Veteran pays first visit to World War II memorial
By Karissa Minn
For the Salisbury Post
More than 60 years after serving in World War II, Harold Hill helped lay a wreath on the memorial in Washington, D.C. dedicated to him and his fellow servicemen.
While the Salisbury veteran was sitting on the upper level of the monument, a woman with an umbrella came up to him with 35 eighth-grade girls in tow and asked him to lay a wreath. He and another veteran agreed.
“Then they all started coming by, those 35 girls, shaking our hands,” says Hill. “And on the way down, we had gathered some more civilians, so we had a pretty good parade. They all came by and shook our hands, too, and I thought it was real nice for all those people to do that.”
They were able to shake Hill’s hand thanks to the Honor Flight Network, which flies veterans to the nation’s capital to see their war monuments. More than 600 people are on the national waiting list, according to the program’s Web site, so priority is given to those who served in World War II. Veterans are provided with transportation, lodging, food and a tour of each of the monuments.
“Didn’t cost us a penny,” says Hill. “I think that was a great thing.”
He found out about the program from American Profile, a publication that comes with the Salisbury Post on Tuesdays. His daughter, Happy East, applied for him to go. He got his chance on May 14, the day before his 93rd birthday.
Hill’s grandson, Cliff East, accompanied him as his guardian. “It gave me three days of quality time (with him) that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he says.
“That was his favorite part of the trip!” says Hill’s wife, Janelle, with a laugh. The two currently live at The Laurels, a nursing and rehabilitation center in Salisbury. She and her husband once visited another World War II memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
“It was the most beautiful thing,” she says. “And it just brought the war ó the whole war ó back to us. And I started crying when we went in, and we cried all the way through it. It was just so real. It was a beautiful thing, but it was sad, too.”
Hill said his visit to the nation’s capital brought up the same feelings. The Washington, D.C. memorial, which opened in 2004, is located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It includes a wall of stars dedicated to the American lives lost during the war. “You say, ‘That could be one of my buddies,’ ” he says.
Or it could have been him. Hill worked for the Corps of Engineers in the Eighth Army for 13 months, tasked with keeping ships supplied. He did his job so well that he was awarded a Bronze Star for going above and beyond the call of duty in New Guinea and the Philippines.
At first, Hill says, he felt guilty about the Bronze Star, because he didn’t see combat like some of the other servicemen had. “But then I got to thinkin’,” he says, “anybody that got on a troop ship had to have a certain amount of bravery.”
Hill was on one of those troop ships during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, where the Japanese debuted their kamikaze pilots. One of the suicide planes dove straight for the small, poorly armed ship.”I went outside and opened the gangway door and stepped on the deck, and I looked at that kamikaze plane square in the face,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s gonna hit us, and we’ll all be gone. This won’t be anything but splinters.'”
But the plane was on fire and the pilot had lost control. It flew over the ship and crashed into the water right behind Hill.
The birth of Hills’ first daughter, Patricia Grace, gave Hill enough points on a point system to end his tour of duty. She was born a month after he shipped out. Hill’s wife had encouraged their daughter to hug a picture of her daddy every day until he came back to their home in Atlanta.
“When she ran down the hall to meet him, he picked her up, and she hugged him right around his head like she’d been hugging that picture frame,” says Janelle Hill.
Now the same photo hangs on the wall of the couple’s room in The Laurels. Next to it rests a picture of Hill and another veteran carrying the wreath to the World War II memorial.
One of the girls who shook Hill’s hand that day wrote a letter thanking him for his service.
“It is amazing to me how much courage you and others like you have,” the letter reads. “Please know that your dedication to this country will never be forgotten.”
That is why the World War II memorial was created and why the Honor Flight Network brings veterans like Hill to see it.