Veterans recall names, faces, tales from World War II

2013-06-17T20:00:00Z 2013-07-17T13:55:04Z Veterans recall names, faces, tales from World War IIBy LORNA THACKERAY lthackeray@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rosetta Strecker, 88, searched for the Texas pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., conjuring the names and faces of the desperately ill returned prisoners of war she helped treat in a stateside Army hospital in 1945.

“Some knew they weren’t going to make it, but they were happy they had come home to die,” the Livingston woman said Monday. “It was really so sad.”

“I remember one soldier in particular who was so afraid he would die in Japan. He was so sick, and he did die. It was really hard on everyone. He was an only child.”

Most of men she helped had been prisoners of the Japanese for two to five years when they were liberated. A majority of them were from Texas.

If injuries weren’t bad enough, most of her patients had tuberculosis, Strecker said.

“You had to volunteer to take care of them, it was so contagious,” she recalled. “I got it, too — the germ, not the disease.”

That ended her military career.

Strecker met her husband, Henry, also a World War II Army veteran, in Billings at a postwar dance. They’ve been together 65 years now and decided to journey together to Washington with Big Sky Honor Flight V.

“I like it here,” Henry Strecker said as he viewed the sparkling fountains at the center of the memorial.

“It’s nice to see it for real,” agreed his wife.

On their second day of a whirlwind 37-hour tour of the nation’s capital and its monuments, the 81 veterans who boarded the Honor Flight early Sunday morning in Billings seemed charged for more sightseeing. The volunteer staff pampered them with snacks, cold water and chilled bandannas as humidity and temperatures soared.

Two groups of Montana schoolchildren, one by design and the other by chance, were visiting the memorial, talking with the veterans and thanking them for their service. Other visitors were curious and then amazed at their stories of a war that ended 68 years ago.

Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester greeted the vets near a circle of flowers the Big Sky Honor Flight left at the memorial.

Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine had a story to tell.

Joe Gibson, an 87-year-old Army veteran from Billings, was a witness to history from his vantage point on Tinian Island in the Pacific, where he worked in a hospital at the end of a runway.

“The Enola Gay flew over us. I’m sure I saw it take off,” he said.

The Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that led to the end of the war in the Pacific.

Gibson and his wife, Bea, a veteran of the Women's Army Air Corps, joined the Honor Flight at the urging of their children, Bob and Rosemary.

“I didn’t want to come, because I thought so many more deserving than me should go,” Bea Gibson said.

But everyone who greeted the couple and other veterans at the memorial believed they had done plenty.

Billy Hill, 87, of Billings flew 50 missions over Italy without getting shot down.

“We were really fortunate,” he said of his B-24 crew. “I saw many a ship go down.”

The memorial was a special place, he said. “It really brings back memories.”

Harold Witman, 89, of Billings praised the whole Honor Flight program of activities.

“It’s just been wonderful,” he said. “The most moving experience I’ve had so far was when we got off at the airport. From the time I got off the plane all the way down to the bus, which is quite a distance, there must have been 200 people there to meet us, saluting us and thanking us for our service.”

Witman served in the Army Air Corps at a weather station near the Equator.

Ray Bergman, 92, a Navy veteran from Missoula, was among the first deployed at the start of the war. From San Diego, he shipped to American Samoa, where he was attached to the Marine Corps as a medic. He helped care for wounded Marines at a Navy hospital on Samoa.

“There was one young fellow that I remember,” Bergman said. ”He got shot up pretty bad. The doctors patched him up, but two days later, he sprang a leak.”

The doctor told the Marine he needed to stop the bleeding, but it would “hurt like hell.” Bergman said the doctor ripped open the wound to pinch off the flow of blood, but it was no use. The Marine died.

Along the way to the memorial, Leo Heyd’s son, Lawrence, who lives in nearby Richmond, Va., jumped on the bus.

That made a good trip all that much better. Heyd, 87, an Army veteran who served in Europe, said he was having a great time with his fellow veterans.

“I think this is really good,” he said. “The people who thought this up gave us one of best things that come along.”

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