13 local vets among those on latest Badger Honor Flight
Badger Honor Flight pays tribute to World War II veterans.
WASHINGTON, D.C. Raymond Brost, William Brunsell and Leo Harris are not used to anyone making a fuss about their World War II service.
So when the men stepped off a Badger Honor Flight at Washington, D.C., recently, they appeared surprised when members of the military proudly saluted.
The gesture was only the beginning in a day full of people who turned out to honor them.
As the vets made their way into the airport terminal, a lively choir sang "Anchors Aweigh" and other patriotic songs. Children waved American flags. Strangers applauded, thanked them sincerely for their service and reached for handshakes.
Honor Flight volunteers gathered at Reagan National Airport to give the men and 82 other aging veterans heartfelt welcomes. Some volunteers wore yellow T-shirts inscribed with a quote from Will Rogers: "We can't all be heroes because some of us get to stand on the curb and clap as they go by."
On Sept. 8, Brost, Brunsell and Harris were among 13 local vets, mostly from Rock County, aboard the eighth Badger Honor Flight from Madison. The citizen-supported group flies veterans free to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials built in their honor.
A woman looking for her boarding gate paused to watch the parade of proud vets, some in wheelchairs with portable oxygen, and their companions proceed slowly into the terminal. She pulled out a tissue and dabbed her tears.
"Three of my uncles were killed in World War II," she explained. "It just overwhelms me to see all of them. They deserve the recognition."
Brost was so excited about the trip that he did not fall asleep until 11:30 a.m. the previous night. He got up at 2 a.m. so he and his daughter would be at the Dane County airport by 4:30 a.m. They met other vets before leaving on a 7 a.m. charter flight.
Almost 70 years after the war ended, Brost, Brunsell and Harris spent a long day remembering and reflecting with family members who never left their sides. Almost everywhere they went, someone was there to greet them and thank them for their service.
Brian Ziegler, president of Badger Honor Flight, explained it like this:
"I hope they finally get the thank you that is long overdue."
Memorial evokes memories
Once veterans boarded their buses, a police escort led the way to clear traffic on Washington's busy streets. First stop was the World War II Memorial, with its towering granite columns, dancing fountains and two tall pavilions proclaiming American victory on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts.
"I never imagined it would be this big," Brost, 88, Janesville, said.
He stood near the entrance, where 24 bronze panels offer glimpses into the human experience at home and at war.
"These men are firing an anti-aircraft gun," he told his daughter Nancy Ford as he ran his fingers across a bronze panel of sailors in battle. "There are so many things I think about here that I never thought about before."
Ford listened intently.
"This is very emotional," she said. "I'm hearing so many stories I never heard. I wish I had a tape recorder so I could share them with the rest of the family."
Beginning in May 1944, Brost served in the U.S. Navy aboard an amphibious personnel assault ship in the Pacific Ocean. The ship was used for training in amphibious landings and for transporting troops. As helmsman on the U.S.S. Westmoreland, Brost spent most his time navigating on the bridge.
"The only thing we had to be concerned about was submarines in the water," Brost said. "Once, we narrowly missed a minefield."
The soft-spoken man was the last of six brothers in a farm family of 13 to serve in World War II. So many brothers joined the military that Brost's parents moved into town because no one was left to work the farm. A younger brother later fought in Korea.
"You really felt that when you were called you wanted to go," Brost said.
To this day, he wonders how his parents, who lived in Medford, survived the stress of so many sons at war. Amazingly, all returned home again. When Brost came back from service, his mother hugged him so hard he remembered it for a lifetime.
"It was one of the best hugs I've ever had," he said. "We were lucky, especially my brothers who were in heavy combat. My one brother told me that no matter how bad things got, he could see our mother at home praying."
Like so many World War II veterans, Brost never talked much to his brothers or anyone about the war.
"Everyone just wanted to get back to work," he said.
"We were just serving our country."
Veteran recalls Bastogne
Outside the entrance of the World War II memorial, veterans were surprised to meet Elizabeth Dole, whose husband, Bob, helped create the memorial and who regularly greets veterans at the site.
William Brunsell, 91, Evansville, and his son Paul of Evansville sidled alongside the longtime politician and former U.S. senator to get their photos taken. Then they meandered into the sprawling memorial that honors the service of 16 million members of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
"This is similar to the memorial at Bastogne," William Brunsell said. "The one at Bastogne is more dramatic because it sits on a hill."
Brunsell quietly recalled that thousands died at the siege of the strategically important Belgian town during the famous Battle of the Bulge from December 1944 to January 1945.
During the war, Brunsell served as a French interpreter with a civil affairs detachment of the U.S. Army. He landed on Omaha Beach in France 10 days after the D-Day invasion and kissed the ground because he made it safely. To protect himself from German planes, he rolled into ditches next to the hedgerows of French farm fields.
"We got strafed everyday as we waited for our mission," Brunsell said. "We moved with the infantry and sometimes were under its control."
Eventually, his detachment was assigned to a French town, where it kept civilians off the streets, set up a group to put out fires and interviewed people to find out who were Nazis.
At one point, the men attached to the 2nd Armored Division of the French Army and moved with it for the liberation of Paris. Later, they connected with the 4th Infantry Division and moved through France into the Belgian town of Bastogne.
Seven main roads in the Ardennes mountain range converged in Bastogne, making control of the small town's crossroads vital to the Germans. When the 101st Airborne arrived, Brunsell's detachment was assigned to traffic control from Bastogne southwest to Neufchateau.
In the Luxembourg town of Florenville, Brunsell witnessed the U.S. Third Army under the command of Gen. George Patton rolling through town.
"I never saw so much war equipment in my life," he said. "Tanks and infantry trucks streamed through for two days, all headed for Bastogne to relieve the 101st Airborne."
Brunsell served in four major European campaigns of the war: Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes and Rhineland in western Germany. He received four battle stars and had a number of close calls, but he was never wounded.
"I'm a lucky guy," he said. "I've been lucky all my life."
Story emerges slowly
If it had been a normal day for 87-year-old Leo Harris, he would have been baling hay near his Evansville home. But his daughter Shelly Hughes convinced him to sign up for Honor Flight.
"He shook on it," Hughes said. "So he could not back out."
At the Lincoln Memorial in the humid heat of midday, Hughes encouraged her veteran father to ride the elevator to the Lincoln statue. When they reached the top, Harris peeked around a pillar, where President Lincoln sits immortalized in marble. Later, Harris stepped outside to admire a broad view of the National Mall.
He is not much of a talker, but pieces of his story emerged slowly and thoughtfully as he looked over the reflecting pool. Harris entered the U.S. Navy and did submarine duty in the Pacific. He will never say how dangerous it was, but serving on "the boats" was one of the most statistically deadly, physically demanding and emotionally challenging assignments in the Navy. According to one historian, more than 20 percent of those who served on U.S. subs never returned from their missions.
To this day, Harris has hearing loss from Japanese depth-charge attacks. He has a boxful of medals at home, including two presidential citations. At 18, he had no idea what he was in for when he signed up to live in cramped quarters for long periods. A friend signed up for submarine duty, so Harris did, as well.
"We lived aboard for 72 days at a time," Harris said. "It was plain hell. I don't think there was a place in the Pacific that we did not go. You had to know everyone's job in case someone got killed."
Submarines made up less than 2 percent of the U.S. Navy but accounted for more than 30 percent of Japanese ships sunk. They also contributed to the strangling of the Japanese economy by sinking almost 5 million tons of shipping.
"I do not like to talk about how many ships we sunk," Harris said, quietly. "A lot of people lost their lives … It hurts."
Evansville raises money
Sandi Spanton and John Kopecky wanted to make sure all the World War II vets in Evansville see the memorials in their honor. So they signed up 10 vets in their hometown and raised $14,000 to pay for their trips and the trips of family members who assisted them.
They did it with summer fundraising events, including a brat sale and silent auction at Kopecky's Piggly Wiggly on Memorial Day weekend. Both Spanton and Kopecky were on the September Honor Flight. Spanton proudly wore a button showing her father, who served aboard a submarine during World War II. She said she will continue to raise money to send more veterans to Washington, D.C.
"I have unlimited passion for this," she said, standing in the hot sun helping vets board a bus in Washington, D.C.
Her passion and the passion of hundreds of volunteers keep Badger Honor Flight in the air. The group is funded solely by private donations, so it constantly needs money.
"Sandi and John set the standard very high," said Steve Bartlett, director of public relations for Badger Honor Flight. "Not only did they raise money, but they also recruited vets. We know there are other pockets of veterans in other communities who don't know about Honor Flight. We need people to become an army of recruiters."
He called veterans who have experienced Honor Flight the group's biggest salespeople.
"When they get back, they talk to other veterans," Bartlett said. "One vet said the trip made him feel like he was somebody."
So far, Badger Honor Flight, based in Madison, has flown more than 660 veterans to Washington, D.C., and each veteran is accompanied by a guardian. Another trip is planned in October. Nationally, Honor Flight has more than 100 chapters and hopes to have flown more than 100,000 vets by the end of 2012.
In addition to World War II vets, Badger Honor Flight also accepts veterans who have life-threatening illnesses.
"We are capable of handling any infirmity," Bartlett said. "We accept applications from veterans who are dying. We took one Vietnam vet out of hospice care. He passed away two weeks after returning from the trip. We later got a letter from his daughter saying it was one of the greatest days of his life."
Heather Anderson of Evansville is a registered nurse who was aboard the September flight. She has volunteered three times.
"The veterans deserve it," Anderson said. "It makes me feel like I'm giving something back."
Welcomed by thousands
Tornado warnings, heavy rain and high winds cut short the Sept. 8 Honor Flight in Washington, D.C. Instead of visiting Arlington National Cemetery, veterans returned to the airport, where they waited out the storm and waited for their return flight home.
Joe Schwartz, a Vietnam veteran, passed the time with his father-in-law, Gordon Kazda of Evansville.
"In World War II, they came home heroes," Schwartz said. "They won the war. I went to Vietnam because I felt a duty to my country. When I came home, I was called a baby killer. Honor Flights are so overdue. They need to get every veteran into them."
Kazda, a World War II vet, was impressed with the attention to detail at every stop.
"The trip is probably the most memorable thing in my life," he said. "I have not had such fine care since I was in diapers."
Normally, trip organizers have a packet of mail for each vet that they hand out on the return flight. The packets, reminiscent of mail call in the military, contain letters from family and friends. To help pass the time, they handed out the packets at the airport.
Ray Brost became teary-eyed looking at the bundle of letters from his family. They included a photo of the crew of the U.S.S. Westmoreland, the ship Brost served on in World War II. In the front row above a tiny X sits Brost as a teenager.
"I've never seen the photo before," he said, almost in a whisper.
He looked at it long and hard, wondering where his son-in-law had found the image after all these years.
For Brost, the day was filled with surprises, but none was as emotional as his 10 p.m. homecoming at the Dane County Regional Airport. Eighteen family members were on hand, including his wife, Arlene, of 64 years. They stood among a boisterous crowd of 4,000 to welcome him and the other vets.
"I can hardly express in words," Brost said, his voice trailing off. "I didn't realize anything like that was going to happen. It made tears come to my eyes."
After Brost and his family drove home to Janesville, they were awake until 2 a.m. talking about the Honor Flight adventure.
"I was up a full 24 hours," Brost said.
"It was an amazing day."
HONOR FLIGHT VETERANS
Badger Honor Flight organizers said these area veterans made the Sept. 8 trip to Washington, D.C.:
Branch of service: U.S. Army. Was a supply clerk in a medical battalion stationed near the Demilitarized Zone after the Korean War.
Dates of service: October 1956-June 1958
War memory: "I took my first helicopter ride in Korea to get a serum for hepatitis vaccines. The cooks had hepatitis and were infecting the troops."
Family: Wife, Margaret; two children.
Career: Owned hardware store in Evansville for 33 years.
Branch of service: U.S. Navy, World War II. Served aboard amphibious personnel assault ship in the Pacific.
Dates of service: May 1944-June 1946
War memory: "I am proud that I was one of seven brothers in the service. Six of us were in World War II."
Family: Wife, Arlene; 10 children.
Career: Certified public accountant in Janesville.
Branch of service: U.S. Army, World War II. Served as French interpreter in four major European campaigns.
Dates of service: September 1942-September 1945
War memory: "I was shot at many times, but I never got hit."
Family: Wife, Thea; two children.
Career: Started as a lawyer. Later became partner in Evansville Mercantile Association. Also operated farms.
Howard (Bud) Cufaude
Branch of service: U.S. Army, World War II. Broke his leg in basic training. Was in charge of post office detail in San Francisco.
Dates of service: November 1942-December 1945
War memory: "I wrote letters home for men who could not write. I never went overseas, so I did not see the devastation. It saved me a lot of heartache."
Family: Wife, Marion, who is deceased; four children.
Career: Businessman with F.W. Woolworth Co. and had store in Evansville. Later, business manager for Evansville School District.
Branch of service: Army Air Corps, World War II. Helped set up camps for troops in New Caledonia, Admiralty Islands, Philippines, New Guinea and Leyte.
Dates of service: 1942-1946.
War memory: "I met my brother on Leyte in 1946 after I had not seen him for four years. He served with the Seabees. I was on my way home and ran into him."
Family: Wife, Esther; four children.
Career: Farmer, helped set up Wisconsin Soybean Association.
Branch of service: U.S. Army, World War II. Served in Counterintelligence Corps in Germany.
Dates of service: 1945-1947. Recalled for service in Korea in 1952.
War memory: "I interviewed a member of the Gestapo, who was later tried as a war criminal."
Family: Wife, Elfriede; five children.
Branch of service: Naval Air Corps, World War II. Served as ground crew in Panama, England and East Coast of United States.
Dates of service: August 1942-January 1946.
War memory: "I serviced guns on airplane turrets. I loaded bombs onto airplanes. I had good duty. I had a picnic compared to what other men had."
Family: Wife, Barbara, who is deceased; three children.
Career: Worked for General Motors more than 30 years.
Leo (Jim) Harris
Branch of service: U.S. Navy, World War II. Served as an electrician aboard a submarine.
Dates of service: Early 1943-late 1947.
War memory: "Our submarine could stay underwater only 18 hours. Then it had to come up and recharge its batteries."
Family: Wife, Jean; eight children, including six from previous marriage.
Branch of service: U.S. Army, World War II.
Dates of service: April 1943-February 1946. Taught weapons handling and firing, use of hand grenades and use of lethal gas at military rehabilitation center in Texas.
War memory: "I was called, and I served, but I did not leave the country or suffer. I always felt a little guilty about it. But I went where they told me to go."
Family: Wife, Edythe, who is deceased; three children.
Career: Managed Union Cooperative in Evansville for 30 years. Served on Rock County Board 20 years.
Branch of service: U.S. Army, World War II, with 389th Infantry. Part of occupation Army in Japan.
Dates of service: 1943-1945.
War memory: "I was struck by the devastation in Japan. I saw the aftermath of the bombing raids that preceded the dropping of the atomic bombs."
Family: Phyllis, who is deceased; four children.
Career: Manager of a wholesale heating and air conditioning supply store in Appleton.
Branch of service: Army Air Corps, World War II.
Dates of service: September 1943-March 1946. Served in Air Tactical Service Command. Later got on a ship out of Seattle, Wash., and was told he was going north of Guam. Japan surrendered, and the ship returned home.
War memory: "We were going to be in the invasion of Japan, and that was a frightening thing."
Family: Wife, Joann; three children.
Career: Mechanical engineer with Baker Manufacturing Co., Evansville.
Branch of service: U.S. Army, World War II. Served as a nurse.
Dates of service: Late 1944-November 1945.
War memory: "I was stationed in Augusta, Ga., in an orthopedic hospital. As the men came back from overseas, they were sent there."
Family: Husband, Elroy, who is deceased; two children.
Career: Registered nurse at Edgerton Hospital for more than 32 years. Ended as director of nursing.
Branch of service: U.S. Navy, World War II. Served aboard a light cruiser in the Pacific.
Dates of service: 1945-1946.
War memory: "I was never in combat. It was all over by the time I got in. We were in the Pacific when the bomb went off. We were on our way to Japan. The experience of being on a war ship was quite different."
Family: Wife, Betty; three children.
Career: Went into the furniture business in Brodhead.