San Antonio-area World War II veterans who were unable to travel to Europe for the 75th anniversary of D-Day got special recognition at Fort Sam Houston on Tuesday.
The Fort Sam Houston Survivor Outreach Services Support Program, in partnership with the Fort Sam Houston Gold Star Families, hosted a ceremony to honor their service and contributions. Brig. Gen. Walter Duzzny, Deputy Commander of Army North, and other local leaders gave remarks.
More than 50 veterans — including several centenarians — came out to celebrate along with their families. Some of those in attendance seemed to already know one another; many wore shirts from past Honor Flights out of the area.
A bright-eyed 93-year-old, Lowell “Clark” Wilson arrived early and was the target of hugs from volunteers and fellow veterans around the room.
“I see a lot of them that I already know,” he said, smiling. “We get together once a month for breakfast and shoot the bull, as they call it."
Born in Anthony, Kansas, Wilson graduated from high school in 1943, then joined the Army as a combat engineer in January 1944. Though his main responsibilities included bridge-building, demolition work and mine removal, he was cross-trained as an infantryman and machine gunner.
Wilson landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, just three weeks after the initial June 1944 invasion. The night before his unit’s arrival, tragedy struck.
"There was a troop ship that preceded us. They were coming into Cherbourg, and they got torpedoed by a German submarine. They lost 700 personnel. That was about the same size unit as we were," he said.
Wilson and his unit went ahead, acting as infantry replacements for those who had been lost. He later saw action in Belgium and Germany and was present at the Nuremberg trials.
Since the end of the war he has returned to Normandy twice, in 2000 and 2008, but wasn't able to travel for this year's anniversary. He said the lessons of the conflict have stayed with him.
"I used to be a schoolteacher. I tried to talk up patriotism. Trying to do your best. Stay on the high ground, so to speak,” he said.
Aspects of the current political climate concern him, he added, with clear tension between domestic and international priorities.
“I know there were a lot of isolationists back in the ‘30s, where people were not wanting us to get involved in problems that were being noticed in Europe,” he said, reminiscing. “Nowadays, well, we really have a split on that. Both sides you could say. It's turmoil in a way."
“We have a lot of divisions throughout the U.S. right now, with things that are not as good as we'd like them. But hopefully can improve it, get it together again,” Wilson continued.
‘Something You Felt You Had To Do’
Sitting in the first row at the ceremony was Ray Denison, who recently turned 100. To passersby, he handed out mementos of friendship: calling cards with his name, birth date, phone number, and the following message:
“I don’t have an enemy in the world…
I have outlived them all and hope
You will be my new friend.”
Born in 1919, Denison spent most of his youth in San Antonio before enlisting with the U.S. Merchant Marine after Pearl Harbor. There was a furor of patriotism in the wake of the Japanese attack in 1941, he said, and the evidence could be seen outside recruiting offices.
“Young men were lined up four abreast, all the way across Alamo Plaza and Commerce Street,” Denison said. “I couldn't see how far down Commerce Street. But everybody was willing to go, because it was just something you felt you had to do.”
As part of the 41-man crew of a Liberty ship, Denison was present for the invasion of the Philippines, an American and Filipino campaign to expel Japanese forces there.
“We invaded it,” he said. “My ship had 105 amphibious vehicles on the deck. That was part of our cargo, little two-man operated landing craft. We took the Army troops in with us, into the Philippines...to Luzon, the main island. We put the landing craft over the side, and they manned it and they went on.”
“The [Japanese] planes were still in the Philippines, and they bombed us.”
An Aging Cohort
Every day, memories of World War II — its sights, sounds, terrors, and victories — disappear.
The men and women who fought in the conflict are mostly in their 90s, and the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that nearly 400 of them pass away every day.
Cindy Hildner, a Survivor Outreach volunteer who helped organize the ceremony at Fort Sam Houston, is the daughter of a deceased World War II veteran. She stressed the importance of celebrating those who remain — and committing their stories to heart.
"I'm glad that we could pull this off and honor these brave men and women,” she said.