Team Crapps/Whatley: Tallie Crapps and Gene Whatley are flanked by guardians Mary Holland and Mike Couick.
WE ALL HAVE GOOD DAYS and bad days at work. If we are lucky, we have great days—days where you say “aha” as you glimpse something new or see old values affirmed. I had that day on Wednesday, April 11, during an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with 100 of South Carolina’s World War II veterans.
For months I had looked forward to meeting these legendary folks. I had read each of their stories and couldn’t wait to meet them in the flesh. I was not disappointed.
My fellow guardian, Mary Holland, a staffer for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and I spent the day with Mr. Tallie Crapps of Kinards and Mr. Gene Whatley of Batesburg. Both men served in the Pacific, Crapps as a Marine and Whatley as a Navy submariner. For the balance of the day, the four of us were Team Crapps/ Whatley.
We met our veterans as they deplaned at Reagan National Airport and walked with them through a waiting crowd of greeters who offered applause, handshakes, hugs and kisses. My first “aha” moment of the day was when we reached a pony-tailed Vietnam-era veteran in the middle of the receiving line who leaned in to shake each veteran’s hand and bellowed, “Thanks for kicking their ass!” I don’t think there was a veteran who didn’t crack a smile, and sit or walk a little taller for the rest of the day.
On the bus that took us to the National World War II Memorial, I met Mr. Tomie Gaines Sr. of Greenville, who served as a medic in a segregated cavalry unit modeled on the Civil Warera ‘buffalo soldier’ regiments. Gaines treated the injured on the battlefields of North Africa and Italy, but he downplays his service. “I didn’t do nothing but try to save a few people,” he said. I think most of us would beg to differ.
At the memorial Team Crapps/ Whatley walked and walked and walked; Mary and I struggled to keep up. We kept our promise to the veterans’ wives by taking lots of pictures. Throughout the day our bus was a mobile classroom with history and life’s lessons being taught on every row. I lost count of the times I handed out Kleenexes to watery-eyed guardians who weakly claimed they were suffering from allergies. The highlight of the day for me was about the future and not the past.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the crowd was breaking up after the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Richard Damron, a Marine veteran from York, was gazing across the panorama of Arlington National Cemetery when he was approached by a Utah middle school teacher with a group of students in tow. “Would you mind sharing some of your World War II memories?” the teacher asked.
Mr. Damron backed up to a granite wall as the teenagers gathered around.
“I saw planes land back on Iwo Jima on a ‘wing and a prayer’ after bombing missions over Japan,” he said in a clear, steady voice. “Had that tiny, 2-mile-by-4-mile speck of land in the Pacific not been won by our troops, most of those planes would have not made it.
“The war was won at great cost,” he continued, speaking directly to the spellbound students. “We won it for you. You are inheriting the world. It’s in your hands now.”
Back at Reagan National Airport, Mary and I enjoyed our final minutes as part of Team Crapps/Whatley. Both vets claimed that their wives had given them express permission to hug Mary —but I am not sure that Ruby and Jeanette meant so many times. Tomie Gaines jitterbugged with a USO volunteer. Brothers Claude and Cleland Manning, lifelong companions separated only by the time they served in the Army, shared a moment of quiet reflection. A grandson pushing his grandfather’s wheelchair was a bundle of raw emotion. Later one of the other guardians shared with me that she believed God had put her with her veteran.
As for me, thank you God for allowing me to glimpse the wisdom of an 86-year-old Marine as he passed the mantle of freedom to a new generation of Americans.