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Veterans’ visit to Pearl Harbor reminds them of duty and sacrifice

By Steve Ranson Nevada News Group

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II that spanned the globe from the European continent to the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

Hostilities ended in Europe on May 8, but battles and deaths continued to mount in the Pacific until the summer of 1945 when two B-29 warplanes released a pair of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9. This led to Emperor Hirohito declaring an end of this country’s fighting six days later, and on Sept. 2 aboard the USS Missouri, both the allies and the Japanese signed the official surrender.

A number of Honor Flight Nevada veterans and their guardians reflected on the war’s end in the Pacific when they visited Pearl Harbor and other sites on Oahu associated with the human sacrifice earlier this year.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, pulled the United States into the fighting, first in the Pacific and second, assisting her allies in Europe. Battleship Row and especially the USS Arizona Memorial serve as reminders of the devastating early December morning. Veterans who visited the USS Arizona learned of the number of sailors and Marines who died aboard the great battleship, which at the time, symbolized the country’s naval power. Within a span of less than three hours, 1,777 men aboard the sinking ship died, most of them entombed within its cold, steel walls.

The visiting veterans learned three Nevada sailors from Fallon, Reno and Wells also died on the USS Arizona.

Marine Corps veteran Ed Tremper of Dayton, who also fought in the Korean War, said it was a devastating time for the country to be put into that position by Japan’s surprise attack on the key naval installation.

The patriotic call for America’s men and women beckoned them to join the fight.

“All my friends were all trying to enlist,” said Reno Navy veteran Robert LeGoy, who grew up in Bishop, Calif.

Although he was too young at the time, his older stepbrothers did answer that call. When the Nevada veterans entered the Pearl Harbor-Hickam military installation in a chartered bus, LeGoy pointed to a small hill overlooking the harbor.

“My stepfather was on a construction crew watching the battle take place,” he said, discussing the attack almost 80 years ago.

LeGoy eventually reached the age to join the Navy and completed his training to become a radar technician.

Another Navy veteran, though, talked his father into allowing him to enlist because Gilbert Sanchez was only 15 years old. Sanchez grew tired working on a ranch near Ely, joined the Navy in March 1944 and after boot camp, he shipped out to the Pacific. The Navy assigned him to the USS Jupiter AK43 and the amphibious forces that included 15 landing craft boats to take the troops ashore.

Sanchez was involved in three major invasions — Pelellu, Leyete and Luzon — and his job was to lower the ramp to allow soldiers to storm the shore and then raise the ramp after the last man left the landing craft.

Veterans also toured the Pacific Air Forces Headquarters building, originally a three-story open barracks housing 3,200 men. A reminder of bullet holes in the side of the outer walls serves as another reminder of the destruction and death caused on that Sunday morning in December 1941.

The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum takes visitors back in time when air power gave the United States the edge over Japan. Gerald Edson stood in front of a display, tears welling in his eyes. This 96-year-old naval aviator traveled back in time to his 20s when he and his pilot flew over the open Pacific Ocean looking for Japanese ships from his rear gunner perch on a Douglas SBD dive bomber.

“We had a job, and we did it,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Lucky, said Edson, because the Pacific Ocean didn’t swallow him. The memories kept returning.

“It was wonderful. It brought back a lot of memories,” Edson said, after viewing the dive bomber and standing next to it for a photograph. “It was quite an experience and how beautiful it is in the museum.”

A certain aura of reverence falls over the veterans who fought during World War II, those who returned and those who died on foreign soil or in the ocean’s depths.

Francis Riddell, commander of Hawaii’s American Legion and a 28-year U.S. Air Force veteran, and a number of former servicemen and women provided a motorcycle escort for the Nevada vets from Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to their downtown hotel, and on subsequent days to the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery/Gold Star Memorial and their return to the airport for the flight back to Reno.

Riddell said it was an honor and privilege for him and the other riders to meet and escort the World War II and Korean War veterans.

“I’m a younger vet wanting to hear their stories and talk to them,” he said.

Riddell said numerous veteran motorcycle clubs volunteered to escort those men and women who had served before them.

At the veterans’ cemetery outside of Honolulu, Jason Lemily also called it an honor to escort the Nevada veterans. Just the day before, the Nevada veterans spent time at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater.

“I am standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “Every day I go to work and everything we have is because of these guys and the hardships they went through in the Pacific. It is my absolute honor to follow in their footsteps and to be out here.”

Looking around, he swelled with pride toward his fellow veterans who provided the escort.

“I’m so stoked many people came out,” he added.

While at the cemetery, the visitors from the Silver State and their new friends from the 50th state’s veterans community spent more time at the Gold Star Families Memorial. The stop was especially important for Steven Ward of Yerington, who is on the Nevada Honor Flight board of directors. Ward, whose son, Eric, died in fighting in Afghanistan in 2010, was involved with the unveiling of Nevada’s Gold Star Families Memorial in Sparks almost one year ago.

A Gold Star Families Memorial honors the families who had a loved one die in service to their country.

The solemn visit for every veteran and their guests reminded them of sacrifice.

“Most of us do have spouses or friends in the military, and we wouldn’t be here if not for these guys,” said Lisa Jones, whose husband retired from the Air Force.

A former member of the Army National Guard and a veteran’s son, William Kahiamoe said the airport and cemetery escorts gives his fellow Hawaiians an opportunity to participate in functions such as this.

After spending a half-hour at the cemetery, the escorts and Battle Born veterans hugged and said their goodbyes, and the Nevada group headed toward the Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay on the windward side of Oahu. They visited a memorial honoring the sailors who died on Dec. 7, 1941, when the installation was a naval air station and then another memorial similar to the one in Washington, D.C., of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.

Jon Yuspa, executive director of Honor Flight Nevada, presented a memento to commemorate their visit to the replica memorial.

“There’s a gift for everyone here,” said Yuspa, holding a small vial of sand. “This sand is from Iwo Jima.

Yuspa referred to Marine Corps veteran Bayne Stevens of Gardnerville (who recently died), who fought on Iwo Jima and saw his fellow Marines heroes raise the flag twice after securing the island.

“Mr. Bayne was there, and we have heard the stories,” Yuspa said, but we have something to take home.”

Honor Flight Nevada’s final full day in Hawaii ended with a dinner and tribute to the veterans hosted by the Honolulu Elks Club.

Exalted ruler Ron Lockwood, who retired from the Marine Corps, said the dinner was an “eat and meet” event organized several months before the veterans’ arrival to the islands. In attendance were also student veterans from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan who are attending college in Hawaii.

“They’re all honored to be here,” Lockwood said. “They have ever met World War II vets, but they want to hear their stories and have a great time.”

The Nevada veterans who survived the years of World War II and attended the festivities at the Elks Club were the fortunate ones. More than 400,000 men and women, though, died fighting for their country during the war.

Joe Lipscombe, a U.S. Army Special Forces medic, said seeing the WWII veterans was like meeting “real-life action stars.”

“They are real-life heroes,” Lipscombe emphasized. “They have given everything. I can’t imagine everything they sacrificed and what they did.”

Steve Ranson, editor emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and a longtime military writer, accompanied the World War II and Korean War veterans to Pearl Harbor in February as part of Honor Flight Nevada’s remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.