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thedrifter
04-27-09, 08:28 AM
World War II veterans to travel from Woodway to Washington, D.C.
By Regina Dennis Tribune-Herald staff writer

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ask Woodway residents D.G. Melton or Earl Hancock about their experiences during and after World War II, and you will get two different accounts of that global battle.

Melton’s three years as an infantry soldier during the height of the battle were so grim that the 84-year-old rarely discusses his Army service. Hancock, 81, recalls more calm service in the Navy at the war’s end, with the U.S. working to maintain peace and order and Pacific islands recovering from the effects of war.

These men and other aging World War II veterans made sacrifices for the country and should be honored, according to one nonprofit group based in Waxahachie. So on May 5-6, the Ellis County Honor Flight will treat Melton, Hancock and three dozen Texas World War II era veterans to an expenses-paid trip to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Ellis County Honor Flight is one of 71 honor flight hubs in the United States to take World War II veterans to visit the World War II Memorial. About 1,000 World War II veterans die each day, the Honor Flight Network Web site states.

“The memorial was built for them in honor of their service, and our goal with the honor flights is to make sure that every World War II veteran has a chance to see it,” said Ron Lagenheder, who heads the Ellis County division.

Lagenheder said a group of 36 World War II veterans and 20 guardians will depart from Waxahachie by chartered bus to Love Field Airport in Dallas. From there, they will fly to Baltimore, then travel by chartered bus to Washington, D.C.

Hancock applied for the trip through the national Honor Flight Network headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, after his son read about the program in a magazine article, and his application was forwarded to Ellis County. This will be Hancock’s first trip to Washington, D.C.

Melton said one of his sons, who works for the Department of Defense in Huntsville, Ala., told him about honor flights from that area. Melton was put in touch with the Honor Flight of Dallas before being directed to the Ellis County program.

Both of Melton’s sons will meet him in Washington, D.C. during the trip, marking Melton’s second visit to the capital since a family vacation with Melton’s wife Pat in the 1960s.

In addition to visiting the World War II Memorial, the veterans will also visit the Capitol, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Arlington National Cemetary in Arlington, Va., and, time permitting, take a tour of the White House.

Last year, Ellis County organized two honor flights with similar itineraries — one in May and the other during the November presidential election. The last trip ended on Nov. 6, and by Nov. 10, Lagenheder and a group of volunteers that includes his wife and two daughters were back to work planning the upcoming May trip.

“I told people I never worked this hard for this little money and enjoyed it more,” said Lagenheder, who worked in sales and marketing for 35 years and retired in 2007 after four years as Ellis County treasurer. “It’s completely volunteer and worth every minute.”

Fundraising for trip

The most time-consuming effort is raising enough funds to cover the veterans’ airfare, hotel and meals (guardians have to pay their own way). The trips cost up to $45,000 each, with veterans only responsible for travel to Waxahachie and one night’s stay in a hotel if they drive to the town the night before the flight departure.

Lagenheder said the trips are funded through donations and small fundraisers held in Waxahachie.

Though it has been harder to raise money since the economic downturn, Lagenheder said he still hopes the donations will come through to give the veterans this experience.

“All of the veterans are octogenarians, who are all 80-plus years old, and when they get off the plane when we’re coming back, they’re like teenagers,” Lagenheder said. “It’s just phenomenal, the impact it has on them, and I’m glad to be able to honor them in this way for their service.”

Different experiences

Melton and Hancock had vastly different World War II experiences, with Melton serving in combat in much of Europe and Hancock in the South Pacific after the war.

Still, their involvement in the war began the same way: They both received draft notices from the Army.

Melton was attending Baylor University and working on the railroad to take care of his mother when he was drafted in March of 1943, called after two older brothers who were serving in the Army Air Force at the time.

“I was in the Army Specialized Training Program, which was set up for men that the Army felt could finish four years of college in two years and then become officers, but the program was canceled because they needed live bodies to fight,” Melton said.

He landed at Omaha Beach on the northern coast of France in September 1944, shortly after the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Normandy. He fought in parts of France, Belgium and Holland, but those are tales he never discusses.

“A couple of years ago, we had some friends over for dinner, and the guy had served in the war as well, so we sat up and shared some stories, and that night I couldn’t sleep,” Melton said, choking up slightly. “I just don’t like to talk about it anymore. It’s too painful.”

The same year that Melton completed his enlistment duties and had returned to Baylor to finish his degree in business administration, Hancock received his draft letter from the Army.

“I joined the Navy to avoid going into the Army,” said Hancock, a former Marlin resident who was attending Southwestern University in Georgetown on a football scholarship at the time. “There were four of us from Marlin who joined the Navy and were serving in the war at the same time, but we were stationed in different places.”

Hancock was stationed in Saipan from 1946 to 1948 — after the war had ended — where he spent the first nine months of duty overseeing Japanese prisoners who were building a nine-hole golf course for the Navy.

“One of the Japanese guys suggested to me to give him two white handkerchiefs and he would draw me a picture on them. So I gave them to him, and he drew a picture of a Japanese geisha lady on each of them,” Hancock said. A few Christmases ago, he gave the handkerchiefs to his daughter and son to keep.

Hancock finished his Navy duty as a dental technician serving sailors from other U.S. naval bases and service ships. Though he missed the war entirely, he still witnessed the destruction left by bombs and warships on the island.

The worst experience was coping with the death of a childhood friend from his original hometown of Odds in Limestone County. G.W. Small was killed in Guam in 1944 while serving with the Marines. Hancock said he looked up Small’s grave site in Saipan, where all U.S. military who died in battle in the South Pacific were buried during the war, and attended Small’s funeral after his body was transported to Marlin in 1949.

Struggles after service

In addition to emotional distress from the war, Melton continues to cope with the physical pain of his service. Melton suffered a back injury during infantry training when a truck he was riding in crashed and flipped over.

Now he is permanently disabled and walks with a cane. He has two rods implanted alongside his spine and a small electronic device installed that sends soothing vibrations to his back.

“Others were hurt as well, but none of their injuries were quite as bad as mine,” Melton said. “It wasn’t that bad when it first happened, but over time, it’s gotten worse as I’ve aged.”

Community service

Both men still serve the country, only now they work with small factions in the community.

Melton, who worked in advertising for 35 years, volunteers as a bookkeeper for a local church. He also drives delivery vans for Meals on Wheels, though other volunteers must carry the meal packages because of his back problems.

Hancock, who retired from the banking and marketing industry, is president of the Strangers Cemetery Association in Falls County and oversees upkeep of the grounds. He also worked with a childhood friend to set get a state historical marker placed in Odds, one of the earliest towns established in Limestone County. The marker will be dedicated this summer, Hancock said.

Both men said they are looking forward to the trip and excited about visiting the World War II memorial and meeting other World War II veterans.

“He has a boat load of stories to tell,” said Hancock’s wife Pat, teasing.

“Wait till we get all of us together on the (tour) bus trading stories. I can’t wait,” Hancock said.

rdennis@wacotrib.com

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