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Posted: November 12, 2012 11:25 a.m.

Mecca: Every veteran's story worth telling

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 I was asked to ‘pick out' a few favorite stories for Veterans Day. Folks, that is a difficult task. I've had the privilege of interviewing more than 200 veterans and I favor all of them.

I have a soft spot in my heart for The Greatest Generation. Resilient, patriotic, and frugal, they saved democracy. Their casualties proved horrific, yet they marched into battle time and time again. We, their offspring, had our own war - Vietnam. For 10 years, we did our duty in dung-filled rice paddies and thick jungles owned by the enemy. I relate to my brothers; we understand each other, but we also understand that the populace never will, nor should we expect them to.

Granada, Panama, Kosovo, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, fashioned a new breed of warrior, an assemblage of well-trained educated volunteers using high-tech warfare to minimize casualties and maximize results. They're sharp; they're well-spoken; they enjoy a special style of soldiering.

No, I didn't forget Korea, The Forgotten War. If forced to choose, the veterans of the hell called Korea would be my favorites. The reasoning is simple. No group of veterans ever had to endure a war that snuffed the lives of 33,000 American boys only to have their conflict written and talked about as Forgotten.

Yes, they're referred to as Forgotten. The connotation is disgraceful. Fathers and mothers, the wives and children, they didn't consider their loved ones forgotten, so why should our country? Look at the cold statistics: American boys in Vietnam perished on average 5,800 per year; in Korea, 13,000 per year. The catchphrase Forgotten was borne of wily politicians and weirdo professors, not the veterans.

Ray Hambrick fought in Korea, day in and day out. Hambrick was scared to death and almost froze to death in that God-awful war and the interview was difficult for him. He excused himself three times during our dialogue to regroup his thoughts, or more than likely, to forget them. A courageous veteran of ruthless combat, Hambrick summoned the courage again to relate his story after almost 60 years of silence. He is, one of my favorites.

Gerald Hipps, a 16-year-old dirt-poor kid from Miami enlisted in the Marines after Pearl Harbor. He didn't like the discipline; he didn't like the drill instructor, but he loved all the food. Never wanting to be hungry again, Hipps volunteered to be a cook but was canned within two weeks after being caught practicing his ‘curve ball' with Uncle Sam's peeled potatoes. Hipps ended up in the first wave hitting the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima, received shrapnel wounds, protected the famous flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi, and survived more than 30 days of intense combat. He was one of 27 men out of 240 from Easy Company that made it off the island alive.

Of the 73 triple-amputees from Vietnam, I had the privilege to interview two of the most distinguished - Captain Johnny "Tommy" Clack and Senator Max Cleland. Their account of duty and self-respect, of pain and discomfort, of their dogged determination to recuperate and move onward is best described by the title of Cleland's book "Strong in the Broken Places."

Point in case, both men maintain an amazing sense of humor. Clack, while on a trip to St. Simon's Island with the Jaycees in the early 70s, faked a shark attack by releasing red dye in the water then yelling, "Shark! Shark!" Dragged from the surf by the collaborating Jaycees, susceptible beachcombers saw three missing limbs and as Clack said, "got sicker than dogs.

One lady puked." Clack dodged being arrested because the police didn't know what to charge him with. Then late one evening, I received a call. "Is this Pete Mecca?" someone asked. When I said yes, Senator Max Cleland said, "This is Max Cleland. "Tommy Clack said that if I didn't grant you an interview he'd release glossy 8x10s of me with wild women." I told Cleland to forget the interview and send me the photos.

When asked about her nickname, World War II veteran Major Elizabeth "Bubba" McCain said, "Well, a little girl in my hometown of Pelham, couldn't pronounce words very well, so she called me Bubba. I really don't know why since I've never driven a pickup truck or chewed tobacco."

The Merryvale Five veterans were a pleasurable group; and a hoot, to boot. Five assisted living veterans interviewed at the same time in the same room; all proud of their service and thrilled that someone cared enough to hear their stories. The stories, as well as their slapstick, was over the top. World War II Naval aviation gunner Ross Bacon joked, "I hope we can remember what we did in World War II because I don't think most of us can remember what we had for lunch."

Freeman Barber left the relative safety of his Sherman tank to rummage for food inside a German home. The phone rang persistently. With the ability to speak a little German, Barber finally answered the phone. A German officer was on the line wanting the coordinates of the American tanks for his mortar crew. Without a second thought, Barber answered in German, "I don't have time to mess with you," and hung up. No doubt the German officer had a hissy fit.
During the Gulf War, Lutheran Chaplain Bud Onstad constructed three crosses from discarded 2x4s for the Passion and conducted Good Friday services with dozens of oil wells ablaze in the background. He said, "With the burning oil wells as a backdrop, it looked like the end of the world. I suppose that's a great time to say a prayer or two."

On the home front, Marine mother Joyce Britt lost her 19-year-old son Ted, in the famous Leatherneck knock-down drag-out barroom brawl with North Vietnamese troops at Khe Sanh, Vietnam on March 30, 1968. Due to incredibly bad timing by the military, the marine was returned home on Mother's Day.

Bill Morris hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day +1, then fought all the way into Germany with his twin brother Jack, by his side. Wilbur Hattendorf piloted a P-38 Lightning fighter in Africa and Italy with his kid brother, Rich, as his wingman.

1985 Heritage High School graduate Doug Hinton survived the assault on Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War serving as a United States Marine. 1982 Heritage High School graduate Tommy Golden, a Blackhawk pilot, and Covington resident Eurey Hooper, a combat engineer, finished the job in Iraq serving with the United States Army during Operation Enduring Freedom after the tragedy of 9/11.

Joe May and Theodore Britton fought their own wars in their own way. Joe May saw horrendous combat in Vietnam, has suffered emotionally since returning to what we called, ‘the real world,' yet has devoted his energy and time to council fellow veterans. Theodore Britton joined the Afro-American Montford Point Marines in World War II, fought the enemy and racial bias, yet kept his nose in the books, returned to college and eventually became a United States Ambassador.

Terri Prieto was stationed at the Pentagon on 9/11. Colonel Roy Reid's B-17 was shot down on final approach to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 - his Flying Fortress is thought to be the first American airplane shot down in World War II.

Trained in Americus, at a ‘secret' facility before America's entrance into World War II, British pilot Denis Payne still questions why Southerners put ice in their tea, stir sugar in it to make it sweet, then squeeze lemons in the tea to make it sour again.

As a Vietnam veteran, one article remains forever embedded in my thoughts: The Wall, the story of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. Every fourth name on The Wall is a United States Marine. There are three sets of fathers and sons and 31 sets of brothers on The Wall. Of the names on The Wall, 997 were killed on their first day in Vietnam; 1,449 on their last day. Beallsville, Ohio, population 475, has six of its boys on The Wall. The oldest soldier on The Wall was 65 years old, the youngest, Pfc Daniel Bullock, only lived to see his 15th birthday.

I am proud of my military service. I like interviewing our veterans. They all have a story to tell. Yet, as veterans, we do not talk glibly of another war, because we've seen what war can do.

To quote General Dwight D. Eisenhower from John Gunther's book, The Man and the Symbol, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."

If you see a veteran this Veteran's Day, just say "thank you." That's all they want; that's all they've ever needed.

Pete Mecca - Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at aveteransstory@gmail.com. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.

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