Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, four local veterans vividly remember where they were when they heard the fighting was over.
Tony Cocchini was in Italy, managing a hotel for the military.
Thomas McCunniff was at Fort Benning, Ga., and Jim Lochridge was in Jackson, Miss., training for an invasion of Japan.
Bob Wood had a bird’s eye view of the war’s end, flying over the USS Missouri in a B-29 bomber as the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed Sept. 2, 1945.
The four were among about 30 veterans who live in the Cypress of Hilton Head retirement community and were honored Wednesday at a Spirit of ’45 Day National Unity Tour event. The tour, which has crisscrossed the country for five months, seeks to raise awareness of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The tour kicked off in California in February and has traveled more than 25,000 miles to 43 states. Led by Auston and Bonnie O’Neill, who drive a decorated RV to each stop, the series will culminate in a tribute Aug. 14, 2015, for the 70th anniversary of the Japanese announcement of surrender, which ended World War II.
The tour’s logo is the famous photo of a sailor and a woman kissing in Times Square after the announcement was made Aug. 14, 1945. The formal surrender was signed Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri.
The stop on Hilton Head was the third visit by the O’Neills to a Cypress community, along with ones in Charlotte and Raleigh. The communities opened their doors to the event to recognize veterans who live in them, tour program supervisor Warren Hegg said.
Residents of the Hilton Head retirement community were invited to take part in a patriotic parade and honor veterans in a ceremony, Cypress sales manager Becky Davis said. About 100 names of veterans submitted by residents were read during the ceremony.
McCunniff, who was a cadet at West Point for much of the war and was training at Fort Benning when it ended, submitted his father’s name, Brig. Gen. Dennis McCunniff, who served in both World Wars. McCunniff said his father would be “absolutely proud” to hear of a day honoring the men and women who served in World War II.
Wood, 93, was unable to attend the ceremony celebrating the end of the war, but had a front row seat to the events that led to the war’s end.
A member of the Air Force’s cq 9th Bomb Group, he was on the tarmac on the island of Tinian in the Pacific Ocean when the Enola Gay landed after dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Less than a month later, he was in one of hundreds of planes flying overhead in a show of American force as the surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri.
Wood spent several months on Tinian, which was converted into a massive airfield to launch bombing operations over Japan. In the weeks leading to the dropping of the atomic bombs, he watched as a nearby inlet filled with boats to be used in an invasion of Japan, seeing firsthand how many more lives could have been lost had the invasion occurred.
Wood still remembers much of his span on Tinian and has photos showing his time on the island. He also keeps photos of the atomic bombs’ effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an album at his home in the Cypress. In his office hangs a Bronze Star medal, which he received for keeping the bombers running.
Wood said he rarely shares his stories. Many of the men he knew are “gone and disappeared,” he said.
Cocchini, 96, was amazed to hear of an organization trying to raise awareness of the dwindling veteran population. The Pennsylvania native served in North Africa and Italy from 1943 to 1945, after being drafted into the U.S. Army a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He was sent to Italy with the Psychological Warfare Branch, a precursor to the Office of Strategic Services and the Central Intelligence Agency, to manage hotels for the military. He was chosen because he spoke Italian, which he learned while working in his mother’s shop in Scranton, Pa., during the Great Depression.
Cocchini said he still gets questions about his service but doesn’t know whether people today understand the magnitude of what occurred before and during the war.
Lochridge, 91, served on an Army artillery team during World War II, but he wore a Marine Corps uniform Wednesday in the parade at the Cypress. Lochridge, who rode in a World War II-era, Ford-built Jeep on Wednesday, said it was the only uniform they could find on short notice.
Lochridge was part of the 95th Division commanded by Gen. George Patton. He spent more than two years moving through Europe, taking part in the Battle of Metz and the end of the Battle of the Bulge. He was in Germany when victory in Europe was achieved. While on leave, he married his wife, Dorothy. The couple live at the Cypress.
Lochridge’s artillery group began training for an invasion of Japan that never came.
Lochridge said the event Wednesday was a “good one,” since a majority of the people living at the Cypress likely remember the war, even if they didn’t serve in it.
In the years since their service, all four men returned to their normal lives, earned college degrees, started families and settled into long careers. Speaking to the crowd after the parade Wednesday, Hegg said the veterans of World War II needed to be commended not only for their service, but for their contribution to jump-starting the country’s postwar rise.
“They didn’t stand there and beat their chests,” he said. “They asked, ‘What are we going to do now, for our children, our children’s children, and their children.’ That is the greatness of the greatest generation.”