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WWII vets fly to D.C. and get rousing send off

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

At sunrise on Tuesday, 25 World War II veterans sat in front of the ticket counter at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Nine gentlemen sat in wheelchairs, many others grasped canes and it seemed most listened with the help of hearing aids.

 

An honor guard dressed in crisp uniforms marched before them, bearing U.S. and military flags. Those who were able stood and the vets saluted as passersby stopped and gawked. Who were these old men and why were Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and other speakers at a podium and making speeches into a microphone? 

 

Within minutes, the veterans were to board what may be their last military mission: Flying to Washington, D.C. to visit the National World War II Memorial. They would be the first to fly as part of Honor Flight Austin, the local chapter of a national nonprofit group that is racing to send the declining number of WWII vets to visit their memorial. Each day the country loses an estimated 900 WWII vets, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s.

 

The WWII vets who boarded the flight Tuesday were the first group transported on an Honor Flight from Travis County and other Central Texas counties.

 

“The American people owe you a debt that we can never repay but we start today,” Leffingwell told the vets, aged 86 to 98. The mayor, who said he hopes to fly with veterans on the next local Honor Flight in October, urged Austinites to “open your wallets” and donate so all of the 1,000 Central Texas WWII vets can visit the memorial in the next two years.

 

Leffingwell, a Viet Nam era veteran who served as a Navy pilot, touted the city’s Veterans Affairs office. Running that office is Allen Bergeron, who serves as chairman of Honor Flight Austin. Leffingwell also mentioned Austin is the only city to win the “Freedom Award” from the U.S. Department of Defense in recognition of the city’s support for returning vets, especially from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Among the WWII vets flying out was Travis Budlong, who resides in an Austin assisted living center. He flew a B-29 out of Guam. Asked if he was looking forward to honoring his fellow vets who passed away, he joked: “I hope so, if I remember their names.”

 

He was accompanied by his daughter, Ann Schneider, who pushed his wheelchair to the security checkpoint. “It’s put a spry in his step,” she said of the flight. “It’s such an honor.”

 

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe donated $2,500 to Honor Flight. “The cause is noble,” Biscoe said later during his lunch break. He presided over Commissioners’ Court Tuesday morning and was unable to attend the event. “Many of our senior veterans who are honored in Washington, D.C., cannot afford to pay their way and may expire soon without an opportunity to see the memorial. . . . It’s sad that many of them will never see the memorial to honor them and their bravery. I’m glad I did a small part to assist.”

 

Southwest Airlines donated the flights for the veterans and a number of volunteers going on the flight. The vets were scheduled to arrive in D.C. in the late afternoon, rest up and visit the memorial today, said Dwain James, director of operations for Honor Flight Austin.

 

Before they entered the cumbersome security screening process, the veterans passed a woman holding a green handmade sign that read “Thank you WWII Vets.”

 

She was Mona Mathias Humphreys, daughter of Vic Mathias, a WWII vet and former head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s and 1970s. He boarded the Southwest Airlines flight with his brother, Arnold, who turns 90 later this month.

When I spoke with Arnold Mathias outside the departure gate, he was sharp as a bayonet. He and his brother, Vic, were farm boys who grew up near Killeen. Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, an Army man came by the house and told the family they had 60 days to move. The Army was building what would become Fort Hood, the nation’s largest Army base. The family moved to Copperas Cove, and soon after the brothers enlisted, said Arnold, who wore a ball cap with a Purple Heart patch on it.

 

In early 1945, Arnold commanded a Sherman tank in the Ruhr Valley when it was blown apart by a rocket fired by a Nazi anti-aircraft gun that the Germans had converted to destroy U.S. tanks. Arnold sustained shrapnel wounds throughout the left side of his body; he still carries some of that shrapnel in his body to this day. The injuries also caused hearing loss and ringing in his ears. He wears two hearing aids.

 

Arnold said his proudest moment of the war came a few days later when he was recovering on a cot in a French hospital. The soldier next to him, who had lost a leg, saw his arm patch that indicated he was a member of the 13th Armored Division, the same unit that only weeks before had liberated dozens of captured and injured U.S. soldiers from a hospital in Germany.

 

“Hey guys,” the soldier announced to others in the recovery room. “This is one of the guys who got us out of that damn hospital!” Suddenly a cheer erupted as soldiers throughout the medical facility expressed their gratitude.

 

In reflecting on the experience, Arnold said he had great sympathy for vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who have fought an elusive enemy who don’t wear different-colored uniforms (or usually any uniforms) and many have been deployed repeatedly. Like Arnold, these soldiers have all lost a chunk of their youth fighting a war they had no say in.

 

“I spent four years of my life doing this when I should have been out chasing girls and playing ball,” he said, but with a small smile and in a tone that showed he has long ago given up any resentment. “And here I was loading tanks and greasing trucks.”

 

As they stood and walked the concourse, Arnold and the other vets grabbed the attention of more passengers, employees and relatives. Suddenly they heard applause of grateful citizens. It was a sweet sound.

 

If you have any story ideas or comments contact Charles Boisseau at crboisseau@yahoo.com.

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