Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…UH60…Blackhawk helicopter…six…eight…six…ten miles west of the airport…inbound for landing…
Unicom—six…eight…six…winds light and variable…no other reported traffic…
Every Man a Hero
In the summer time I spend a lot of my time in the gazebo at the airport reading. My favorite subject is WWII, my favorite part is operation “Overlord” better known as D-Day.
I had just fueled a Kentucky National Guard Blackhawk helicopter from Frankfort, the pilot and crew were eating at the Cloud 9 Cafe and I returned to my book, “Every Man A Hero” by Ray Lambert… A memoir of D-Day and WWII.
I heard a car pull into the parking lot of Cloud 9 and noticed that Eugene “Skeeze” Ward was coming to eat. Skeeze, as everyone called him was getting up there in age and starting to become pretty frail. He was having some trouble walking and if I saw him pull into the parking lot I would always assist him into the restaurant, if my daughter (and owner of the Cloud 9) Lauren, didn’t beat me to it. I think Skeeze coming to eat was second to coming to “cut up” with Lauren. He was a very jovial man, extremely polite, always with a smile on his face. He and Lauren always joked with each other. They bantered back and forth the whole time he was eating.
As soon as I helped Skeeze out of his car he noticed the Blackhawk sitting at my fuel farm. “You got some Army boys here don’t you?” he asked.
“Sure do Skeeze, I see Col. Branscum standing there talking to Lauren, let me introduce you to him,” I said.
“Col. Branscum, this is a good friend of mine and Lauren’s named Skeeze Ward he wants to meet you,” I said.
Skeeze said, “I’m a Army boy, too Colonel, World War II, served in the European Theatre.”
That totally shocked me, as I had known Skeeze for many years and had never known he served in the military. I had just never thought of this nice, jovial, polite man as a soldier. Perhaps I should have put it together with his age and how so many men that age had served in WWII but I just never put two and two together.
“Mr. Ward, would you like for me to show you the Blackhawk helicopter?” Col. Branscun asked.
A smile spread across Skeeze’s face and with a spring in his step he said, “I would love that, Colonel!”
Col. Branscum and Skeeze walked across the parking lot to the Blackhawk talking old soldier talk. Were they had been stationed, years of service and such. When they got to the helicopter Col. Branscum told Skeeze all about the Blackhawk and how it helps the troops and then he said, “Mr. Ward let me help you up into the pilot seat.”
Skeeze sat in the seat and marveled at all the gadgets, instruments and breakers in the helicopter. “These sure could have saved a lot of our men on D-Day, I was a briefer for the glider pilots on D-Day, Market Garden and such. Oh how I wish we had these back then,” he said.
I nearly lost my breath! “Skeeze, you were at D-Day?”
“I was in Merryfield, England on D-Day, that’s where our boys departed from. I was a briefer for our glider pilots that day. My job was to show them the intelligence reports of where the guns that would be shooting at the C-47’s were located, pulling the gliders into Normandy. I was safe that day, our pilots and our soldiers at best, would be doing a crash landing behind enemy lines, at worst would be shot down trying to get there.” Skeeze said.
For about three years I had been watching Skeeze and his wife walk into and out of the Cloud 9 about 3 days a week. For about five years I had been sitting in that gazebo reading about WWII and in all that time I had no idea that the history I was reading about was sitting about 100 feet away from me eating dinner. As I walked Skeeze back to Cloud 9 I told him how I liked to read about WWII and how I would like to talk to him about it.
Skeeze said, “I’ll bring you some of my photos the next time I come up to eat and we’ll talk.”
I couldn’t go back to reading, I was so dumbfounded with what had just happened. I couldn’t wait to see his photos.
A few days later Skeeze brought me an old photo album full of pictures of his adventures in the military. Since he was in army intelligence he had many official Army Air Corps reconnaissance photos of the gliders, war rooms, drop zones, British and American briefers and the English Channel. On the backs of these photos were stamped…Top Secret…Official Business Army Air Corps, and such. All writing on the backs had lines drawn through them with initials by them as they were being declassified. Skeeze said, “When D-Day was over all these top secret photos were simply dumped into the trash. The important thing now was to get a beachhead established in France as soon as possible. To push soldiers and supplies inland as quickly as possible before a counterattack. These pictures were so important to me and such a part of my life I hated to see them go to waste. I got them out of the trash and was able to save them through the war.”
Skeeze let me take some pictures to Walmart and make copies. I put up a picture of him and a display of his war pictures in the airport, I still have it up. I’m sure that made him happy because before he died he would sometimes bring people over to the airport to show them the display.
Many people who fly have military backgrounds and many people have looked at those pictures and asked questions. I consider it a memorial to Skeeze.
Not long after I put up the display, Skeeze asked me if I would take him to Lexington for a special occasion. Deauville, France is a “sister city” to Lexington and to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day they were hosting a special luncheon to honor all Kentucky D-Day veterans and he had been invited. All veterans could invite one guest and he wondered if I would like to go.
I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. The plan was to meet at his house on the next Saturday at 9:AM, or that’s what I thought he said: drive him to Lexington and return that afternoon. The Saturday of the luncheon, I ate breakfast at McDonald’s and then waited there until 8:45 before driving to Skeeze’s house.
I pride myself on being punctual, I never like to hurry or be late. When I got to his house at 8:50. Skeeze was standing by the door when I knocked and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. “You ready to go Skeeze?” I asked.
“Gary we can’t make it now, we were supposed to leave at 8:00, registeration is over at 10:30, there’s no way we can make it now,” he said.
I was certain he told me nine. I had been killing time waiting to leave. I could tell I had terribly hurt him by making him miss this luncheon. I was devastated! As much for me as for him. Then it hit me, “Skeeze you aren’t afraid to fly are you?” I asked.
“I’m not afraid to fly, no I can fly,” Skeeze said.
“Get in, we’re going to the airport, we can still make it,” I told him. Then I called my brother, Larry Joe, who was watching the airport for me and asked him to get my plane out, top-it off and get me a rental car at the Lexington airport. “I screwed up on the time Larry Joe and I need to get Skeeze to Lexington in a hurry.”
The plane and arrangements were ready when I got to Big Sandy and I got in the plane and Larry Joe helped Skeeze in. As Larry Joe shut the door he said, “Weather looks good but there’s some pretty good winds in Lexington right now, may be a bumpy ride down but it’s supposed to calm down this afternoon, be careful.”
Because I had planned on driving all along I hadn’t checked weather at all but Larry Joe gave me the weather briefing. He was right, by the time we were over Salyersville it was getting pretty bumpy. I tightened Skeeze’s seat belt and told him it’s going to be a rough ride for about 30 minutes. You OK with that?
Skeeze said, “I’ll be fine”.
As we got close to Lexington and I was talking to (ATC) air traffic control, I realized I was going to have a pretty good crosswind on landing. For most pilots who fly everyday or at least every week a 16 knot, 60 degree crosswind is not really that challenging but for me…I dreaded it. First I hadn’t flown in over a month and second I had about an eighty-five year old man on board. I knew what to do, I just had to execute it.
Tower cleared me to land on runway 4 and gave me one last wind advisory. From two miles out I was crabbing into the wind (pointing the nose into the wind and flying at an angle) like you’re supposed to do to hold runway center line. About 100 feet in the air over the runway I put in right aileron and left rudder. This makes the plane fly straight to the centerline with the right side dipped into the wind and the opposite rudder holding you straight. The perfect landing allows you to land on the right main gear first then bring the left main down and finally the nose gear as the plane gets heavy enough to stay on the runway without the wind gusts blowing you back into the air.
I was thinking to myself…do a good landing…don’t get in a hurry to get it on the ground. Everything was looking so good, I was about 5 feet over the runway centerline, right wing low, holding it for that one wheel landing….then bang. (I’ll just try to blame it on the wind!) My plane sat down like a ton of bricks. I was trying to do the softest landing I could do and ended up doing the hardest landing I had ever done. As I was taxing off the runway I looked over at Skeeze and apologized for such a hard landing.
“I’ve been in worse and we still have about 30 minutes to get there before 10:30.” Skeeze said.
The luncheon was in the Hyatt Regency ballroom. We hurried downtown and got there before 10:30 and I got valet parking and as soon as we got inside, we saw a line that reached the hotel lobby. The line worked its way into and through registration and into the ballroom, we got our assigned table.
Inside, no one was sitting down, those veterans were having a great time reliving their youth and the amazing, challenging lives they lived during the war. I’m sure 90 percent of them didn’t know one another but it was just like a family reunion, everyone was talking with everyone. This was probably the most fun these guys had had it a long time. The other guests and I mostly stood quietly and listened to every word.
The master of ceremony asked everyone to be seated and unlike other events I’ve attended, everyone quickly went to their seats. (military training must have kicked in) As soon as we were seated the MC announced the presentation of the French colors (flag). Immediately everyone of the veterans stood. I really felt stupid because I didn’t immediately think to stand for the French flag, but they knew to show their respect for their ally. Next the American flag was presented and we all were seated again.
The French delegation and the Lexington dignitaries on stage were introduced and then the Vice Mayor of Deauville, France began to speak. She told the veterans that since Deauville is a sister city to Lexington the citizens of Deauville wanted her delegation to host this luncheon to show Kentucky veterans how the people of her town still remembers the sacrifices that were made on their beaches 60 years ago, how each and every year the school children of Normandy region would be taken to the beaches and told what happened on June 6th, 1944. She said, “I’m standing here today before you as a free French woman because of you and the ones who never made it back to your beloved country.”
The room was so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop. It was a humbling experience to say the least. All the dignitaries got their turn to speak and then lunch was served. To this day I can’t remember what was served but I’ll never forget the conversations at the table. To my left was a man from Stanton who was on the second wave of Higgen’s Boats (the boats with the big door that dropped down so you can run out) that came ashore on Omaha Beach, to his left was a man from Floyd County who drove an ammunitions truck from Normandy to Germany during the war, supplying the front lines. It was so enjoyable for me to listen to those stories. You could tell that these men, when in their teens and early twenties, had done something that they knew they would never top the rest of their lives. They were proud of their service and proud of what they had accomplished.
On the way home the winds were much calmer and Skeeze and I talked about the wonderful event we had attended. He said, “I would like to pay you for your trouble, Gary, and especially for the rental car.
“Skeeze, you have no idea what an honor it was for me to take you to this event. I wouldn’t think of taking any money for this. It was such a honor to sit among you heroes and listen to those stories. It’s something I’ll never forget!” I said.
He said, “Gary, I’m no hero, that man sitting next to you at the table today from Stanton is a true hero. I was in Merryfield, England on D-Day packing to come ashore when the coast was clear. The man from Stanton was in the second wave of boats coming ashore on Bloody Omaha, he had bullets wheezing by his ears all morning that day. That man is a true hero.”
I did a much better landing at Big Sandy and Skeeze laughed when I told him, “See Skeeze, I can actually land an airplane.” On the drive back to Skeeze’s home I told him that one day I plan on vacationing to Europe and if I ever do I’ll make sure I go to Normandy. He said, “That’s a place I’ll never forget, the things I saw and the things I know happened, the people we lost, it’s a sacred place.”
Skeeze died about three years later. In 2017 I went to Europe and got to spend a day in Normandy, France. I stood on Pointe du Hoc, where Col. Rudder lead 220 Army Rangers attacking the observation post, pill boxes and where they thought the big guns were hidden to protect the English Channel. Of the 220 men attempting to take Pointe du Hoc only 90 were able to complete the mission. The rest were either killed or badly wounded. I saw the American beaches, Omaha and Utah and the British and Canadian beaches, Juno, Sword and Gold. On Omaha beach I filled a water bottle full of sand. I visited the American Cemetery with it’s almost 9,000 graves overlooking the beaches where so many of them died.
I didn’t actually know where Skeeze had been buried, but I asked around and was told he was buried at the Cassady Cemetery on Coldwater. One Sunday my wife, Rossalene and I found his grave. I had saved half the sand from Omaha Beach to display at the airport and the other half I took to put on his grave. I remember him telling me once that for every man on the front lines in WWII it took 14 men in support to keep them there. Some played more dangerous roles than others during the war. But like the book by Ray Lambert says, “Every Man A Hero”….and that’s what I said as I poured my bottle of Omaha Beach sand on a hero’s grave.
Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…Blackhawk…six…eight…six…departing the ramp…west bound…
Unicom—Thanks for coming to see us again guys…and as always…thank you for your service…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager of Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties.)