Kentucky veterans tell their war stories on the Honor Flight
“The Honor Flight was the most wonderful trip ever. I couldn’t believe they went to that much trouble for an old man like me,” says William Cash of Broadhead, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War.
The trip to D.C. changes lives for many veterans. They are “finally able to come to terms with their service and sacrifices,” says Honor Flight Kentucky volunteer George Campbell.
The September 16 flight, sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, flew 66 World War II, Korean and Vietnam war veterans to see their memorials for a 16-hour tour. They boarded a plane in Lexington, with ‘guardian’ helpers, volunteers, and media totaling 150. Treated as royalty at every stop, the veterans saw seven memorials, were saluted by three-star generals, and hundreds of people cheered them at the airports, with song and pomp and circumstance—these were the parades they never had when they came home. They laughed, they cried, they shared.
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Every veteran has a story, so be brave and ask questions—then ask again—and listen and record it. Family members on the trip heard stories never before told.
Here are a few of those touching comments. Take time to honor their sacrifices by reading their longer stories online at KentuckyLiving.com. Did you go on this Honor Flight? Send us your veteran’s story via the website’s Contact Us form, and we’ll add it.
Did you go on this Honor Flight? Send us your veteran’s story here.
LEE BRATCHER, Horse Cave, had an extra special day, celebrating his 91st birthday while on the Honor Flight. He entered the Army at age 18 serving in World War II and “was stationed in 17 different places in the U.S. and Europe, from April 1945 to December 1946.”
He says, “They didn’t know what to do with us, I don’t think, because the war was over.” Most of his time was spent in the occupational zone in Germany, where he was a guard serving as a Special Police.
Being a farm boy, the farthest Bratcher had ever traveled before service was “maybe Glasgow,” he chuckles. “When I was examined for the Army, that was the first time I had been to Louisville.” He welcomed the chance to travel and go by ship to Germany. “It took 10 days to get there, and 12 to get back due to a storm.”
While serving as a guard, he shares about a skirmish with another soldier who was late to bed check. He did not want Bratcher to check his pass. “The solider threatened to shoot me. I hit him … then I hit him again,” says Bratcher.
His most vivid memory of service was basic training. “It was hard training. It started easy, but got harder every week—17 weeks in the infantry, which was like being in the Marines.”
“If you are going to battle, you need to be prepared to get hit. I didn’t know what to think. I was a kid. I was 17 or 18 years old, but I only weighed 120 pounds. They thought I was 15. It made a man out of me.” They said, ‘How many shaved here today? Raise your hand. Well, from now on you will.’
“I couldn’t run if my life depended on it. My legs wouldn’t take me. I ran 5 miles one day, walked 28 miles that night, came back and walked 4 miles speed march, then trained the rest of the day, and had an all-night ‘problem’ to learn how to read a compass. They gave us 2/3 of a canteen of water to last 36 hours. That was in July and August.”
Bratcher says he recalls hearing General MacArthur coming across the radio while he was on KP duty one morning. “He said he didn’t want anyone from Ft. McClellan, Alabama, or Camp Rucker, Georgia, because they were worn out when they got there.”
His older brother went into service a month before he did, and even his dad, “who was in his low 40s” also had to register for service.
“I learned a lot about people; I had never been anywhere. I learned how to act around people. I guess I was a different person (when I came back). I learned to get along with different people, different cultures, different nationalities.”
He adds, “A lot of people hated the Army, but I didn’t. I liked the Army, it was a good education I think.”
His son James, who served as his guardian on the Honor Flight, grins and lightly shakes his head, “I’ve learned a lot today from Dad; I’ve never heard that story about punching out the soldier.”
Bratcher says when he came home in 1946, “I farmed, then married in 1949. It will soon be 68 years in November. I worked in tobacco warehouses for 40 years, all during the winter.” He and his wife, Betty, have two sons and a daughter.
“It was a big chance of getting killed. I didn’t dwell on it. I had something to do … just had to do it,” he says matter of fact. “I’m a Christian and was 14 years old when I was saved, so I looked at war differently. I had another place to go.”
BENJAMIN “BENNY” FRANKLIN CARTER, 86, Greenup, says, “I was from the small town of Flat Woods. After my mother passed away, when I was 15, I didn’t have any place to stay. I stayed different places. I didn’t have a job, so I had to quit school at 16 because I didn’t have money to go to school. When I turned 18, I knew sooner or later I’d be drafted, so I just went ahead and enlisted.”
Joining the service, “helped me keep out of trouble. It made you a better person. Before I went in, I sort of had a chip on my shoulder, because I was on my own,” says Carter.
He did his basic training at Fort Knox, and entered the Army’s 78th AAA Gun Battalion working in communications and artillery. “I enlisted in September 1949, went to Korea in August 1950, and didn’t come out from South Korea until November 1951,” he says.
“I ran cables for telephones. We went up through the center of South Korea, and every time we moved up (our position), we had to rerun telephone lines. It kept you busy all the time.”
While Carter was never up on the front lines, he says he hasn’t talked a lot about the war. “There are things that I saw, you don’t talk about. I hate to say it, but it’s gross. I still keep it in my mind, but I don’t talk about it.”
As the front lines moved, his communications group would advance. “I saw everything that happened in front of me. We would move about every three days to lay the phone cables. It had 100-foot interlocking connections, and we’d go about 200 yards at a time. Then, we would hook up the telephone to call back to headquarters to find out if they had any more information for us, and so we could let them know we were still alive.”
It’s as crystal clear in Carter’s mind as it was 67 years ago, as Carter explains how his companies advanced. “Artillery is set back so many miles from the front line, so the artillery is always behind the line. We set up the guns about 18 miles behind the lines, because artillery was accurate at about 20 miles. We had 14 guys, split up into four groups. Each company had four guns. We lost one man, he was electrocuted on a pole that was not supposed to be electrified. We laid line on the ground in rural areas, but in the cities, we put the line up on the poles.”
Carter chuckles when asked about his living conditions. “There were NO living conditions. At night, you had your sleeping bag, that’s all you had, and the ground.”
When talking about his fear of getting killed, he says, “You never knew—actually you don’t think about it. The only thing you think about is, get the person before they get you.”
“In peacetime,” Carter says, “I think every young man should serve at least one hitch in the service. It will either make ’em or break ’em. If not in peacetime… I hate to see us go into another war. I don’t know what they are going to do with North Korea, but they’re going to have to do something. If we have another one, it won’t be servicemen on the ground, it will be all in the air with missiles.”
His tone lifts when he talks about the train trip across the country. “I went from Chicago to the West Coast in January 1950, heading to Washington state before going overseas. It was something that I’d never seen before. It was nice to see land that was different than here, and it was exciting to see the different trees. But it was cold.”
Carter says, “Overseas was also cold, except during summer. It was 50 degrees below. You had no clothing at all. The only thing we had was that sleeping bag and the clothes you had on. The only thing you took off were your shoes. The gun was in the sleeping bag with you—that old cold gun, ‘Lulabell’ as I call her.”
He says they would find a smooth piece of ground and that’s where they’d lay. “We would get four to five hours of sleep, then eight hours when we came back in,” he says.
“The food was fair, it was all dehydrated stuff. We had C-rations and K-rations. C-rations came in a can—like pork n’ beans and corn beef hash—and K-rations were all dried items in a box, like hard crackers. The food was the same stuff they had in the Second War World, which was left over.”
He explains that a C-ration served 22 people, and a K-ration served one person and came with three cigarettes. “We had three K-rations a day, but in the field you could have all the K-rations you wanted. Just about everybody smoked, I did too.”
The youngest of six boys, Carter’s dad died young, and then his mom died. He says all the boys are now gone but him. “When I came home from the war, I got married and had four girls. My wife, Imogene, passed away four years ago.”
Making sure not to offend anyone, he says, “I’m not degrading the other two, but the Korean Memorial was the highlight, it really got to me, to see those silhouettes of soldiers, just like we were in the field in Korea.”
A surprise party of 24 family and close friends gathered at the Blue Grass Airport to support him, including two daughters who came in from out of town. Carter says, “I loved the trip. It was exciting to see everything. It was even more exciting to see all four of my girls at the end, with my grandkids and great grandkids, at the Welcome Home Party.”
Carter shares one last thing that touched him deeply on the Honor Flight: “There was a family from South Korea who came up to me at the Korean Memorial and wanted to take a picture of me with their kids. They thanked me, by bowing to me. It is something I just can’t explain—I felt happy that they wanted to take a picture of me…but it was kind of a sad feeling all at the same time … to think they wanted a photo with me.”
DARRELL WATERFILL, 71, Harrodsburg, says “I’m very blessed to get to go on this trip, and to bring my guardian. This is my first trip anywhere like this, and I want to thank Blue Grass Energy for sponsoring me.”
He says, “I knew when I got my draft papers I was going to Vietnam, but I wanted to serve my country.” Waterfill entered the Army on February 8, 1966, soon after graduating high school. Basic training was at Fort Knox, then he headed to Fort Ord, California, arrived in Vietnam on his 20th birthday on July 22, and returned home a year later, the day before his 21st birthday.
“The memory that stays with me is when I carried my sergeant out. He told me about 15 minutes before he got shot, ‘Waterfill, whatever you do today, you use your M79-grenade launcher.’ In 15 minutes he was dead, I knew when I crawled over top of him. We had to carry him for 3 miles with a poncho to get him helicoptered out.”
Waterfill was in the 1st Air Cavalry 2nd and 7th, he says “Custer’s old unit. We flew into Pleiku (Air Base) and I was put in on the South China Sea, which was really my base when I was there.” We’d go out on helicopters and they’d drop us off, and we’d stay out there for three weeks at a time and we’d walk back. Sometimes it was 10 miles, other times it was 30 to 40 miles.”
Veterans have clear memories about the food served while in service. Waterfill says, “I had three or four hot meals the entire time I was over there. I ate C-rations that were made in the ‘40s. They weren’t too bad. The only things I couldn’t eat were the ham and eggs—they were just terrible.”
He’d use his bayonet to stab and open the can, he says “We’d take rocks to make a triangle, so you could set the can on it, then set it off using the Claymore mine that we tore apart. It would boil it in a second. The sergeant would go back to base and bring back a big Vidalia onion. We’d take pork and the biscuit in the can, cut it to make a sandwich, then cook the onion. You’d think you died and went to heaven.”
He says, “I carried an Army wool blanket with me for three months during the rainy season, because they didn’t have any ponchos. I finally got a poncho after the rainy season was over, that was my cover. Then I’d roll it up and put it on my back every day. That’s all I had.”
He says they were called a ‘grunt’ (for doing grunt work)—a general term used for anyone in the infantry—and ‘ground pounders’ or foot soldiers.
“The whole time, you’d get so nervous, like pins and needles sticking you all the time. You just stayed alert the whole time, unnerved. That’s part of it, when you get shot at, you don’t know when it’s gonna come.”
Reflecting on the good and bad that war brought him, “I don’t regret it. It made you a more disciplined person, I had more desire to do things. You want to do what was right. I had that in me before, but it made me want to do it even more.”
He says he doesn’t trust crowds, even now. I don’t like elevators, I don’t like close places “I’m always watching for people, any loud noise. You are alert more about your surroundings than you ever were before. When I left I was just a dumb ole country boy. I went from a boy to a man quick.”
Waterfill says, “I appreciate the people who volunteer for service now, that they think so much of the country that they volunteer to keep our nation protected.”
LOWELL MARTIN, 85, Hueysville, served in the Navy during the Korean War. His job was to search and destroy submarines and shore bombardment.
While sitting down for lunch at the Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin shares what the Honor Flight trip means to him. “I think this is wonderful, to give veterans a chance to see something that they would never have the opportunity to see. Every veteran should have a trip like this.”
He adds, “I would have never been able to see this in my lifetime. It’s been a touching experience for me. I show my emotions a lot more, I’ve mellowed a lot in my older age.” His daughter sitting beside him, who served as his guardian on the trip, smiles and nods in agreement.
Martin’s advice for young soldiers today: “Put God first and make the best out of the time while in there. Be a better person when you come out than when you went in.”
GILBERT LOPESILVERO, Simpsonville, at 99 years young and the oldest veteran traveling on the September 16 Honor Flight, prides himself on one fact about his service during World War II: he was a talented and good soldier.
A native of Cuba who served in the Army’s Fighting 69th Infantry, his son Hi says, “Dad came to the United States legally on the boat through Ellis Island. When mom died three years ago, I moved him from Miami to live with me in Simpsonville.”
Lopesilvero speaks with a strong accent even today. Softly speaking, he shifts between Spanish and English as son Hi translates questions that involve deeper feelings about war. “God six times saved my life, during the two years I was in the Army,” he says.
Entering service in August 1943, he explains he was a sharpshooter expert in seven different infantry disciplines. That earned him six weapon qualification bars during the war. Lopesilvero says that his commanding officer “kept me after basic training, for several weeks, to train other incoming soldiers.”
At age 22, the Army put him on a convoy of 20 ships headed for England. They made it across the Atlantic then headed to the Battle of the Bulge and the brutally cold fighting in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest in 1944.
Once again, a captain held him back in Belgium to assist with training new troops. While there, he had his appendix removed and was in the hospital a week. His division moved on. “My direct lieutenant and the six soldiers were killed, even the guy who replaced me died.”
Also during the Battle of the Bulge, a lieutenant ordered him to move to a dangerous location, and he refused, knowing it would be suicidal. “I said no, and he said, ‘I’ll court martial you,’” Finally, the lieutenant sent another soldier. “The man he sent died,” he says. “He was shot right in the head.”
About 20 kilometers from Berlin, many German soldiers surrendered to the Americans to avoid being taken prisoner by the Russians. After the victory in Europe, the Army was going to send him to Japan, but President Truman dropped the atomic bomb. The war was over, and the Army sent him home via France.
“I was stationed at Rommel’s farmhouse and got a German shepherd dog,” Lopesilvero says with a laugh. “All the people in town was saying it was Rommel’s dog.”
On Christmas Day 1946, Lopesilvero was honorably discharged. He and his wife Gloria raised seven children and were married 68 years until her death three years ago at the age of 94. He spent his career in the plastics industry in Chicago and Florida. Today, he proudly displays his medals from his service in the war.
When asked how war changed his life, Lopesilvero just shakes his head, “I don’t like war. I don’t like war.”
Lopesilvero says he wasn’t afraid during war because, “I had to do my job first. I don’t know why God spared me, but I love my country.”
WILLIAM CASH, 83, served in the Air Force during the Korean War, near the end of World War II. He saw no combat, “I went in when Germany was being occupied, in 1951, so that put me in the WWII category.”
“I did numerous jobs, but mostly I was an administrative assistant. I was in the states for one year, working with the 82nd Airborne, then we transferred overseas. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I went in at age 16.”
Many boys went into service early, mostly due to the poor economy. Cash explains, “I got out of school and there was no work out in the country where I lived, in Brodhead, Rockcastle County. My mom permitted me to do it, and that was it. When I turned 18, I then had my birth date changed back legally.”
After the Berlin Airlift, we flew out of Germany to deliver a lot of supplies into Berlin to help the people.
“We flew coal in, food, anything that was available to haul,” he says. “They were our buddies—we had airplanes. We used C46s and C54s—they were just like cattle trucks—we’d haul anything that would go in them. The people of Berlin were really good to us.”
His top advice to young servicemen today: “Get a good education before you go in, or make sure that you get education once you’re in. Why be an enlisted man when you can be an officer?”
Cash says his most vivid memory during service is when he met his wife, Doris, at Mt. Vernon, Kentucky.
“She was the prettiest girl in the world. I met her in 1955 while still in service, she worked in the insurance office. We were married for 59 years, and she passed away 14 months ago. My daughter, who lives out of town, is in the Army intern program working for the Army Civil Service, just like I did.”
Cash worked for a total of 37 years, which includes his military service and time with the Army and Air Force Civil Service, spending the majority of his time in the Army Civil Service at the Lexington Army Depot in Avon.
Cash says, “Being in the U.S. Air Force, gave me a good job for a long time, and I enjoyed it. Back then, you had a hard time getting a good job.”
He says his day on the Honor Flight was the most wonderful trip ever. “I couldn’t believe they went to that much trouble for an old man like me.”
DORLAN GRIMES, 84, Richmond, was in the Air Force from 1952-1956. He describes the time he was in the states as “the best two and a half years of my life was in Bangor, Maine—oh, I loved it there.”
He served overseas during the Korean War. “I was an Air Force liaison at the hospital in Okinawa, Japan, stationed out of the Kadena Air Force Base, for 18 months from 1954-1954.
Grimes says he did not see combat. “They quit Korea about the time I arrived at Okinawa. While we were in Okinawa we did have three typhoons, which were bad—they are basically hurricanes.”
His reason for enlisting sounds familiar as other guys from that era. “I was right out of high school, didn’t have a job, and so I decided I’d give the Air Force a shot. I never have regretted it. I should have stayed in and become career military. I was staff sergeant when I got out, they offered me tech sergeant, but foolishly I turned it down. The only reason I didn’t stay in was because I didn’t want to drag my family—my wife at the time—all over the world.”
He says, “Times have changed so much. I think we should all have to serve a couple of years in the military to get discipline back in our society. Somehow we need to get our young people to observe and see discipline.”
Grimes says that the military, “Taught me discipline. It taught me that you are responsible not only for yourself but for other people, and responsible for being a loyal citizen of this United States. I think every citizen should serve some time to pay for being an American.”
HARLAN SCAGGS, 85, Greenup, served in the Army during the Korean War, spending time in Japan and Korea. He was a forward observer in the infantry, a Corporal with the 1st Calvary, 8th Calvary Regiment.
He left after Christmas in 1948, went across on a ship and arrived in Japan the first of 1949. He then spent one year in Korea, from July 5, 1950, to July 1951.
“I wasn’t 17 yet. I lied about my age,” Scaggs says, like so many others. I weighed 170 lbs. and was 6 foot tall. I was a pretty good size boy.”
Scaggs was working in Baltimore, Maryland, in a tailor shop. When the work was slack one day, the boss told him he could leave. “I was walking down Charles Street and saw a box on the corner. I told the man I wanted to sign up for the Army, and he said, ‘I’ll have you in before the sun goes down.”
He says, “They sent me to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for a few days, then they sent me back to Fort Meade, Maryland, where I did my eight weeks of basic training. Then I went to Camp Lee, Virginia, for a while, and signed a waiver to go to Japan.
“They gave me 14 days of leave, and I came to Greenup. Then I left Ashland the day after Christmas, on the train, in 1948 and went to Seattle Washington.
Scaggs says his family had four boys and four girls, and they grew up on a farm in Greenup. “My older brother, Willy Junior, was in the 2nd Division 72nd Tank, I saw him a couple of times and visited him until I got orders to get on the ship.”
He says, “I went to Japan first and I was there from 1949 to July 5, 1950, where he was in training.
“While I was in Japan I was picked for the Honor Guard to guard the Ginko Bank, Japan, in downtown Tokyo, for three months during the day,” says Scaggs. “After World War II they dropped all the gold, silver, and diamonds in the bank, so we were guarding it. The only way a person could get in was recognition only. They would have to go through one, two, three armed guards to get in the bank.”
After that, the Korean War broke out. Scaggs went to Korea on July 5, 1950, and came out in July 1951. “I went to California, to the Golden Gate Bridge, flying into California on a two-engine job to Cincinnati/northern Kentucky.”
In the 1st Calvary, 8th Battalion, Scaggs explains, “When the Chinese hit in the Chosin Reservoir, the 3rd of November, I walked for eight days until the 11th. We were somewhere in North Korea. Along the way Joe DiMaggio was throwing out some signed baseballs. I caught one. I hid it in the toe of my GI sock and carried it with me all the way. I recently gave it to my 20-month-old great-granddaughter, Marley Pistol.”
He says he was really surprised when the Chinese ran them off as they we were going up to the Chosin Reservoir. “There must have been 100,000 of them. We just lasted about two hours. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They had us cut off, we had to head for the hills and rivers. We were just disoriented—we didn’t know which way to go. There were about 30 or 35 of us. They had coats but we did not. It was cold; 50 below. We retreated, and that’s when we came back on the 11th of November.”
Scaggs says, “My brother Willy Junior—who was in the 2nd Division 76th Tank Battalion—and another guy got to looking for me because he had heard we’d been attacked. I never got injured, I was really lucky.”
“My buddy got killed in July, and another friend in September. It was Wayne Bear. They identified his remains by DNA and brought him back home to Greenup in October 2012, 62 years later. I went to high school with him and I talked to him in Korea in April 1950. I may have been one of the last hometown people to talk to him.” (Sergeant Bear was a member of Company F, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, born on September 16, 1931, and killed in battle September 4, 1950. He was buried at the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery (North East) in Greenup.
Scaggs says he stayed one year in Korea and left in July 1951, and they shipped him back home. “My brother came back and we were both down at Fort Knox at the same time, after I had 30 days of furlough. I virtually did nothing when I came back.”
He recalls, “That was in 1951 because I bought a’51 Chevy black convertible, brand new, in Louisville, after I got out of Fort Knox in September. I drove that thing for 10 years.
In 1952, he says, “I met a girl in Greenup and got married in March, while I was still in the Army. I stayed down at Fort Knox for nine months and got discharged May 3, 1952, the day they ran the Kentucky Derby.”
After that, they had their first child and Scaggs left Greenup to work in Lorraine, Ohio, for National Tube. Many jobs followed working for the railroad building cars, before retiring in 1959.
He says, “I wouldn’t trade (my time in service) for anything, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I didn’t finish school, but I got a good education. I wasn’t one to drink or browse around. If I did anything, I wanted to do something worthwhile—going to museums and seeing interesting places. It did make me a better person. It gave me disclipline, you learn how to obey orders—and also dental hygiene. You better, if you don’t want to dig a 6×6. That will get your attention.”
Scaggs says he’s talked about it more on the Honor Flight than ever before, because everyone else is talking about their service. He says “I did not think I was going to come home. You pretty much never know when something is coming with your name on it, you just never know.”
He adds, “Anybody who tells you they weren’t scared are not being honest. You won’t find any atheists over there in combat.”
Praying “is probably the only thing that saved me.”
He explains, “A lot of the boys in WWII, they couldn’t find jobs, so they relisted; they were going to make a career out of it and they came to Japan. They just didn’t anticipate that war would break out and they’d have to go. Many of them never made it. So Scaggs says, “I told myself if I ever get out of here, I’ll not think about making a career out of this.”
He went to work for the railroad, but also ran a sawmill for 40 years and raised tobacco.
“I quit smoking in 1952. I never smoked much,” says Scaggs. “If you’re thinking about coming under attack, you’ll do just about anything to stay awake. I never did like to smoke. I quit drinking in 1956. I drank some in Japan, but not in Korea because you couldn’t get any. I remember one time, they said we had a beer ration, and we each got one can. I don’t remember what kind it was.”
When asked about what he thought about today’s Honor Flight, Scaggs says, “It is better than I thought it was going to be. I never anticipated it would be this awesome. This is the finest trip I’ve ever been taken on. Besides, this is my first ride on a jet—I’ve only been on those two-engine jobs (in the Army). I really liked the Korean Memorial with all the men in the ponchos in the field. The Vietnam memorial was great too. I could not believe there were that many names on the Vietnam memorial wall.”
Scaggs has two girls. His wife, Alice Lou, passed away on February 11, 2002. “We lacked 18 days being married 50 years.”
ALBERT EARLY ANTLE of Jamestown says at the age of 18, in a matter of months, he was drafted into the Army, trained, sent to California and then to the South Pacific where the farm boy from Jamestown nearly died many times in battles again the Japanese.
His first battles during World War II took place at Atopia Island, New Guinea, where typhus took the lives of many soldiers. The next destination was Leyte Island in the Philippines. One night while he was on guard duty, the Japanese attacked and several American machine guns got so hot the equipment stopped firing. But he survived, helped liberate the island, then landed on Luzon Island, Philippines.
On February 5, 1945, Antle was gravely wounded, but couldn’t get shipped to the hospital until the next day.
“I thought I was going to die,” he says. His family in Kentucky got a series of letters. First, a telegram arrived saying he was not seriously wounded. Then came a letter saying his wounds were serious. Next a letter said he was wounded and sinking fast. On his 20th birthday, a surgeon removed the upper right lobe of a lung where shrapnel almost took his life.
He was awarded a Purple Heart, a good conduct medal, three combat stars (representing combat on three islands) and several other medals. Antle returned home and married his wife Doris, and together they had a daughter Brenda, who served as his guardian on the Honor Flight. Doris died in 2002, and today he lives with his daughter in Jamestown.
“I am blessed to still be here as me and one other soldier were the only two to make it home from our platoon,” he says.
WALTER LEE BELL, 91, Radcliff, served during World War II in the Navy for 21 months as a seaman first class. He was involved in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Japan.
How Bell came to be in the Navy is a familiar story. “The night before I went to Louisville to be inducted was the first time I put on a necktie. I thought I was going into the Army,” says Bell. “The boy said, ‘What service do you want?’ Well, what you got? ‘We got the Navy.’ Well, that’s what I want,” Bell laughs, as he recounts the story.
He adds, “The Lord worked it out. I never had to stand watch out in the rain and water. I got shot at on our ship a whole lot. At Iwo Jima, they were shooting at the ship, it was falling out…boom, boom, boom. The Lord took care of me. Had a praying mama.”
He fired 5-inch anti-aircraft gun mounts while on the Battleship USS Nevada BB-36. His ship was the target of an enemy suicide plane, with the Japanese firing back, killing 13 of his group. Bell says, “That’s when I got nervous.”
Bell explains, “I walked down to the restroom (just a few steps) and when I got to my battle station, they said, ‘Hey, we just now had a shell blow up the area where you just walked.’” Bell points toward the heavens.
While out at sea aboard the ship, Bell says he could see the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. “I will never forget that moment—we were all watching in silence.”
After serving in the Navy, Bell says he came back in June 1946, returning to the farm. Bell says, “I married after I came home from the Navy. I had a wonderful wife, Louise, we were married 67 years—never had but very few, if any, arguments or nothing. She died about three years ago.” Later he adds, “Jerry was born on Father’s Day, and 20 years later, Bobby was born on Father’s Day, and his granddaddy’s birthday.”
“It makes me feel good, for you to tell me that you appreciate me.”
Bell says after returning, he went on to work in the U.S. Civil Service Commission for 18 years, and later became a licensed electrician and HVAC contractor in northern Hardin County.
A lot of people couldn’t go, wouldn’t go, but I was glad to go. I’ve benefited from it many a time. I’ve made a lot of friends from being in the service.
His advice for young soldiers? “Make a career out of it. I didn’t.”
While Bell was nervous about making the trip to D.C. because he hadn’t flown in so many years and his health is not good, his son Bobby served as his guardian.
“I prayed about going and finally decided to go ahead when the opportunity came up at the last minute,” says Bell. “I did just fine and never had second thoughts about making the trip—it was such a good day and I had a wonderful time.”
The trip home
Back at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, during ‘mail call’ the veterans sit quietly as they reflect upon the previous 12 hours. Each veteran receives packets of letters and well wishes from family, friends, and school kids—tears fall from their faces, some are embarrassed and save the rest to read privately at home.
Most veterans said they have never been thanked or asked about war as much as on the September 16 Honor Flight. Korean War vet Benny Carter says, “We were the forgotten war. There was nothing for me when we got back.” He says he has never felt thanked—“Until today.”
A 20-something stops by, reaching down to extend his hand to another veteran in a wheelchair: “Thank you, sir, for your service.” Realizing the veteran, Walter Bell, is hearing impaired, the young man repeats himself. Bell’s eyes dance as he nods and reaches to shake hands, softly saying, “You’re welcome. I’d do it again.”
The national Honor Flight Network, with 136 chapters in 44 states, dates back to May 2005, and includes three chapters in Kentucky.
Honor Flights take veterans of World War II, Korean, and Vietnam, including American Merchant Marines, on an all day, expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to view their respective war memorials.
According to George Campbell with Honor Flight Kentucky, based in Lexington, “We tell the veterans and their guardians, ‘This is a day that will change your life.’ The veterans are finally able to come to terms with their service and sacrifices.”
He says, “Everyone who works with Honor Flight is a volunteer. All the people who come out to the airports early in the morning and late at night are volunteers, including the greeters at Reagan National Airport in D.C.”
There were six flights that flew in on Saturday, September 16. Campbell says there are as many as 10 to 15 flights a day, seven days a week, that take veterans to D.C., in the April to October flying season.
Kentucky veterans and guardians can apply online to one of these chapters, covering the general area where you live:
Honor Flight Kentucky
Serves Lexington, central, eastern, and southern Kentucky
Honor Flight Bluegrass
Covers Metro Louisville and surrounding areas, southern Indiana near Louisville, and western Kentucky
Honor Flight Tri-State
Covers northern Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern Ohio
Donations to the Honor Flight chapters, are tax deductible for these nonprofit, 501(c)3 organizations, and cover airfare, ground transportation and meals for the heroes. Veteran applicants are still awaiting sponsorship. Individuals or organizations can sponsor a veteran or donate a specific dollar amount. Donations received stay with the chapter to which you donate.