Texas A&M Cadets To Join Tampa Pearl Harbor Day Cruise

The American Victory Ship cruising in the channel with the Tampa Convention Center and downtown skyline in the background.

The United States will mark the 76th Anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country’s official entry into World War II on Dec. 7, 2017. And Tampa’s own World War II American Victory Ship plans to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day with a cruise Saturday, Dec. 2nd.

On board, there will be infantry re-enactors, big band music, “bomber girls” and other entertainment.

The American Victory Ship started its service in the Merchant Marine in June 1945 carrying troops and supplies to the war front. The vessel served in Korea and Vietnam before being turned into a floating museum and memorial on Tampa’s waterfront.

The cruise, from noon to 4:30 p.m., also pays tribute to WWII veterans and will include a ceremony commemorating Pearl Harbor Day. The ship is docked behind the Florida Aquarium, 705 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Ticket information is available on the AMVIC website.

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Sacred Stories And Experiences Shared Among Veterans

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

A 95-year-old World War II POW joined wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recently for a gator hunt in rural Polk County. But it wasn’t the hunt that made this experience so extraordinary – it was the sharing of stories between the generations that made it special.

There are some things that veterans just don’t feel comfortable talking about, except possibly with another veteran.

That sacred bond, between veterans, can transcend time and different wars – especially among those wounded, disabled or experienced in combat.

Providing a setting that gives veterans a chance to establish those special bonds has become the joint mission of several organizations including the non-profit, community based Wounded Warrior Sportsmen Fund and Operation Outdoor Freedom, a program with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

In the past year, they’ve sponsored more than 70 hunting, fishing and canoeing trips in Florida for more than 400 wounded veterans.

In December, that included a gator hunt at Lake Hancock. It’s a large lake southeast of Lakeland that’s filled with alligators and surrounded by moss-draped cypress, maple and willow trees.

What made the three-day event extra special was a visit from World War II veteran Jasper G. Taylor, who prefers to be called Tracy.

The 95-year-old veteran survived 3 years, 5 months and 28 days as a prisoner of war in Japan.

“I guess I am, but I’m not, a wounded warrior,” Taylor said as he addressed about a dozen veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I didn’t have any combat injuries. I don’t have a Purple Heart.”

But he told the younger wounded warriors that maybe he qualified as part of their band because of the abuse he suffered while a POW. Taylor was an Army Air Corps radio operator who was captured after the surrender of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

“They couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak Japanese and 90 percent of the time we didn’t understand what they were saying or doing,” Taylor said to the group gathered around a smoldering campfire. “They would enforce their commands with bayonets or anything else.”

Taylor said the POWs were forced to “clean up” Corregidor and then shipped out to an indoctrination camp in Taiwan for weeks and later to Japan where he was forced to work at the Mitsubishi shipyard and later in a copper mine.

“Anybody know anything about the Japanese culture?”  Taylor asked his audience of fresh veteran faces. “Well, every morning they get up and they face the sun, they face east, pledge their allegiance to Emperor of Japan. Well, when we got there we had do the same thing.  The only thing was, all the way down line, the only thing you heard was ‘Go to hell, you son of a b—h. And that kind of made it worthwhile.”

The group laughed at Taylor’s resilient response and at many of his stories that went on for close to an hour.

The three gators from the veterans' hunt.

The three gators from the veterans’ hunt.

Throughout the chat, he routinely sprinkled in a humorous twist or silver lining when describing his life as a POW. For example, Taylor told of convincing the prison camp interrogator that he was a barber instead of a North Carolina farm boy.

“Only hair I ever cut was the mane or the tail on mule or horse,” Taylor said. But he embellished out of necessity to become the prison camp’s barber because he could no longer walk due to malnutrition.

“I wound up with beriberi and was numb from waist down for six months,” Taylor said. “That worked in my favor. I didn’t have to go to the shipyard because I couldn’t walk.”

His weight dropped from 120 to 87 pounds while a POW.

Yet when asked about the abuse he suffered and witnessed, Taylor was sparse with his descriptions. He later shared, privately, that he promised himself a long time ago that he would talk about what happened to him as a POW, but would not talk about the torture because nothing would be gained by it.

It wasn’t all talk. The young veterans and volunteers loaded into ATVs and took Taylor out to “bag” a gator. There were three gators caught and killed.

The veterans ended the morning helping Taylor kneel down to take a photo to remember their successful hunt. The gators were then taken to be processed for their meat and skins which are shared with the veterans afterward.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Florida Student Choir to Join D-Day Commemorations

The June 1944 newspaper displayed on the bulletin board at the East Lake High School performance classroom of choir director Robert Knabel.

The June 1944 newspaper displayed on the bulletin board at the East Lake High School performance classroom of choir director Robert Knabel.

There will be many tributes and memorial services over the next week to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Among those marking the historic battle will be 31 young voices from Pinellas County.

Their East Lake High School choir was invited to travel to France to sing as part of the commemoration. The choir leaves this Sunday, June 8, 2014, and will perform several concerts next week in France.

Inside the choir classroom is a bulletin board covered with photos of France. There’s also a newspaper that dates back to June 1944 with the headline: INVASION – in bold red letters.

Choir director Robert Knabel points to the blue star flag presented to him by Gold Star mothers who have lost a child in combat. The blue star indicates that Knabel has family in military service. His son is now serving.

Choir director Robert Knabel points to the blue star flag presented to him by Gold Star mothers who have lost a child in combat. The blue star indicates that Knabel has family in military service. His son is now serving.

Choir director Robert Knabel has spent the last 15 months preparing his choir for the trip.

“One concert is going to be a 20 minute sacred concert on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral and that’s an honor,” Knabel said.

But he said the most special concert will be performed next week at the cemetery of U.S. troops that overlooks Omaha Beach.

“The kids are going to have some time and they’re going to be allowed to walk down the bluff to the actual beach where those soldiers died,” Knabel said.

Knabel enlisted the help of Advanced Placement history teacher Alan Kay to give students a better understanding of the significance of D-Day.

“There are two reasons we’re doing this. The first is to make that connection between this generation and the generation we’re losing so quickly and to have the kids understand what sacrifice is about,” Kay said. “And the second part  is just because D-Day itself is such an amazing story.”

The 31 students in the choir practiced three days a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip to France to perform four D-Day concerts.

The 31 students in the choir practiced three days a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip to France to perform four D-Day concerts.

Kay also has a personal reason for his involvement. His daughter Jamie is a member of the choir that practiced three times a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip.

“I think the most successful fundraiser was when we sold Yankee candles,” Jamie Kay said. Her grandfather served in the Army but was not involved in the war.

But two of the choir members had family members in the historic battle.

“I had a few of my relatives in the D-Day invasion. Thankfully, all of them survived,” Stephanie Hamilton said.

Choir members gather around the piano to rehearse.

Choir members gather around the piano to rehearse.

One of her great uncles was a pilot delivering paratroopers over Normandy when his plane was shot down, crash-landed and he broke his back. He was taken prisoner and remained a prisoner until the end of the war. Hamilton’s other great uncle was a captain in the infantry and among the first troops to land on Utah Beach.

The choir will perform sacred music, some patriotic songs and a special piece of music arranged by. Knabel. It’s an arrangement of the U.S. and French national anthems called A Tribute to Friendship.

And while Knabel didn’t have a relative on the beaches for D-Day, his son just graduated from college and ROTC and is now serving. So above the D-Day newspaper in his classroom, hangs a blue star flag indicating he has family is serving.

You can hear the WUSF radio story and listen to a full rendition of the musical work, A Tribute to Friendship, by Robert Knabel.

WWII Veteran of D-Day and Battle of the Bulge Passes

Former Congressman Sam Gibbons was a member of the U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, serving in Europe on D-Day and during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo courtesy of WUSF Public Broadcasting

Sam Gibbons at age 92 died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday his son told the Tampa Bay Times.

The Tampa native was 24 the night before D-Day when he dropped into German-occupied France as a young captain of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles.”

In Gibbons’ memoir I Was There – he describes his experiences in WWII. It is peppered with details like how he replaced his gas mask with two cans of Schlitz beer before the D-Day drop.

“So with all this gear on me (the same for about 12,000 others), I was the third man to step out of plane #42, and dropping 800 feet to start what some have called ‘The Longest Day.’”

The story of how the paratroopers were dropped off course and scattered across the French countryside is widely known. Gibbons and a few other paratroopers managed to pull together and planned an attack on a nearby town.

“At the end of this council I brought out my two cans of beer, which we shared,” Gibbons wrote. “When the cans were empty we decided to leave them in the middle of the road as a monument to the first cans of Schlitz consumed in France and moved on.”

Sometime in the evening of June 5, 1944, a “stick” of heavily loaded 101st Airborne paratroopers board their C-47 transport before their jump into history in the skies of Normandy. Capt. Sam Gibbons of the 501st carried a couple of additional non-issue items along with him. National Archives photo

Chuck Oldham of Defense Media Network wrote that Gibbons’ story of the Allied landing in Normandy has always stuck with him:

Of all those stories … Gibbons’ story, written in a self-deprecating tone as it was in I Was There and popularized in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, remains one that has always struck me as somehow being indicative of the American paratroopers’ fight during that early morning of June 6, 1944, with a young captain abruptly thrust into an unexpected leadership role, he and his men dropped far from their objectives, lost and improvising their way through a night of combat,  and ‘marching toward the sound of gunfire.’

The young captain was with the 101st as it helped hold Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” facility.

When Gibbons returned to Tampa, he went to law school, served as a state lawmaker and then for 16 terms in the U.S. Congress. President Bill Clinton named Cong. Gibbons general chairman of the 50th Anniversary of Normandy commemoration committee.

President John F. Kennedy, flanked by Congressman Sam Gibbons, arrives in Tampa, Nov. 18, 1963. Gibbons served for many decades in the U.S. House of Representatives before retiring. National Archives photo

When Gibbons returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary – he had with him another two cans of Schlitz beer – which he drank and left sitting on the road again – as a monument of a different sort.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to cover Sam Gibbons as an elected official and as a Veteran. He will be remembered as a “true American hero.”

And, if you happen to have a can of Schlitz handy tonight –  lift one to the old warrior who battled among the hedge rows of Normandy and bridged the aisles in Congress to make this a better country and world.

Tampa Bay Area Honor Flight Needs Guardians

Iwo Jima Memorial (Photo courtesy senate.gov)

About 75 World War II veterans are scheduled to take the next Honor Flight of West Central Florida (HFWCF). However, many of the veterans are frail and need a guardian to accompany them so they can visit the various memorials built on the National Mall.

The day will include visits to the Iwo Jima and WWII Memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery.  The veterans will also be able to visit the Lincoln, Washington, Korea, and Vietnam Memorials.  However, each veteran must have aguardian” who will be responsible for the veteran’s safety and aid such as pushing a wheelchair if needed.

The organization has chartered a plane from Allegiant Air to fly from St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport to Washington on the one-day trip scheduled Tuesday, April 3, leaving at 7 a.m. and returning at 7:30 p.m.

Guardians must apply ahead of time and are asked to make a minimum donation of at least $400 to the HFWCF operating fund. The local chapter is a 501(c)3, non-profit making donations tax deductible.

Persons interested in serving as a guardian can get more information at the website: www.honorflightwcf.org, where you can print the guardian application, and mail it to P.O. Box 55661, St. Petersburg, FL 33732.

Congress Honors Black U.S. Marines from Montford Point

Montford Point Marines aboard a troop ship WWII. Photo courtesy of UNCW website.

Unlike the better known black Tuskegee Airmen – the African  Americans who joined the U.S. Marine Corps during WWII were relegated to obscurity despite fighting on the sands of Iwo Jima. They were known as the Montford Point Marines because that’s where they trained – segregated from the white Marines at Camp Lejeune. Congress on Tuesday unanimously acknowledged the Montford Point Marines for their sacrifice and battle against racism.

Pioneering Black Marines Get Their Badge of Courage: USA Today

Congress voted Tuesday to grant the first black fighters of the last military branch to accept them the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The 422-0 vote honors about 20,000 Montford Point Marines, who trained in a separate facility called Montford Point that operated at Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1942 to 1949 when all military branches were segregated.

“This has been a real long time coming,” said Johnny C. Washington, 82. “It seems like everything we did for a long time was hidden. It’s been real frustrating when you see others get recognition and not us.”

While the African-American Army Buffalo Soldiers and the Air Force Tuskegee Airmen have had some measure of renown, the first black Marines have grown old mostly in obscurity. You can read more HERE.

Loyalty and Service in the Face of Prejudice and Discrimination

Black Marines exit the base chapel at Montford Point. Photo courtesy of the UNCW website.

Black Marines exit the base chapel at Montford Point. Photo courtesy of the UNCW website.

In a race against time, the largely untold story of the nation’s first African American Marines will at last be made known through a broadcast quality video documentary. More than 20,000 African Americans trained in segregated facilities between 1942 and 1949 at Montford Point, NC, and became the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps.

From its inception until 1942, the Marine Corps refused to recruit African Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941 forced the Corps, despite objections from its leadership, to begin recruiting African American Marines in 1942. The Marines’ first black recruits received basic training at the segregated Montford Point Base adjacent to Camp Lejeune, NC and would continue to do so until 1949.

The Montford Point Marines are the subject of a documentary written and directed by Dr. Melton McLaurin. You can read more about the documentary HERE.

America’s First Black Marines: Images and Transcripts

Montford Point Marines assigned uniforms during WWII. Photo courtesy of the UNCW website.

The history of the Montford Marines is documented on the University of North Carolina Wilmington website.

The images in this photo exhibit offer the best visual record of what the men of Montford Point experienced while in training at the segregated facility at Montford Point and during their participation in the World War II island campaigns of the South Pacific.

The work of a single African American photographer, Roger Smith, provides the bulk of the images of life at Montford Point. Working for the United States Office of War Information, Smith photographed members of the first combat unit formed at Montford Point, the 51st Defense Battalion, in training in March, 1943. His images reveal both the rigors of training the men endured and the close camaraderie that developed among them. They are taken from the Documenting America Collection of the Library of Congress. Smith’s photographs, each identified, are supplemented by the work of other government photographers, whose identities, when known, are noted.

You can view the collection HERE.

Recalling the D-Day Invasion and Other Memories

WWII D-Day Invasion. Photo courtesy U.S. Army.

WWII Veterans are scheduled to share their personal D-Day recollections of the largest military invasion in world history Saturday at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida.

The invasion of Normandy is one installment of the theme attraction’s six-part series: Legends & Legacies Symposium. The series invites WWII aviation heroes and their families to offer a glimpse of what it was like to fly in the heyday of aviation as they protected their country. WWII veterans who served on the ground protecting and supporting the men and women in flight are also featured. 

Throughout the weekend, WWII heroes Richard Ortega, Clifford Kantz and Howard Huebner, will share personal stories and recollections of the D-Day invasion and the grueling weeks that followed.

D-Day, Normandy invasion June 6, 1944.

Richard Ortega served with Easy Company, which was portrayed in the 2001 HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers and 1992 book by Stephen Ambrose.

Howard Huebner, a paratrooper, fought with Easy Company after members of his company missed their drop zone by several miles and became separated dangerously close to German barracks. His story is portrayed in the film D-Day Down to Earth – Return of the 507th.

Major Clifford Kantz retired in 1963 after 20 years in the Air Force. He flew 16 combat missions during World War II, the first of which was on D-Day, when he piloted a C-47 to drop paratroopers over Normandy. The significance of the event wasn’t lost on the young pilot, who on D-Day was only 20 years old.

Additional topics for the  “Legends & Legacies Symposium Series”; “The Pacific War: Power and Pursuit,” June 10-11; and “The Great Escape: Heroes Underground,” Oct. 14-15.

General admission is required to attend symposiums. However, during the month of May, Fantasy of Flight will give free admistion ot active duty military with proper identification. For details, visit the theme park’s website: http://www.fantasyofflight.com/.

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