It was appropriate that Al Varhola, Jack Bailey and Mark Fleming made the trip together for their July 11 tour of the U.S. National World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
All three men, close friends forever, were born in 1924. Varhola and Fleming graduated from St. Mary’s High School, now known as Notre Dame High School, while Bailey graduated from Henderson High School in Henderson, Ky. All three answered the call to World War II military duty within six months of each other.
Bailey was a corporal in the Marine Corps serving in Marine Air Force ordinance. Varhola sailed the high seas as a member of the Merchant Marines. His ship carried thousands of Army Rangers in to the Normandy beachhead on the D-Day invasion taking place June 6, 1944.
Fleming was an Army gunner on a tank blasting through the Battle of the Bulge and later helping to liberate a Nazi concentration camp.
Fleming heard about the trip offered to World War II veterans through a mutual friend from Detroit last year and the three of them filed their application last fall. They received notice in June that they were ticketed for an “Honor Flight” scheduled to fly out of Columbus July 11.
The three traveled in Varhola’s car to Columbus July 10. They spent the night in a motel near the airport, where they and other Ohio military veterans would meet at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter at 6:45 the next morning.
It would be one whirlwind of a day for the three of them and a group of Columbus area veterans accompanying them — all in their mid-to-late 80s. The three from Portsmouth didn’t miss a beat. They were still going strong — well, still on their feet — when they arrived back home about midnight that night.
At the Columbus airport the morning of the flight, they all went through security as a group. Each received a breakfast bag and coffee while they waited for their flight. They departed at 8:35, set down in Baltimore an hour and 10 minutes later, and at 10:30 boarded a bus for the drive to D.C., eating lunch as they went. It was 11:20 when they arrived at the World War II Memorial and began their tour of the site, located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
That part lasted two hours. Volunteers were everywhere offering to help. Sen. Bob Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, spent some time with them.
At 2:35 they left for a tour of the Iwo Jima Memorial and then visited Arlington National Cemetery, where they watched the changing of the guard and visited the grave of Audie Murphy. They also toured the Air Force Memorial, which hadn’t been on the agenda.
They had a snack on the bus back to the Baltimore airport and a light supper at the airport. They flew out of Baltimore at 7:25 and were in Columbus by 9.
The whole trip was free, even their motel room the night before their departure was covered.
“We couldn’t spend a dime,” said Fleming. “It was all paid for through donations, and the names of those donating to the program are not made known.”
The thing that impressed him most about his visit to the memorial, Fleming said, “was just the way we were treated. Everyone treated us like we were something special. Everyone seemed truly grateful.”
The National World War II Memorial had its beginning when President Bill Clinton set up a 12-member Memorial Advisory Board in September 1994. It was co-chaired by Sen. Bob Dole and Frederick Smith, president and CEO of FedEx Corp. The board picked a site, chose the design, and raised the money to pay for it.
Individual Americans sent in millions of dollars by mail. Military organizations conducted fundraisers. A total of $197 million was raised for the project, with just $16 million of that coming from the federal government.
A ground-breaking was held in Sept. 2001 and the memorial opened to the public on April 29, 2004. It is maintained and operated by the National Park Service.
The memorial’s features include 56 pillars, each 17 feet high, in a semicircle around a fountain. It has two arches, the Atlantic Arch and the Pacific Arch. Its Freedom Wall features 4,408 gold stars, each star representing 100 Americans who died in the war!
Varhola said the greatest impression he came away with was the many visitors who seemed to come from all over, and how friendly they were.
“We weren’t strangers long. People were really curious about us. We all talked about our experiences in World War II. I sat down and talked with people from New Mexico to New Jersey,” he said.
“I talked with people from Owensboro, Ky., down near where I’m from. They knew a person I went to school with at the University of Kentucky,” Bailey said.
Bailey joined the Corps in July 1943, did boot camp on the west coast, and spent six-to-seven months in Norman, Oklahoma, undergoing schooling in aviation ordinance. He spent 13 months overseas, all of it in the Pacific, mostly loading bombs into planes in the Marshall Islands.
“I’ll never forget one particular job I had,” he said. “I would row a boat out into the sea off the islands and set up targets for the gunners to shoot at. You just hoped someone didn’t jump the gun — literally.”
He was discharged in the spring of 1946 and went on to graduate from UK. He was in the ROTC there and wound up as part of the program serving as a lieutenant in the Army during the Korean War.
Varhola graduated from St. Mary’s in June 1942 and in November joined the Merchant Marines. Two months later he was down in the engine room of the Army Transport Service ship George W. Goethals, which he would spend the entire war on, transporting American troops from the United States to the United Kingdom.
“That first trip we carried 3,000 men to Glasgow, Scotland. We had a large convoy of warships escorting us and we zigzagged the entire trip to avoid the German U-boats. The crossing took 15 days. We made several trips between England and America in the buildup of troops for the coming invasion,” Varhola said. “We also made trips to the Mediterranean to pick up troops in Naples, Italy. I was an engineman, water tender, and later an engine room officer. We were one of 15 or 16 troopships which carried troops across the English Channel to Omaha Beach at Normandy on D-Day. We carried 3,000 Army Rangers the first trip. They went down rope ladders from our ship to the smaller landing ships.”
After Japan surrendered in September 1945 to end World War II, the Goethals was converted to a war bride ship.
“From September 1945 until September 1946 we carried war brides to America, where their husbands already were, from England, Northern Ireland, France, Italy — all across Europe, including Germany,” Varhola said. “We carried about 400 women and some children on each trip. The crossing took just 10 days since we no longer had to zigzag.
“I guess if we hadn’t finally run out of war brides to transport, I might still be in the Merchant Marines.”
Fleming was drafted by the Army in January 1943 and received training in tank operations in Texas and Wisconsin and didn’t go overseas until August of 1944.
“We went into combat in France, relieving a tank destroyer battalion. I spent eight months in combat and was awarded three battle stars,” he said. “We went through the Battle of the Bulge but I wasn’t in Bastogne, where so many American soldiers died. We went through Luxembourg with the 3rd Army. I saw Patton. The worst part of the Bulge was the weather. It was bitter cold and we were not allowed to build fires.”
One memory that will never leave him, Fleming said, was the inhumane sight that greeted him and his fellow GIs when they liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp in the days just before Germany surrendered.
“We were attached to the 4th Army Division when we went into that place and saw all of the prisoners — Jewish — had been shot in the head. They had already been mistreated and half-starved, then as the Nazis were pulling out ahead of us coming in, they shot them. Why, I don’t understand.”
Such crimes against humanity should never be forgotten, and its good that America has a memorial to help people recall those terrible days of war, Fleming said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext 236.