Don't dare call Earl Martin a hero. This 88-year-old World War II veteran prefers what grunts like him, tramping through Europe fighting some of the most vicious and deadly battles in the history of the world, were called. Earl Martin volunteered in 1943, got married, then left six days later. He didn't come home for more than two years.
Martin fought in five battles in Europe, a radio operator in the infantry, and so many men he knew died or were wounded. His separation papers show five Bronze Stars, but Martin never tells anybody anything about it.
Real war and real death and real pain and real suffering is not what you see in movies. Real war is "No ballyhoo," Martin said. Real war is "a stinking, lousy situation for all concerned who were doing what their country needed them to do."
No, call Earl Martin a dogface.
"We were all just a bunch of dogfaces - they called us troops 'dogfaces' - trying to do what needed to be done," said Martin. "The heroes are the guys under the crosses in those European graveyards. Buried in the Pacific without a marker. The heroes are the thousands who came home without legs or arms, such debilitating injuries to their bodies and their minds."
Today, just two days before Veterans Day, a little bit of what needed to be done for guys such as Earl Martin comes true. Ninety-seven World War II veterans from South Carolina - including seven from York and Chester counties - board a plane in Columbia to travel to the national World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Called Honor Flights, the plane trips started in 2008 and have sent more than 1,200 World War II veterans to see, for the first time, the memorial that honors them and those who were injured and died.
The money for the flights comes from donations and fundraisers, all of it so these great men get to see the memorial that is dedicated to themselves.
In the belly of that plane today will be the toughest men in the history of the world, some of whom still live right around here and never brag about what they did. They are white and black, they served in different branches of the service, and they remain the best men anybody ever met.
Front and center will be 86-year-old Johnie Roseborough, who marched through Europe. Roseborough fought in the Army - the military was segregated then, so he was drafted into a black unit - in France, Germany, Belgium, more. After 65 years with the VFW Post 3746 in Rock Hill, Roseborough heads to Washington today to see the memorial for the first time alongside fellow veterans.
"I am excited and honored to go, and be among these brave men," said Roseborough, who, like Earl Martin, knows more than a little bit about honor and bravery.
In that plane to D.C. will be Robert Brice, 85, of Rock Hill, who served in the Army in a quartermaster unit in Europe.
"Thrilled," said Brice of his chance to go see the memorial.
Dudley Patton, age 85, from Edgemoor served in the Navy in the Pacific during those awful battles in the Philippines and other islands. He hasn't been back to Washington since 1946, when he was discharged from the service.
"I'm excited to see it all," said Patton. "And be with other veterans like me.
From Chester today, on this plane, will go a rough and tough customer named Kenneth Bumgarner, age 90, who was drafted into the Navy during World War II and left a wife and child and another on the way. He was gone years for his country, serving as a radio operator on ships.
"I'm so excited to see this, and be with these other veterans," said Bumgarner.
William Bennett, 89, who was a B-29 bomber pilot in the Pacific, heads out today from Rock Hill. Bennett was piloting a bomber that gave air cover above the USS Missouri in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered.
"My claim to fame," said Bennett.
His claim to fame, really, is his valor in so many other missions filled with terror and death.
"I'm honored to be with them," said Bennett, whose whole life has been honor, about these other men.
William Spearman from Clover will be on that plane, too. He's 85 years old and can't hear too well. But he doesn't have to hear to say he volunteered for the Army and fought in Italy, where men died by the thousands. His brother, Dean, also volunteered, and was one of the South Carolinians who died in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
"It's going to be some day," Spearman said of this trip.
Yes, this will be some day. These guys will meet, and shoot the breeze on the plane in their World War II veterans caps. A few will even squeeze into old uniforms the moths haven't eaten. They will walk, slow at their age, or limp, or be wheeled up to that memorial near the U.S. Capitol and the White House, not far from the Lincoln Memorial.
Then these 97 South Carolinians, with the seven from York County right there, will look at the monument dedicated to the 400,000-plus who died after leaving textile mills and factories and cotton fields, leaving wives and kids, brothers and sisters and parents, to fight in Europe and the Pacific, in Asia and Africa.
The monument is for the wounded, too, and the millions more who fought and lived and are now in their 80s and 90s.
Earl Martin will stand next to Johnie Roseborough and Robert Brice and Dudley Patton, next to Kenneth Bumgarner and William Bennett and William Spearman.
They will all stand there, shoulders touching, two days before America honors all like them, from all wars, on Veterans Day.
"These young men coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who died there, were wounded there, I am so proud of their service," said Earl Martin. "Wars are terrible."
Terrible, sometimes necessary, brutality and death, to save the world. Fought by great men. They refuse the description hero - even though it is true.
These great men, these seven among 97, will raise their right hands together at the same time today, and salute.
We should all be saluting them.
Video interview with Earl Martin: