For the past year, in addition to writing war stories about local veterans, I’ve provided DVD interviews of these same veterans to the Library of Congress’ “Veterans History Project.”
This week I reached a milestone in these interviews. A couple of days ago I sent 25 DVDs and supporting material on each disk to the Library of Congress. That’s a total for the year of 100 interviews, 100 DVDs the “Veterans History Project” has received since this time last year.
Besides the war stories in the Sun and the DVD interviews for the people up in D.C, Mary Auenson, my associate, put more than 200 war stories on this website. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday she adds a new war story with its accompanying pictures.
The War Tales site is free to the general public. Anybody anywhere in the world can access the site and read these stories. They can also print the stories and pictures for themselves if they like.
During the past decade I’ve written more than 1,000 war stories about local veterans who fought in every war since the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of their stories have been fantastic and the response from Sun readers and internet readers have been equally fantastic. There is no way to tell you what a wonderful education I’ve received by interviewing these old soldiers and listening to their stories going back sometimes more than half a lifetime ago.
Tom Moore’s War Story
Tom Moore, who lived in Eagle Point mobile home park south of Punta Gorda, Fla. was one of those guys. He served as a teenage torpedo-man aboard the USS Perch, the first American submarine sunk by the Japanese in World War II.
His boat went down in 1942 in the Java Sea off Borneo. Moore, no relation, and his whole crew, were captured and became Japanese slave laborers. For 3 1/2 years he worked for the Emperor in a camp on an island off Borneo.
He spoke fluent Japanese and Malaysian when he returned from World War II. I asked him how a kid who grew up on the streets of Monticello, N.Y. learn to speak Japanese? His response, “It was easy. When your life depended on it speaking Japanese it wasn’t hard at all to learn.”
The Bailey Brothers War Story
Lt. Charles P. Bailey Sr. was the last of the line. He was the last of the 7 “Fighting Bailey Brothers” from Punta Gorda, Fla. who distinguished themselves in war and in life during World War II, Korea and much of the 20th Century.
Charles was the first Tuskegee Airman from Florida. He flew both a P-40 “Warhawk” fighter early in the war and later a P-51 “Mustang” in which he shot down an ME-109 and an FW-190 German fighter. He died at 82 in Daytona Beach several years ago. He was buried with military honors including a flyover by three jet fighters from Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral and his story and picture appeared on the front page of the local section in the Daytona Beach News Journal.
Five of Bailey’s other six brothers served in World War II. Maurice was a sergeant in the “Red Ball Express.” Arthur was a Marine who served on Iwo Jima, Berlin served in the Seabees, Harding was on the destroyer USS Mason with an almost all black crew. Paul was a chaplain’s assistant in the Western Pacific. Carl, the youngest, was too young for the Second World War but became the first black jet fighter pilot from Florida during the Korean War era.
Most all of the Baileys went on to become school teachers and principals. Almost all of them graduated from college. When they grew up in the 30s there was no high school for blacks to attend in Charlotte County, Fla.
The Bailey brothers were recognized by the Punta Gorda community where they were born. The terminal at Charlotte Regional Airport in Punta Gorda was named for them. A bronze plaque near the front door of the terminal depicts the seven brothers in their military uniforms from long ago.
PFC Hector Cafferata Medal of Honor Story
Pfc. Hector Cafferata of Venice, Fla. received the Medal of Honor while serving in Fox Company, when the 1st Marines Division clashed with North Korean and Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir along the Yalu River, the border between North Korean and Manchuria, during the Korean War.
Cafferata’s platoon was given the duty of holding “Fox Hill” against all comers. The importance of the hill was that some 8,000 Marines would be cut off from the main body of Marines and possibly slaughtered by the enemy if the hill was lost.
In the middle of the night, when the weather dropped to 20 degrees below zero, enemy forces in waves attacked the hill first with grenades and then with rifles, spears or whatever they had to defend themselves with.
Cafferata and his buddy, Kenny Benson, were at a listening post out front of the main line of defense all by themselves. By morning they had retreated back to their lines after being shot and badly wounded by shrapnel from hand-grenades.
They held the line and in so doing killed more than 125 enemy soldiers who lay before them in their field of fire, accruing to the platoon commander who put Cafferata in for this nation’s highest military award.
After he returned home from the war and recovered from his war wounds, Cafferata was working on his farm in Tennessee when he received a call that he was to report to the White House to receive the medal from the President. His response, ‘Just put it in the mail. I have work to do.”
It took the commandant of the Marine Corps to convince him to show up for the ceremony. Forty years later Cafferata was still complaining, “President Harry Truman stood on my spit shined shoes to put the ribbon holding the Medal of Honor around my neck. He was a little guy and I was 6 foot, 3 inches.”
He rescued 2 down fighter pilots from North Vietnam jungle
Lt. j.g. Clyde Lassen of Englewood, Fla. rescued two F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber pilots shot down by a SAM missile deep in North Vietnam territory at night in his Seasprinte helicopter.
Lt. Cmdr. John Holtzclaw, pilot of the F-4, and Lt. Cmdr. John Burns, his radar intercept officer in the back seat, were flying off the carrier USS America in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 19, 1968 when the incident occurred.
They called for help and Lassen and his helicopter crew was sent to their rescue. For two hours they tried without success to locate and pick up the two downed pilots while armed North Vietnam civilians attempted to catch them hiding in the jungle around their farms.
Finally after four unsuccessful attempts, Lassen hovered his chopper over a rice paddy with his landing lights on to help the two pilots find him. All the while enemy ground forces were firing at the hovering helicopter.
Burns was the first Phantom crew member to race to the copter. He suffered a fractured ankle when he bailed out of his doomed jet, but that didn’t stop him from running at a limping gallop to the relative safety of the copter. Moments later Holtzclaw reached the rescue helicopter, too.
Lassen lifted off and away from potential disaster ever so slowly because of the additional weight of the two jet pilots aboard. He then had to negotiate his way through the enemy anti-aircraft fire along the coast of North Vietnam to the waiting American ships off shore.
When he finally reached the sea, Lassen could see nothing. The fleet was in blackout mode. He got on the radio and told all who was listening if somebody down there didn’t turn on their landing lights they were going to have to ditch in the sea.
The skipper of the guided missile frigate USS Jouett turned on his lights. Lassen set his chopper down on its helicopter pad with only a thimble full of fuel to spare.
For his exploits Lt. j.g. Clyde Lassen received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson. He was the first Naval aviator to be awarded this nation’s highest military commendation in Vietnam.
He never considered his accomplishments worthy of the Medal of Honor. Consequently he gave the medal to the Navy Air Museum in Pensacola where it is on display today.
Lassen died from cancer in 1994. He is buried in Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola where he trained as a Naval aviator and lived after retiring from the Navy.
‘Gold Star Mother’ visits Vietnam Wall
Gini Westfall of Port Charlotte, Fla. had no desire to see the Vietnam Wall for decades. Her son had been killed in Vietnam. She became a “Gold Star Mother.” and as a consequence purposely put off seeing his name etched on the black granite wall.
Cpl. Bronson Westfall was a cannonier in the 3rd Marine Division who volunteered to stay an extra 90 days in Vietnam when his year-long tour was up in 1967. It was during this period Bronson, 21, was killed by friendly fire.
More than 30 years later I heard Gini Westfall’s story and offered to take her to see her son’s name on “The Moving Wall” when it came to to Fort Myers. She agreed to make the pilgrimage and let me tell her story in the Sun. The two of us were accompanied by Chris Cook, a Sun photographer.
As she hobbled with her cane up to the wooden platform running across the front of “The Moving Wall” one of the Vietnam vets serving as a docent spotted the gold star on the collar of her blue blouse. Greg Tonjes, a Marine Corps veteran from Vietnam, gave Gini a big hug and offered to find her son’s name on the wall.
As the four of us moved through the crowd milling around in confusion in front of the wall looking for names, Gini passed by David McMichael, a teacher who brought a group of middle school students to see the wall.
“May I give you a hug?” he asked as she passed by the students with the Gold Star on her collar. He composed himself, turned to the goup with him and told them, “She is a very special person. She is a ‘Gold Star Mother,’ she lost her son in Vietnam.”
Tonjes, her guide, found Bronson’s name in Section 28E, at the end of Row 88–“Bronson L. Westfall.”
He took a piece of tracing paper and a #2 pencil and placed the paper over top of her dead son’s name. Tonjes rubbed the pencil across the face of the tracing paper and his name came up in charcoal grey on the stark white paper.
He handed the rubbing to Gini, gave her a long hug, spoke a few words softly to her, stepped back and faded into the crowd.
Gini stood leaning on her cane and staring at her son’s name for the longest time. Then she cried.
These were five of more than 1,000 war stories I’ve written during the past 10 years for the Charlotte Sun. They’ve changed the way I think of war and what it does to an individual, a country and a world.
This first appeared in the North Port Sun newspaper, North Port, Fla. on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Republished with permission.