Late combat heroes and their stories

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The honor roll of recently-deceased American military veterans gets longer with the passing of time, and today I am recognizing four of them who served their nation during combat with distinction and pride.

Passing away just two weeks ago was Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, 89, a Vietnam War Navy pilot who was captured by the Viet Cong when his A-6 “Intruder” fighter jet was shot down over Thanh Hoa, about 75 miles south of Hanoi, on July 18, 1965.

Held in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and several other North Vietnamese prisons for eight years, where he was continuously starved and tortured, Denton achieved international fame and praise when he impromptly blinked out “torture” in Morse Code to a Japanese television crew that had been permitted to interview him by his captors who believed they had broken him and that he would publicly confess to war crimes against North Vietnamese civilians.

When the interview was concluded and Denton’s jailers learned of his ruse, they continued their torture with increased venom and frenzy.

Following his release in early 1973, Denton recuperated at a Navy hospital, served as commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College and retired from the Navy in 1977 with the rank of rear admiral.

His 1976 memoir “When Hell Was In Session” was turned into a TV drama in 1979 starring Hal Holbrook as Denton. A Republican, Denton was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 1981, but he was defeated by Democrat Richard Shelby when he ran for a second term.

Denton died at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

The second hero who recently left us was Medal of Honor awardee Walter Ehlers, who took out several German gun nests and got his men safely off the beach under heavy fire during the allied D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

The following day, he again distinguished himself by dragging fellow soldiers to cover under withering fire. Army Staff Sgt. Ehlers was wounded when an enemy shell penetrated his side, hit a rib and exited his pack “where it pierced a picture of my mother, a bar of soap and my entrenching tool,” Ehlers said later.

A Kansas farm boy who enlisted in the Army at the age of 19, Ehlers was a featured speaker at the 50th anniversary commemoration of D-Day held on the Normandy beach that also included President Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. When Ehlers died at the VA Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., he was one of eight living World War II Medal of Honor awardees. A total of 464 Medals of Honor were awarded during that war.

A third distinguished patriot who has passed on was 90-year-old William “Wild Bill” Guarnere, whose exploits were dramatized in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.”

Guarnere, who died in Philadelphia on March 10, was an enlisted member of the Army’s Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division that fought some of the war’s fiercest European battles, including D-Day, through war’s end in 1945.

In the HBO series, which was based on the book of the same name written by Stephen Ambrose, Guarnere was played by actor Frank John Hughes. The producers included Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

Completing my list is Jack Gardo, who died at the age of 87 at his home in Greenville, S.C.

Gardo was a Navy enlisted crewman aboard PT boat 157 which was sent to rescue survivors of PT 109 that was captained by John F. Kennedy, a future U.S. president.

Kennedy’s boat had been cut in half off the Solomon Islands in the Pacific by a Japanese destroyer, and Kennedy and his surviving crew (two died when the Japanese warship rammed their boat) managed to swim to a nearby island where Kennedy scrawled his name and location on a coconut and told a native islander to take it to a nearby U.S. naval base.

Kennedy and his men were soon rescued by Gardo and his crewmen who followed Kennedy’s directions on the coconut that had been successfully delivered by the native islander.

Gardo, who had suffered from dementia for the past six years, enlisted in the Navy when he was 16, two years younger than the legal enlistment age at that time.

His reason for joining the Navy? “I wanted to serve my country,” he told his family and friends.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.


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