My day spent with heroes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sometimes I get to cover events that are so much fun and just seem right for me to be there. My time with a large group of veterans from Oak Park Retirement was just that way. On Thursday evening and for most of the day on Friday of last week, I was just plain fortunate to get to meet and learn something about so many wonderful heroes.
I learned some facts about their service, but I also had fun with them, too. From the time that we started photos, videos and interviews, I was impressed. I was even more so after all the airplane flights on the Ageless Aviation Dreams Stearman with Darryl Fisher.
Here is a little about what I learned about these veterans. They enjoy each other and they are genuinely fun. Smiles and banter helped make the day so special.
Earl Graves, 88, is from the Adirondack Mountains. He served in the Navy aboard a destroyer squadron and was able to see Pearl Harbor just after the Japanese bombing. A 30-year veteran, he spent much of it at the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska.
Bart Bartholomew, 93, from Nebraska, was an Army engineer attached to the Air Force. He spent time in Okinawa getting the airfield ready while being shot at from surrounding caves and experienced a major typhoon. Discharged in 1946.
Hall Steele, 87, was the only veteran that I knew ahead of time. I had known him for years around the community and still think of him as a great role model. His son, John, and I remain good friends after playing ball together years ago. Steele was younger than most World War II vets, having volunteered for the Army in 1945 at 17 years old. He worked on the Manhattan Project and at Oak Ridge and was discharged after 18 months, and was glad to complete his college education after the war.
Herbert Spaul, 81, is from Winston-Salem and many orphanages. He served in Korea and Vietnam in the signal corps from 1949-1972. He was an instructor at Fort Benning in communications and taught artillery at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
David McTernan is from West Orange, N.J. He served in the Army from 1942-1945 as a lineman attached to aircraft in North Africa, and in the infantry hunting tanks for 18 months. McTernan had one of the many classic quotes after he flew in the Stearman plane on Friday. He said, “I will try it again when I am 95.” He is 94 now.
Marvin Johnson, 88, from Concord, made 59 dangerous trips across the English Channel in supply boats. They were not allowed to stop and help any boat that was hit. Johnson was in front of the Normandy invasion on D-Day.
Patricia Ann Fuchs, 66, from the Bronx, N.Y., volunteered and served as a lieutenant in the Nurse Corps, serving in Desert Storm and said, “I took care of all those I could. I loved my job!” She is also, like me, a Yankees fan.
Fletcher Perry, 95, the oldest of the veterans I met, has lived in Salisbury since 1981. Perry spent 21 years in the Army, much of it as a mess sergeant. He served at Fort Polk, Fort Benning, Fort Rucker, and Fort Campbell before going overseas in 1943. He belonged to a tank company and greatly enjoyed getting meals to those operating the tanks. When I asked him just before it was his turn to fly on Friday if he was ready, Perry said quickly, “Not really.” But when he got out of the plane, he said “Now I am ready to go again.”
Frank Foster, 87, from Cooleemee and Salisbury, served in the Navy from May of 1944 to April of 1946. Foster served on small boat minesweepers and experienced the biggest typhoon ever in the China Sea. He re-enlisted in the Air Force, becoming an aviation cadet and retiring in 1966 as a captain. Foster said he most enjoyed drinking and chasing women, which he learned about by watching movies.
Tom Foreman, 90, a Concord native who grew up in Salisbury, served from 1943 to 1946, first as a mechanic then as a top turret gunner on B-17s. Foreman flew nine combat missions and also flew “chow” missions when the allies decided to help feed the starving Germans and French at the end of the war.
Tom Fite, 93, is from Cleveland. A Navy aviator, he flew the Stearman as a trainer, but flew about 50 missions as a co-pilot or navigator out of Clark Field in the Philippines. Missions were over China, North Vietnam, and Okinawa. Fite made sure I knew that Navy flyers were aviators, not pilots as their Army counterparts were called.
Don Clement, 93, from Salisbury, volunteered and served in the 1st Marine Division in WW II. He went ashore at Guadalcanal and said that taught him about volunteering. Clement came home and worked at Salisbury Motor Co. When I asked him about flying in the Stearman, Clement said, “I ain’t getting in no airplane, no way.” I hope to get to talk to him more.
Bill Howard, 91, is from Concord currently, but knows so much about the route that I took on my bike ride because of extensive time spent in the west. It is wonderful to talk with the WW II flight instructor, and he honestly told me that he could hardly sleep the night before his Friday flight.
Walter Leather, 88, from New York City, served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946 as a torpedo man’s mate on a destroyer escort. He grew up in the house next to Lizzie Borden in Massachusetts. Known as the Oak Park photographer, he also might be known as a “character.” When it was his turn to fly, I asked Leather if he had flown in one of these planes before. He quickly replied, “After this time and four more, it will be five times.” I earlier asked if he served in the Navy, and Leather used a line that he didn’t just make up, “I was in the Navy, but I never played tennis.” Leather used two cameras for photos as he flew over Oak Park.
Most of these veterans got to fly on Friday, though some had flown last year. Very impressive was that a good group of other residents at Oak Park Retirement came out to the airport to cheer for the veterans who flew this time.
All these folks had a wonderful time, just as they deserved to. It was great fun to be a part of it all.