Banquet honors veterans as living historyALEXANDRIA, Va. — For the men so surprised to be treated like royalty, a meal fit for a king.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — For the men so surprised to be treated like royalty, a meal fit for a king.
After a long day of travel and visiting memorials, the veterans arrived at the Westin Hotel in Alexandria and were treated to a Heroes’ Banquet. On the menu: Juicy roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, crisp salad and a generous helping of cheesecake.
It was a chance for the men to enjoy a sit-down dinner with newfound friends while trip captain Terrie Gulden encouraged them to share their stories.
“The stories that we read don’t mean nearly as much as they do coming from you,” he told them. “It does not matter what your rank was, your branch of the service, what rank you held, what branch you served in or where you served. Each of you has a unique bond. When I hear your experiences, I stand in amazement.”
Pressure on aging vets to share their war stories is strong, especially with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ estimate that 1,100 World War II veterans die every day.
Many do not care to relive the horrific acts they witnessed, yet some stood before their fellow veterans and did just that. Without too much eagerness or too much reluctance, the men told stories of near-misses and comrades lost. Some seemed to find comfort in the simple act of sharing: their name, branch of service and length of service, nothing more.
For others, the call for memories stirred anger and sadness.
One veteran recalled his visit to a local middle school to share his combat experiences.
“I told them to ask me questions,” he said. “These kids they said ‘Well, well do they shoot at ya?’ And I said yeah. ‘Do they kill ya?’ And I said yeah. ‘And you shoot back at them?’ I said ‘Yeah, what do you expect? Well, they’re in front of you. Anybody in front of me is going to get shot’. And they say ‘Well, don’t you feel bad?’ Well, sure I do. And that went all the way up to 11th-grade kids. They don’t know what a war is. I don’t think they teach it in history.”
Lee Mau, a former first lieutenant from Fairmont, recalled when his platoon was deployed to Europe.
“I had filled up my platoon with raw reserves, 17-year-old and 18-year-old kids, and five of them are strongly in my memory,” he said, choking back tears. “When they knew we were going to ship out, five of them went AWOL. There was really nothing much we could do. Then when we got to camp, the boys were there. We went oversees and fought in France and Germany and wound up in Austria. By the end of the war one of those kids was a platoon sergeant, another one was a corporal and another one was made private runner. Two of them are still over there.”
“I was on the U.S.S. Texas,” said Les Bockes, a Navy Yeoman Second Class from Ortonville. “I seen the soldiers go ashore on D-Day and I seen the marines go ashore on Iwo Jima, and I was sure glad I was on their side.
“Once a Japanese plane, a suicide bomber, was coming right at us. I didn’t see it, and the anti-aircraft gunner was gonna shoot it down, but right behind us, out of nowhere, comes an American plane. They didn’t want to shoot the zero plane down with the American plane behind. Just about that time, the zero hit the water — the airplane had got him. He flew right over the Texas and tipped his wings and kept on going, and I thought that was pretty brave of him to risk his life to get the zero.”
The banquet had lighter moments, also — a round of “Happy Birthday” for veterans Don Carlson and Ray Hurd, and an invitation for all to represent their branch of the service.
“How many of you remember what branch of the service you served in?” Gulden asked the veterans jokingly. “We’re going to play your military theme song, and if you recognize it, I want you to stand up proudly.”
The Navy and Army had the strongest showing, with a small speckling of Marines and Air Force members.
The crowd also enjoyed the musical stylings of Ernie Wingen, a Navy Seabee WT First Class from New Ulm. Wingen lost his voice due to rheumatoid arthritis a few years back, but he belted out every word with the help of a speech device.
“That mean old man, rheumatoid arthritis, took my voice a few years back,” he explained. “I sang barbershop for 30 years, but it shut me up pretty damn quick. I don’t sing so well anymore, but I’m going to sing you a song — ‘The Seabees Song.’”