterans to the nation’s capital over the years.
“It’s important that they don’t get forgotten,” Moye said of the World War II generation. “They played a crucial part in our history.”