Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…two UH-60 helicopters…6 miles to the north…inbound for landing…
Unicom—Perfect timing guys…winds calm…could I get a fly-by….
I’m a long way from Wolf Creek
I guess that’s true with most people, too, life gets in the way of reality and things don’t go as planned. But, that’s not true with the first D-Day dinner I planned at the airport in 2009.arely do I ever plan an event and it turns out exactly how I plan it.
Some people reading this story may remember the story I did on taking Eugene “Skeeze” Ward to Lexington in 2004 for Deauville France’s 60th anniversity D-Day appreciation dinner, held at the Hyatt Regency ballroom for Kentucky WWII veterans of the Normandy invasion. Skeeze asked me to escort him and I couldn’t have said yes any quicker.
I’m not a procrastinator by nature but after returning from that dinner in Lexington and wanting to thank Skeeze for taking me to it, I kept mulling over the idea about doing a similar dinner at the airport for our local WWII veterans. I saw first hand how special that day was to those men in Lexington and I knew that would be the same with our local WWII veterans. Honoring our local men in a similar way would be the best thing I could do to show Skeeze my appreciation for taking me to that event in Lexington.
I waited too long, my friend Skeeze passed away in 2007 but my idea of having the dinner never died. I had a conflict in June the following year but in 2009, D-Day fell on a Saturday and I told myself if I was ever going to do it, now is the time. I asked the local papers in Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties (the counties that own our airport) to print a story inviting all WWII veterans to the airport at noon on Saturday, June 6th 2009. I had no idea how many would attend. It was just something I felt I had to do.
My plan was to follow the pattern of the Lexington dinner and have a ‘meet and greet’ at the airport and then have lunch for the veterans and their guests at the Cloud 9 Cafe’. Only a couple of days after my story appeared in the Floyd County Times, Mary Ann Hall, from Allen, KY, and a regular ‘after church’ customer at Cloud 9 Cafe’ came over to the airport to ask me about the D-Day dinner I had planned.
Mary Ann said, “Now, Gary, I really like your idea about the dinner for WWII veterans. I go to church with several veterans of WWII and I plan on telling them about your dinner. I also would like to volunteer to help you do this. I’m old enough to remember what it was like during those days. I was just a little girl then but I remember watching mothers crying and hugging their boys as they were leaving for the army. I still remember how scared everyone was during the war, not knowing how things were going with the fighting. I remember how all the people back home were wanting to help any way they could. I wanted to help, too, I was too little to do much but I still wanted to help. If it’s OK with you, I would like to help you with the dinner.”
“Of course Mary Ann, I would welcome your help.”
“I have a sister who lives in Paintsville and she wants to help, too. We have been thinking about this a couple of days and we think you need to do some kind of program before the dinner. You need to say a few words and such and we need to honor these men in some way. I will start sending out letters to the nursing homes and contact some of the people we know. Is that OK?” Mary Ann said.
I could tell that Mary Ann, who I had known for a few years, was really getting into this idea about the dinner. I absolutely welcomed her help, too. It was easy to tell that the war years not only deeply affected our service men but family and friends back home as well.
A few days later Mary Ann called again and said, “Now, Gary, I have a nephew from Winchester and he has a friend who has a bunch of WWII memorabilia, he takes his things to WWII reenactments. He has already told me he would come if you invited him.”
“Mary Ann what does that cost?”
“Doesn’t cost anything, I already asked him, he does it for free. I’m sure these guys will get a kick out of that.”
“Me, too, Mary Ann. I will invite him.”
Things were coming together pretty well. I decided we would do a flag raising and I invited the AmVets post in Martin County to the dinner and to raise the flag. My niece, Lakean Duff, had been singing the national anthem at some of the high school games and said she would come and sing during the flag raising. I still didn’t know how many would actually come, I guessed I might have 15 to 20 veterans, plus one guest for each.
On the Saturday of the event the guy with the WWII memorabilia showed up early with a whole trailer full of great stuff. Old uniforms (both German and American), guns, daggers, pictures, a captured Japanese flag, dummy grenades, all kinds of neat things. He even had a flag that flew over the Lexington army depot during the war which only had 48 stars on it. That was the first time I had ever seen a real flag without 50 stars.
In my story sent to the local papers inviting them to the dinner I asked people to bring any memorabilia they might want to share. Soon my parking lot was full of veterans and they did bring pictures and newspaper articles from the war. I could see I needed more tables and chairs than I had anticipated. HealthNet, the medical helicopter group located on the field, brought over a bunch of chairs and more folding tables, too.
The veterans and their guests really enjoyed looking at the memorabilia the re-enactor had brought and the pictures and newspaper articles the local families had brought. The guys were walking around shaking hands, talking to each other, I could tell they were having a great time, I got the greatest satisfaction knowing that I, with a lot of help, had recreated the scene I had witnessed in Lexington at their D-Day dinner.
We did have a problem though, we had such a large crowd we couldn’t feed all of them at the same time. I had 36 veterans and each brought one guest, plus the AmVets, plus the re-enactor, plus my helpers. Cloud 9 only seats 64 people so my daughter Lauren (who owns Cloud 9 Cafe’) and I decided to feed them in two groups.
I told everyone we would have to eat in two shifts and no one seemed to mind. I think they were actually more interested in talking than eating anyway. Before the meal though I wanted to do the flag raising. When I took my flag down that morning I noticed that it was starting to wear a little and I didn’t have a new one to put back up but WWII veteran Custer Picklesimer of Paintsville had brought me a new American flag and gave it to me when he introduced himself earlier, the flag was a gift to me for putting on the event. See the pattern of how everything was just falling in place during the event? It gets even better. I asked all the veterans and guests in the hangar to step outside for the flag raising. Lakean, dressed in a pretty red, white and blue dress was ready to sing the national anthem and the AmVets, dressed in their white uniforms were ready to hoist the new American flag and at the moment we gathered around the flag pole, over the unicom loudspeaker a UH60 Blackhawk helicopter called in, “Big Sandy unicom, flight of two UH60 helicopters inbound from the north for fuel.” The helicopters were from the National Guard Unit in Parkersburg, WV. I told the pilot what we were doing and requested a ‘fly-by’ from the helicopters.
The pilot, who I knew, said, “Roger, two UH60 Blackhawk helicopters executing ‘low approach’ from runway 21 Big Sandy.” The helicopters flew full speed down the runway, one in front of the other, pulled up and did a climbing tight turn back around and landed on the taxiway. It impressed everyone watching. Helicopters weren’t around during WWII but the Blackhawk helicopters represented the power and might of the United States military, the same military these veterans represented as well.
I parked the Blackhawks by the fuel farm and told them we were about to do a flag raising in honor of the WWII veterans. The National Guard pilots and crew, dressed in camouflage uniforms lined up and stood at attention, saluting the flag, the WWII veterans followed suit and started saluting, the AmVets started saluting and the rest of us placed our hands over our hearts as Lakean beautifully sang the national anthem. Oh, how I wished someone had filmed that moment, it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Lauren had the food ready and I finally got half of them over to eat, the National Guard guys ate with some of the veterans and the others sat and talked in the hangar. What stories I got to hear from our local veterans. Mr. Picklesimer had brought a framed newpaper from the Paintsville Herald with a story of him and three of his brother all serving in WWII. Bert Farley of Martin County brought pictures of the ship he served on during the war. My neighbor in Warfield for many years, Glen Copley brought pictures of places he had been in Germany.
Willard Kinzer, who owns Kinzer Drilling, came to me and in an excited voice said, “Gary I need to know who brought that picture with the ship in the background. I need to talk to him, I recognize that ship!”
I said, “Mr. Kinzer, that belongs to a good friend of mine, Bert Farley, from Wolf Creek in Martin County, let me introduce you to him.” Bert and Willard were inseparable the rest of the afternoon. They found out that they were in the same harbor in the South Pacific at the same time during the war. That ship in the background was an ammunition ship kept at the mouth of the harbor in case of sabotage. That same ship was torpedoed one night by the Japanese and two guys from Eastern Kentucky, halfway around the world from home, were there to witness the massive fireball from the explosion. Mr. Kinzer was supposed to be pulling guard duty that same night on that ship but by the grace of God was replaced only seconds before he was to board it. All on board died that night. Bert and Willard planned to meet at Willard’s office the following week and reminisce about their experiences. Bert later told me they talked almost all day about their service and that they had actually followed about the same pathes during the war.
My former neighbor in Warfield, Glen Copley, told me that taking a typewriter class at Warfield High School may have saved him from being on the front lines during the war. Because he was pretty good at typing he was assigned to a medical group. His job was documenting the dead and wounded during the war. He said during the push across France after D-Day the army took possession of a hospital in a small town in the French countryside to treat their wounded from the front lines. Glen said, “I was sitting at a desk by the front door typing one evening when the door burst open, all of a sudden three officers came walking toward me, one was General George C. Patton!”
Gen. Patton in a very agitated voice said, “Where is your commanding officer?”
Glen said he stood at attention, saluted and said, “I don’t know, sir!”
Gen. Patton said, “Damn it, you should know, now you take me to him!”
Glen was so relieved that when he got to the top of the stairs they ran into his CO and he returned to his desk. When he heard the general ready to come back down the stairs he slipped into a room behind his desk so not to have to face him again. “Very intimidating man!”, Glen said.
Another WWII soldier and friend of mine, Aaron “A” Hale of Wolf Creek, came with his nephew, Bobby Hale. Most people on Wolf Creek called him Uncle A. He was a proud member of the United States Marine Corp. and also served in the Pacific Theatre. Aaron served in Guam and China during the war, he told me of his experience of pulling guard duty one night in the jungle. Aaron said, “We were pretty deep in the jungle and doing mop up work trying to locate the Japanese who were still giving us trouble. We had eliminated almost all of their capabilities to do much damage but they were still picking off some of our men and we were trying to get them. The Japanese soldiers didn’t quit. We were exhausted and needing rest, the plan was to stage a camp for some needed rest. It was my night to pull guard duty. Myself and about a dozen other men formed a protection ring about 200 yards around the camp. Our captain ordered no fires, no lights, no talking, at dusk everyone except the guards were to sleep.”
“It sure gets dark deep in the jungle, with the heavy canopy of trees you couldn’t even see but one or two stars. In total darkness you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. With my back to a tree for protection and knowing I had a fellow marine about 200 feet on each side of me I settled in for the long night ahead. Your sense of hearing sure improves when you are scared and can’t see anything. Your sense of smell does, too. I could hear every insect making noise in the darkness and every so often I could hear what sounded like a stick breaking on the jungle floor. Was that an animal or a Japanese soldier? My heart would beat so loud I could hear that, too.”
“The night seemed to last forever but just before dawn I started wishing I was back on Wolf Creek, climbing a hill and waiting on dawn so I could kill some squirrels. Then I heard another scary noise and I thought, I’m a long way from Wolf Creek, I’m half way around the world from Wolf Creek and I started praying for that sun to come up and my guard duty to be over.”
One thing all five of these men I mentioned had in common, they were all kind, humble, compassionate men. I don’t know how they were in their late teens or early twenties but in their ‘golden years’ they were much more likely to help someone, than to harm someone.
With everyone’s help we got them fed and everything cleaned up. We all gathered back at the hangar to watch the Blackhawks leave to fly back to Parkersburg. I think just about everyone of them came up and shook my hand, thanked me for lunch and the chance to reminisce again. Mr. Picklesimer’s wife said, “This was so nice to see everyone again, do you have any plans to do this again sometime?”
I really hadn’t planned on doing another dinner but since this one went so well, and I had enjoyed myself so much (and it really wasn’t all that hard to pull off), I told them that as long as I was running the airport, every D-Day at noon, all WWII veterans and one escort has an open invitation to meet at Cloud 9 Cafe’ for lunch, on me.
The numbers have dwindled over the years, from 2009 to 2019 Mary Ann and I organized ten straight dinners, we canceled 2020 and 2021 due to Covid. Mr. Kinzer is still with us but the other four men I mentioned have passed away. Mary Ann Hall passed away this past winter as well. D-Day will be on Monday, June 6th this year. If you are reading this and know any WWII veterans, lunch will be waiting for them on at noon.
Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…two UH-60 helicopters…departing from the ramp to the north… thank you for such a wonderful day….and lunch…
Unicom—thank you for your service guys…God speed…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)