170 WWII veterans travel to D.C., for war memorial

By Daniel Silliman


The younger soldier, a colonel in a camouflage uniform, stopped and bent down to listen to the old man.

A soldier of this current war, the "War on Terror," the man had just gotten off of a flight from Baghdad. The other man, the old man wearing big glasses, is a veteran of World War II, called the "Good War." He's a soldier who saw combat at the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.

For a few minutes, passing each other at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the two soldiers stopped to talk.

Wiley "Dub" Greenway had a windbreaker wrapped around him and a baseball cap pulled down over his forehead on Wednesday, in preparation for his trip to Washington D.C,. to see the WWII monument there. He is 84.

Col. Mike Bumgarner, who was once the warden at Guantanamo Bay, is only 49.

"I hope I make it to 84," said Bumgarner.

A big, balding man, Bumgarner was at the center of a "battle for Guantanamo" in 2005 and 2006, according to the New York Times. A South Carolina native, Bumgarner attempted to maintain order at the much-criticized detainment camp and deal with terror suspects "man-to-man," when the detainees rioted, went on a hunger strike and committed suicide.

"I hope I make it to 84," the colonel told the veteran. "My wife says, the way I'm going, I'll be lucky to make it to 60."

Greenway, without hesitating, offered assurance.

"You'll make it," he said.

Bumgarner said he grew up idolizing the men who fought in WWII, including his dad, an uncle who died at Normandy and six other uncles who fought in WWII or the Korean War. Bumgarner said the memory of those men, some living and some dead, made it worth his time to stop and honor a veteran.

Greenway was one of 170 WWII veterans at the Atlanta airport on Wednesday. One group was sponsored by the Roswell Rotary Club and another by Honor Flight Fayette. The 170 veterans were flying to Washington D.C., to see the monument memorializing their service. None of the men had ever seen the monument, and they said it was important, as a matter of memory and honor.

Joe Thornton, holding an AirTran ticket in his hands, said, "I am going to see the memorial and honor my old buddies."

According to Mark Buckner, a Fayette County land surveyor who helped organize the trip, an estimated 1,200 WWII veterans die everyday. It took 59 years for this country to build a national monument to the soldiers who served in the war, and Buckner said the generation is passing away quietly without receiving the recognition and the honor it deserves.

"They've quietly gone about their business," Buckner said. "They've basically gone as a quiet, modest generation. We just want to honor them."

The veterans, some confined to wheel chairs and others leaning heavily on canes, arrived at the airport at about 7:30 a.m., prepared for a very full day as they would make the round trip between Atlanta and Washington.

Though most of the men on the trip weren't old buddies from during the war, they quietly moved to help each other on this veterans' campaign. One man, wearing a purple hat with the words, "USMC," "PURPLE HEART," "COMBAT WOUNDED," was helped into a wheelchair after passing through the security check-point. An Army veteran who served in the Pacific theater handed the old Marine his watch, and a Navy veteran who had been assigned to a destroyer handed him his black sunglasses.

Emory Holbrook, hyper with the adventure of it all, was holding on to the overhead strap in the airport's automated people mover, recounting his time on the beach in Normandy.

"I was on the beach on D-Day," he said. "I was in the second wave of infantry at Normandy. Scratching my way into the sand. I got shot while I was laying flat on the ground."

Holbrook then turned around, to talk to the person on the other side. He said, "As I told someone a minute ago, I tried to dig into the beach with my hands, at Normandy."

Others though, seemed subdued by the memorial mission. Bill Wichser was sitting very still, waiting for the U.S. Airways flight with his cane between his legs, wearing his pin-covered U.S. Navy ball cap and watching the chaos through yellow goggles.

"I didn't think I'd ever get to see the memorial," said Wichser, who become a widower last year, "and I wouldn't if, it weren't for this trip."


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