Oklahoma World War II Veterans Given Chance To Make Final Mission

Thursday, November 11th 2010, 5:46 pm
By: News On 6

Scott Thompson, News On 6

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Only a handful of World War II veterans are still alive, and now they're being given a special gift before time runs out: a trip to the National World War II Memorial In Washington, D.C.

When they were boys, and the world had gone mad, they were charged with wresting it back from tyrants.

"Horrible experience. By the time the war was over, I'd see blood, I wanted to run," said Joe Wilson, a battlefield medic with the 45th.

"You're out there workin' on 'em and no protection, and they're shootin' at you and you have no protection, I wouldn't do that again for anything," he said.

It was 511 days of combat.

"I can still shut my eyes and see all that," Wilson said.

And Dachau.

"It was horrible, horrible, horrible," he said.

Irvin Rickey was a reconnaissance photographer for the 8th Air Force.

"Seventy percent of my flights were perfect," he said.

He can show you the original photos he took, 30,000 feet above the D-Day beaches. Shot down on his mother's birthday, he still tastes the bitterness of five months in a German prison camp.

"And for 153 days that was what I lived off of, was one piece of bread, moldy bread," he said.

Lots of hard memories.

Ola Grider was in the U.S. Army Engineers. He boarded landing craft in England, went to Utah Beach.

Behind the gears of a steel-plated bulldozer, he was told to break through the French hedgerows, facing down German machine guns and mortars.

"That made you grow up pretty fast," he said.

He can still see those boys who were killed on that bridge, and hear the cries of his truck driver and best friend, Woody, who stepped on a mine.

"Layin' there in the snow, lookin' around, first thing he says is 'I'll never be able to drive a truck anymore,'" Grider said. "My sergeant was, you might say, killed right in front of me."

And when Earl Foster pulls that photo off the wall, the boys stare back across the ages, boys filled with uncertainty and bravado and fear.

"Just brings back old memories," he said.

He remembers the 223 of them who struggled into that cold and snowy valley at The Bulge and the 22 who limped back out.

"Well, you get to thinkin' about it and it's hard," he said. 

The boys who stormed ashore on Anzio and Omaha and Iwo Jima need help these days, and they get it one morning from the young men who wear the uniform now.

Before sunrise, they've gathered for a last mission: 99 of them, World War II veterans from across the state. They were invited by Oklahoma Honor Flights, an organization that pays the way for these men to travel to Washington D.C. so they can visit the National World War II Memorial in a whirlwind one-day trip. 

When the Memorial opened in 2004, there was a chorus of criticism. The National Mall was the wrong place. The architecture - vainglorious and trite. The 56 granite pillars representing the states and territories of 1945 were irrelevant to the war effort.

But where do these WWII veterans head first? Everyone wants a photo beneath the Oklahoma pillar.

And then amidst the crush of tourists and the roar of passing jetliners and helicopters and spewing fountains, they go looking for the boys they once were and the friends who never came home.

"My buddies that I lost from school. I feel them, I'm lookin' at it for them. I sure am," Lewis Teter, from Pryor, said.

The men make their rounds, finding the battles they survived, carved in the granite. Each of them living still in their own personal hell.

"And I can even smell the stench," said Harold Bell, from Tulsa.

Secrets never spoken and nightmares from which they can never awaken.

"And there's times I did things I didn't want to be doing. I have killed when I didn't want to be killing," Bell said.

Earl Foster came to find that buck sergeant who died in front of him.

"I can see him sittin' there by that tree," he said.

Joe Wilson, all those boys he was helpless to save. Dying in the mud, crying for their mothers.

"Kind of gets to you. Just brings back a lot of memories," he said.

And for Irvin Rickey, it's those friends who died the day before his plane was shot from the sky, trying to carry out the same mission.

"I've thought about them so, so much," he said.

After all the brutality they saw, all they managed to survive, they couldn't imagine there'd ever be another war. Surely, theirs would be the last.

"And come to find out we's all wrong," Ola Grider said.

So for anyone who still cares, while they're still here to remind us, look in homes across Oklahoma, far from their grand Washington Memorial. On the back walls where old men hang the memories that matter to them most, you'll find loves long-lost and moth-eaten uniforms and ribbons earned in dirty, miserable, ghastly places.

"It still gets brought up once in a while," Grider said.

Dusty corners where their war has never ended, and hidden hallways where their buddies find their peace.

"Pray that it's all over for them and they're in good hands," Joe Wilson said.