Gilmer Sadler was 19 and in the Mississippi National Guard with one month left on his enlistment when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Three years later, he was hitting Omaha Beach on D-Day, then fighting his way across Western Europe.
Sadler’s 186th Field Artillery would be in some of the biggest battles of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge, the Rhineland and across Germany, attached to whatever infantry or tank division needed them.
“Wherever the hot spot was, that’s where we ended up,” said the 92-year-old Lexington resident, who has a pacemaker and takes only four medications daily, still drives and on Wednesday was planning on painting a shed behind his home and wondering if he could still reach its roof.
By the time the war in Europe ended, Sadler was in Czechoslovakia, having crossed all of Western Europe.
In May, Sadler will take another trip, this one to Washington, on the last Honor Flight from Columbia likely to carry World War II veterans.
“I don’t know anybody who was in World War II anymore,” said Sadler, who moved to Lexington in December to live with daughter, Eleanor Taylor, after the death of his wife of 73 years, Eleanor, known as Sparky. “Most of the people I knew are gone.”
Since 2008, Honor Flight of South Carolina has carried more than 1,600 World War II veterans in 15 flights to see their memorial. Other chapters have carried vets from the Upstate, Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
But now, finding those veterans is proving difficult.
Even a 16-year-old boy who joined the Navy with his parents’ permission at the end of the war in 1945 would be 86 today. Most still living are in their 90s.
“We’re going to run out of World War II guys,” said retired Maj. Gen. Steve Siegfried, who along with Columbia restauranteur Bill Dukes formed Honor Flight here in 2008.
“So we’re trying to optimize this flight for all world War II vets who can travel,” Dukes said.
Opened up ‘by our mortality’
The Honor Flight is free to veterans and includes meals and snacks throughout the day. Guardians accompany each veteran on the flight; there is a $500 fee per guardian for the honor. Medical personnel are also part of the travel group.
The veterans are treated to a patriotic send-off in Columbia, and receive an equally enthusiastic welcome in Washington.
In the nation’s capital, the veterans tour the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and Iwo Jima Memorial. In the afternoon, they are special guests at Arlington National Cemetery as they observe the Changing of The Guard ceremony at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier.
The veterans return to Columbia in the evening after the one-day trip, where they are treated to yet another hero’s welcome. The public is encouraged to welcome the veterans home.
But it is often the camaraderie and sharing of old stories – often previously untold – that makes the trip for the veterans.
“We were proud of our accomplishments, but we didn’t want to talk about it, even with our families,” said Vernon Brantley, 90, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge from Forest Acres who went on an Honor Flight in April 2012. “We were tired of living it. But because of our mortality, and being around the other veterans, we opened up.”
Some WWII warriors still out there
Honor Flight was formed to honor World War II veterans. But with the Greatest Generation fading, Honor Flight of South Carolina also is reaching out to the veterans of the Korean War – men and women of the same generation, now in their 80s, who sacrificed just as much as their comrades in World War II, but have rarely been thanked for their service.
In the September 2014 flight, about 70 percent of 85 or so veterans were Korean or Vietnam veterans, because of the dwindling number of World War II veterans.
The May flight is the last scheduled by Honor Flight of South Carolina. However, with corporate funding and public support, organizers could continue the program for Korean and Vietnam veterans after the World War II vets are gone, organizers said.
“We’ve still got some warriors out there,” Siegfried said. “So we’re going to keep ourselves intact.”
And if any World War II veteran capable of traveling is located after the May flight, they could be a part of fall flights from Charleston and the Upstate.
“And after that I’ll find transportation for them myself,” Dukes said. “Everyone of them should be able to see their memorial just once.”