A time to remember their sacrifices

Published 4:23 pm Friday, November 17, 2017

The American Legion Post 15 Auxiliary held its annual event to recognize American military veterans Nov. 11, at Veterans Park in Washington. I attended that event, arriving about 15 minutes before the scheduled time to begin.

While seated on a front row in the bleachers, I observed some of the veterans as they entered. “What could they possibly have on their minds?” I thought. Training, travel, combat, weariness, injury, comrades left behind, family left behind or finally separation from that unnatural life and return to a sane civilization at home. But for many who returned, sanity was not easy to squeeze back into.

Most of the veterans who attended the event were from the eras of the Vietnam war or conflicts in the Middle East. Only several veterans from the current-day military were present. As I watched them enter, some greeted friends while several were somber and appeared to be contemplative. By chance I sat beside the only World War II veteran in attendance, Jack Pyburn, a veteran of the United States Navy. No sharing of military adventures occurred. Those adventures seem like things best remembered by one’s self, not to burden others. Frankly, most people who have not experienced some harsh military experiences cannot understand it. Maybe it’s best that way.

My mind drifted to thoughts about men I knew who had endured the conflicts of World War II. In my opinion, that was the last war the United States fought that actually secured our freedom and independence. Korea and subsequent wars were (and are) to protect our political and economic interests around the world.

In addition to her two sisters, Aunt Mable (Mable Florence Johnson Brooks) and Aunt Frances (Frances Jeanette Johnson Maynard), my mother (Mittie Olivia Johnson Alligood) had six brothers. They were Uncle Paul (Charlie Paul Johnson), Uncle Bill (Melbourne Clarence Johnson), Uncle Buster (Hilton Needham Johnson), Uncle Ray (Ray Bernard Johnson), Uncle Moye (Edgar Moye Johnson) and Uncle Doc (Murrell Rudolph Johnson).

Uncle Paul was past the age for inclusion in the draft, so he was the only male in the family to not enter the military.

Uncle Bill was in the United States Army in North Africa and Sicily. He was wounded and lost an eye. His re-adaptation to civilian life was difficult. He married and had a family but drank heavily while trying to adapt. During the last 15 years of his life he reformed, became a Christian and was a pleasant, lovable, family man.

Uncle Buster was in Army armor, beginning in North Africa, Italy and into Germany after participating in the Normandy invasion. He was also in Korea and was evacuated at the Chosin reservoir. His unit then attacked the North Koreans and Chinese from the Pusan invasion.

Uncle Buster came home on furlough in mid-1943. My mother, Aunt Mable and Aunt Frances were at their home place in Pinetown when he came to visit. I was only 5 years old. I had told my parents that I wanted “an aviator’s suit,” and they bought me one. I wore that aviator’s suit to that visit with Uncle Buster. A photograph was made of Uncle Buster, my mother and me as I stood proudly in that aviator’s suit. I still have and cherish that photo that is a reminder of those men who risked so much for us.

During that visit I remember my mother, her two sisters and Uncle Buster standing by the front door at the house engaged in lively conversation and laughing. I was standing behind Uncle Buster. He was dressed in his Army uniform and showing the girls a magazine of ammunition for the M-1 rifle. He intentionally let it slip from his hand and hit the wood floor. Aunt Mable screamed, “Good God, Buster, you are going to kill us all!” He laughed and explained how the ammunition was safe until it was fired in a rifle.

Those sisters had no idea what he had experienced during combat. My mother innocently said, “Buster, what’s it like over there?”

He became solemn, tears filled his eyes, and he hesitantly and haltingly replied, “It’s just hard seeing your buddies killed and laying out before you for three days or so and you can’t get to them because of the combat.” Everyone was quiet for a few moments as they also felt the emotional pain that he was showing.

Uncle Ray was in Army infantry in World War II. He was captured by Germans but escaped and returned to his forces where he fought until the end of the war.

Uncle Moye entered the Navy toward the end of the war and was on a ship in the Pacific when the war ended.

Uncle Doc was too young to participate in World War II. He was drafted into the Army and fought in the Korean War. He received a wound from small-arms fire that severely and permanently damaged his right arm.

All of these men sacrificed parts of their lives for America. Each received several citations including Purple Hearts. They were blessed in that they all returned home.

We can’t leave my aunts out. Aunt Mable married Uncle Brooks (James Rufus Brooks) who served in the Navy during World War II.

Aunt Frances married Uncle Lewis (Lewis Maynard) who served in the army during the Korean War.

My mother married my father (Leslie Ray Alligood). He was also past the age for inclusion in the draft. He remained at home and farmed.

Veterans events usually give me time to reminisce about military experiences. I flew in the United States Air Force on active duty for five years and then served 21 years as a reservist in active duty Air Force units at Bolling AFB, Andrews AFB and Headquarters Air Force.

From the time I was a wee lad of 5 years, I wanted to fly “Uncle Sam’s airplanes.” (Remember that aviator’s suit?). After USAF pilot training in single engine jets, I flew a C-135 (four-engine jet) for four years. I flew in combat areas of Vietnam and Laos, and conflicts in the Congo. I flew in other countries with hostilities. I flew missions into 40 countries and numerous airfields around the world.

I never fired a shot other than annual qualification on the firing range. I was in the presence of combat at Da Nang and flew over firefights in Vietnam, but never took a hit. I still thank God for His generosity.

Too many of my friends were killed in the Vietnam war. Events like a Veterans Day service bring back hard memories, but cause me to honor them and remember what they did for all of us.

Gil Alligood is a Washington native.