View Full Version : WWII Veterans Prepare to Dedicate Memorial

28-05-04, 21:38

NEW BALTIMORE, Ohio (May 28) - Charles Butke looks at an old photo of his Army buddies. F. Harley Clark inspects the rifle he used when he fought on Guadalcanal. And James Derexson worries about coping with painful memories. Nearly 60 years after their fighting ended, the World War II veterans are traveling to Washington, D.C., for Saturday's dedication of the National World War II Memorial.

Derexson, who took part in the D-Day invasion, said the memorial is "long overdue." He said that at his age - 81 - it may be the final war-related trip he makes.

"It will probably be my last journey, and I want to pay my respects," he said.

Old soldiers, sailors and Marines from around the country were making their way in cars, vans, buses and planes, alone or in groups, some fearful of the memories that would surface, others hoping to see old pals.

"It's been a long time coming," said Bob Slaughter, 79, of Roanoke, Va., an Army D-Day veteran. "I just want to be there."

For Butke of southwest Ohio, memories of his time as an Army infantryman began flowing last year when he found a faded black and white photo of himself and fellow soldiers standing outside a tent.

Navy veteran George Snead, 79, of Richmond, Va., suspected he would get emotional at Saturday's dedication. Most of the war buddies he kept in touch with have died.

The granite-and-bronze memorial to the 16 million men and women who served in the war sits between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

Organizers have given tickets to 117,000 people nationwide. A viewing area for those without tickets will include seating for 10,000, and standing room for 30,000.

Butke, 81, had thought he had nothing other than his Bronze Star and Purple Heart to show for his service. Looking at the photograph he found in his attic brought back memories: being wounded when a grenade exploded next to his foxhole on the Japanese-held island of Okinawa; the death of a fellow soldier who seemed invincible.

"People started getting killed - a lot of good people," Butke said.

For Slaughter, being with other veterans is the main goal of the trip.

"Some of my old foxhole buddies, we're going to meet and shoot the breeze a little bit," he said. "There's going to be some people, I hope, that I'll see for the first time since 1945."

Also making the trip will be relatives of the late Roger Durbin, an Army veteran from Berkey near Toledo whose lobbying of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, beginning in 1986 led to the memorial's creation.

The Veterans Affairs Department estimates World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day. The dedication of a memorial decades after its war is not lost on them.

"Too many of our vets are gone and it is a shame they couldn't have started it 20 to 25 years before this," said Joe Lesniewski, 83, of Harborcreek, Pa., one of the last surviving members of the real-life "Band of Brothers."

The retired factory worker and mail carrier was a member of the famed Easy Company of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He fought in the D-Day invasion and in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge and suffered a neck wound while in Holland. He is mentioned in Stephen Ambrose's book "Band of Brothers" and was interviewed for the HBO miniseries.

Jim Evans believes the timing of this dedication has more significance because of the fighting in Iraq. Evans, who served with the 2nd Marine Division, fought in the Pacific theater and was wounded twice in Saipan.

"We have very good men over there dying for us," said Evans, 80, of San Marcos, Calif. "It's tough because when you see those images, it brings back memories of fighting."

Platoon Sgt. Eugene Baker, 80, of Blackshear, Ga., saw the war from beginning to end and feels blessed that he wasn't among the more than 400,000 U.S. soldiers killed.

"There's a lot of things I wanted to forget about that war - and I did - but I never forgot my friends I left over there," Baker said. He was part of the 101st Army Airborne division that parachuted over Utah Beach in Normandy during D-Day.

It may seem strange that a man trying to forget much about the war would drive 600 miles to an event staged to remember it, but Baker said neither his nor any soldier's personal experiences are the memorial's intended focus.

"The nation needs this," Baker said, "if for nothing else than to make people stop and think about how we got here and where we're going."

Associated Press Writers Mike Crissey in Pittsburgh, Sonja Barisic in Norfolk, Va., Eliott C. McLaughlin in Atlanta and Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

05/28/04 03:07 EDT

28-05-04, 21:51
This memorial is late, and it is a shame. But it's meaning will not be diminished by that...