The ages of most World War II veterans are now reaching into the 90s, and six of these veteran-heroes who recently died deserve special mention in this column today because of their unique wartime exploits and extraordinary service to our country.
The six were aged from 90 to 96, three were enlisted men, three were officers, two served in the Navy, three in the Army and one in the Army Air Corps.
I knew one of these men, Watson Sims, at 90 the youngest in the group.
Sims, a Navy radioman, won a Silver Star for helping evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor in the Philippines to Australia in early February, 1942. A crewman aboard PT 32, one of the fast Navy PT boats which carried MacArthur, his family and staff to safety in Northern Australia, Sims, along with his crew, was personally congratulated by MacArthur who told the men, “You have delivered me from the jaws of death.”
At war’s end, Sims became an Associated Press foreign correspondent, and I met him in the late 1950s in Moscow when both of us were serving as correspondents in Eastern Europe.
The second youngest was a pioneer in naval aviation, Ed Iglesias, who died at 91. He was one of 11 children of Santiago Iglesias, Puerto Rico’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ed Iglesias, who served in the Navy from 1941 to 1969 and retired as a captain, flew more than 50 WWII combat missions in “Hellcat” fighter planes over the Pacific.
He shot down four Japanese aircraft in dogfights, and when his plane was hit twice and he managed to fly it back to his base, he said, “I was one of the lucky ones.” On the day the Japanese formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, he was among hundreds of U.S. pilots flying ceremonially overhead.
The third youngest was Basil L. Plumley, an Army combat infantryman, who died at 92. He served in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, retiring as a command sergeant major.
Plumley received national fame during the Vietnam War as a member of the 400-member 7th U.S. Cavalry unit which defeated 2,000 North Vietnamese during a harrowing battle which has been named “The Valley of Death.”
His heroism also was featured in the 2002 motion picture “We Were Soldiers” starring Mel Gibson as the unit’s commanding officer and Sam Elliott as Plumley.
Plumley, who made five parachute jumps during combat in Korea and Vietnam, was a legend in the Army and served 32 years in uniform before retiring.
Jake McNiece and John L. Wilpers, both 93, were the next youngest of the men I honor today.
McNiece, an Army paratrooper, won the French Legion of Honor and several U.S. medals for parachuting behind German lines just ahead of the invasion of Normandy in early 1944 when he was a member of the “Filthy 13,” a demolition unit of the 101st Airborne Division.
The unit received its name because its members often disobeyed orders, bathed infrequently and sometimes disappeared for long, liquid and violent weekends between combat missions. The plot of the motion picture “The Dirty Dozen”mimicked the exploits of the “Filthy 13” to some extent, I have been told.
Credited with destroying Nazi supply lines and escape routes, Sergeant McNiece and his men shaved their heads into Mohawks and decorated their faces with warpaint to frighten the enemy into surrendering. They became myths after destroying bridges and killing large numbers of Nazi officers and enlisted men.
Wilpers was a 25 year-old Army second lieutenant and member of a special five-man unit that arrested former Japanese Prime Minister Hideo Tojo at his home in a Tokyo suburb on Sept. 11, 1945, nine days after Japan’s surrender ended WWII. Tojo attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest as Wilpers and his men entered his bedroom.
Wilpers ordered a Japanese doctor at gunpoint to treat Tojo until an American doctor could arrive. A famous photograph published in Yank magazine shows Wilpers pointing his gun at the bloodied Tojo, who survived and later was executed by the Allied powers for approving atrocities committed by Japanese troops which included the Bataan Death March and the torture and starvation of U.S. and Allied prisoners.
The oldest of the six men I write about today was Capt. Thomas C. Griffin, an Army Air Corps B-25 bomber pilot who participated in the audacious Doolittle Air Raid on Japan during WWII.
Griffin, who recently died at 96, was among the original 80 volunteers for the April 18, 1942, mission commanded by then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle that took place only four months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Griffin and his men, who trained for the raid at the Army Air Corps base at Wendover, Utah, near the Nevada-Utah border, flew their 16 bombers off the deck of a U.S. Navy carrier, shocking the Japanese and providing a powerful morale lift in the U.S. although the raid did little physical damage.
Doolittle’s planes lacked sufficient fuel to reach safe bases after dropping their bombs, and Griffin parachuted into China after the attack, eluding Japanese capture and eventually returning to action in bombing runs from North Africa. He was shot down by German aircraft in 1943 and spent nearly two years in a German prisoner of war camp before being released at war’s end.
What great Americans these six men and thousands of other WWII veterans were! They are now reaching advanced old age and they will be in our minds and hearts forever.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.
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