If you can believe it, 27 guys older than 80 boarded a bus last weekend for a trip that would take more than 12 hours. They even sang songs on the bus, including that great one that starts: "Show me the way to go home. I'm tired and I wanna go to bed. I had a little drink about an hour ago, and it went right to my head."
Except all anybody had to drink was a Coca-Cola or coffee to wash down the required medication so many need.
Every one of these men willingly got on this bus because the destination was Washington, D.C., and the World War II Memorial that just opened a few years ago. Most on the bus had never seen it.
All had seen the war, though. Every one was a World War II veteran from this area. There were prisoners of war on that bus. Pilots and grunts and spies, men who had to kill other men to make sure that families at home could breathe free air unclouded by fascist stink.
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Names such as Bernard Schutz of Fort Mill, 88, an intelligence officer who decoded Japanese messages. How many lives did Schutz save by his work? Too many to count.
John Barron of York, also 88, left a nursing home to make the trip.
"Army Signal Corps," Barron said.
John Cockram of Tega Cay, a pup at 81, called "Happy John" for decades. Happy John because he came back from war alive.
They started as mill hill boys in the 1940s, or farm boys, who are alive among us still. So many Silver Stars and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts and awards were on that bus it probably jingled as the tires rolled down the highway.
The trip was part of the Greatest Generation Pilgrimage, a national effort in many states and communities to get World War II vets to see the memorial before they die. The purpose cannot be sugarcoated. Age is claiming the men who saved the world.
"We are dying more than 1,000 a day across this country," Schutz said.
The locals' trip happened for one reason. The reason's name is Carroll Moore. A 71-year-old from York, Moore single-handedly decided York County would be one community that would take as many vets as he could pay for. For 13 months, Moore raised money. He ended up with $5,800.
"Just enough to pay for everything," Moore said.
Moore recruited able-bodied volunteers to help with the vets who needed physical assistance on the trip. He found a doctor to volunteer. Helpers provided wheelchairs and matching jackets for all the guys, and special shirts.
Finally last weekend, Moore's dedication paid off. The bus pulled out. Then something magical happened long before arriving. The vets started swapping stories.
Happy John, who still sings with the Carolina Chordsmen and has probably not stopped talking to take a breath since about 1956, said, "I made so many new friends, heard so many wonderful stories from great and honorable men, that the bus trip didn't seem so long."
In Washington the group saw a few sights, including the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Strangers shook their hands and thanked them.
At the World War II Memorial, a Clover vet named Lanford Brackett, an orphan who was pictured on the cover of magazines for his heroism with the Marines on Bouganville during World War II, started talking with a stranger in a wheelchair. Turned out that guy was in the unit that relieved Brackett 65 years ago after some of the worst carnage in the history of civilization.
Tears came to so many, because these tough men remembered the deaths of so many they knew, and how all of it was horrible yet still had to be done, and how somehow all the men standing there at the memorial, or sitting in wheelchairs, lived through it.
So many of these veterans said Carroll Moore is owed gratitude for making this trip happen. They are right.
Then Schutz from Fort Mill told me something else about gratitude that hit like a punch: "That memorial, and that trip, isn't just about us. It is about all those boys, 18 years old or so, who never came home from that war."
These World War II veterans went on the trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.:
Archie Barrett, John Barron, Conrad Boudoin, Lanford Brackett, W.A. Buddin, Joe Butler, John Cockram, Donald Couture, Howard Crawford, Paul Deese, John Hieniford, Bill Homan, Frank Leonard, Wallace Martin, Melvin Mullis, Samuel Reid, Hal Rutter, Bernard Schutz, Sherman Smart, William Spearman, James Vick, Robert Vick, Marshall Whitesides, Joe Williams, Bill Woods.
Source: Carroll Moore, local coordinator, Greatest Generation Pilgrimage