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thedrifter
04-30-09, 07:54 AM
Local World War II veterans get moment in spotlight

By Jimmy Smothers
Times Sports Editor Emeritus

Published: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 7:26 p.m.

Local World War II veterans who joined veterans from Huntsville Saturday on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., describe the experience best in one word — WOW!

The flight was part of an ongoing national program to take veterans of “the Greatest Generation” on an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capitol to see the World War II Monument.

Chuck Limbaugh, a member of the local Patriot Flight board of directors, made the trip as one of the “guardians” to take care of the veterans. “I thought that seeing the World War II Monument would be the biggest thing connected with the trip, and it was huge. But it was secondary to the hoopla that surrounded the veterans everywhere they went,” he said.

From the time the veterans arrived at the Huntsville airport before dawn until they returned 18 hours later, they were surrounded by people waving American flags, shaking their hands and wishing them well.

“Hundreds of people were telling the veterans, ‘Thank you for your service’ — it was awesome, it was breathtaking,” said Limbaugh. “We left Gadsden at 3 a.m. with one of the most exciting police escorts I’ve ever seen. There were eight cars, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, leading our bus and blocking traffic at every exit until we got to Attalla.”

The huge crowd that greeted the veterans in Washington included a lot of family members who had gone up earlier to be a part of the big day and surprise the veterans. There were hundreds of people at every stop, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville.

In Washington, the veterans first went to the World War II Monument, then to Arlington National Cemetery, viewing the grave sites and watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

After lunch at the Women’s Pavilion, they went to the Marine Corps War Memorial, where there was a ceremony. Pete Tolbert, the only Marine from Gadsden, went up with other ex-Marines to be a part of it.

The Korean and Vietnam monuments, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Hoover Building, the Capitol, Library of Congress and White House were some of the other things seen during a tour of the city.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came when several hundred people were on hand as the plane landed back in Huntsville about 9 p.m. There were bands, veterans in uniform, some young people in World War II uniforms and people waving flags.

“There were so many people, it took us an hour to get to the parking lot,” Limbaugh said. “It had been a long, hot and tiring day, but everyone was excited. The old soldiers were hopping off the plane and bus like they were teenagers. Someone said that when we returned the veterans looked five years younger and the guardians looked five years older.”

One of the veterans from Gadsden was Bob Limbaugh, Chuck Limbaugh’s father, who said every veteran should make an Honor Flight.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I discovered that people really appreciate World War II veterans. When we landed in Washington, we got a water cannon salute, and there were soldiers lined up saluting us. That made me feel so good, to be saluted. It was really touching. I just swelled up inside. I told my guardian, ‘Now if I start crying at the World War II Monument, don’t think anything about it.’”

He did cry, as did others as they viewed the impressive tribute to their service. The day filled with emotion, and tears flowed freely as the old soldiers remembered their fallen comrades and the hardships they had suffered.

“You know, it’s been 64 years since the war ended,” said Bob Limbaugh, 83. “I didn’t think I would get this kind of adoration, but people just think World War II soldiers are great. But you know, I had 158 buddies to get killed in that war. I used to dream about it all the time. Four of them were as close as brothers. I think more about it now that I am getting older.”

During the war, he was at New Guinea, Biak Island, Luzon, Manila and the Philippine Islands, which is where he got hit. After the war, he went to Japan before returning home.

Limbaugh was a tech sergeant in the 1896 Engineer Aviation Battalion. His B Company was all but wiped out when hit by a Japanese Kamikaze plane.

“I was standing on deck of a Liberty Ship with Charles Bentley, who once coached at Emma Sansom High, when he saw some planes,” recalled Limbaugh. “At first we thought they were American planes, then someone yelled, ‘Them are Japs!’

“Charles and I were standing near a cargo hold, which just happened to be open, and we scrambled down the ladder. We had just got behind a stack of duffle bags when one suicide plane hit the hold, coming in at an angle and knocking a hole in the side of the ship. The blast knocked us to the other side and we all caught on fire. We were all burning, but Charles and I plus a few others managed to jump into the ocean through the hole the plane had made. The water put the fire out, but we had already been badly burned.”

Limbaugh had on a life preserver, but Bentley did not. He was struggling to stay afloat when Limbaugh reached him. He also managed to get to William Winnimer and kept the three of them from drowning, although they had all swallowed a lot of sea water. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest honor for heroism not involving actual conflict with the enemy.

“Although we were severely burned all over our bodies, and the skin on our face and arms was just peeling off, we managed to hold on until a Navy boat came and picked us up,” said Limbaugh, who spent several weeks in a hospital in New Guinea.

Most of Company B died in the hold.

“I was listed as missing in action, and my mother didn’t know what had happened to me for months.”

Other veterans from Gadsden who made the trip included Arnold Vinyard, Lacy Weston Jr., William Prince, Buck Gunnells, James Haynes, Ted Calhoun, Joe Copeland and Frances Gold.

They were sponsored by the Gadsden/Etowah Patriots Association, which paid all expenses from donations and fundraiser projects. A second flight with more veterans is planned for October. Any World War II veterans interested in going on the flight are asked to apply at the Patriot Flight office in the Mort Glosser Amphitheater on First Street. It is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Ellie