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While I was attending a conference of the Spirit of ’45 in San Diego last year, a group of participants discussed the recognition and celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and a plan for a convoy of WWII vehicles. Someone suggested a vintage motorcycle might escort the column. My name, my WWII ties and my motorcycle were mentioned, which led to a suggestion that a cross-country motorcycle trip by a WWII veteran announcing the coming of that milestone anniversary could be an effective means of highlighting the occasion.
Shortly thereafter, I was invited to ride my motorcycle from one coast to the other, making everyone on my path aware of the this significant anniversary. I would, in a sense, be a modern-day Paul Revere, but instead of shouting,“The British are coming,” I would carry a message about the anniversary, Aug. 14, 2015. While Paul Revere was on a horse, I was to be on a Hog (Harley Owners Group).
Seventy years ago, I was poised and ready to invade Japan from Okinawa, along with millions of troops. But, as if the impossible had intervened, two atomic bombs were dropped. So, with a circumstance that changed history, allowing me 70 more years to live, I set out on my Harley to remind all of our citizens of the significance of that anniversary.
My message was that we should acknowledge, memorialize and celebrate with pride our country’s success at forestalling the dictators who would have dominated the world. That we should recommit ourselves to the patriotic spirit we had 70 years ago. That we should educate our young people to understand what it takes to have a free country. That freedom is not free, and that we must stand ready to defend our country at any cost.
This was the spirit in which I set out on my mission. My motorcycle was my means of getting from point A to point B, but it had another purpose. Because I was in my 89th year, riding on two wheels and traveling 6,000 miles in 34 days, people would take note of the facts and listen to my message. Their attention would turn to seeing this ancient man and WWII veteran riding a motorcycle that far for that length of time.
The journey was scheduled for April 23 through Memorial Day, with plans made in concert with the American Legion Riders. They were to provide escorts selectively along the way. The Richmond, Virginia, American Legion Riders joined me at 8 a.m. April 23 at the Quantico Virginia Marine Base, when the flag was raised at the headquarters of the Crossroads of the Marine Corps. A video by the American Legion captured the beginning of the long ride.
Heading south with the Riders accompanying me through Virginia into North Carolina, we hooked up with the North Carolina Riders at High Point. With my new escorts leading the way, I arrived in Charlotte to meet with Harriet Thompson, a 92-year-old marathon champion, at her home. I had met her when I spoke in Times Square the previous August. After much press and TV coverage, we had dinner with a large room of senior citizens, many of whom were veterans. My leathers, unique to the setting, enhanced the conversations.
The next morning, I waited for the appointed persons to meet me. Unfortunately, there was a mixup, so they never showed up. Finally, I set out to Atlanta by myself, arriving late in the afternoon in heavy traffic with no one there to meet me. Thus, it took me three hours to reach my hotel from the suburbs. In traffic, with a motorcycle stacked high with provisions for 34 days of riding, I sweated my way with bumper-to-bumper, six- to eight-lane traffic barely moving.
Finally at my hotel, I settled down and enjoyed the evening’s rest. During that evening, after having a conversation with the person who was to take me with some other veterans to the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, I realized the weather was threatening with tornadoes and heavy rain. I soon received a call from two of the riders of the Richmond American Legion group saying they were leaving for Atlanta in a truck and a trailer. They would pick up my motorcycle and transport me for about 600 miles beyond the tornado area and the bad weather. I couldn’t believe it but thought who am I to throw cold water on such a goodwill mission as this.
With the trailer carrying the motorcycle, we traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where I was to spend time with Fran Carter, founder of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, and her daughter, Nell. But because of the weather, that meeting was canceled. I also missed Monroe, Louisiana, where I was to meet with Nell Calloway, the granddaughter of Gen. Claire Chennault. But by letter, email and phone, I was able to garner the benefits of these relationships.
I continued on to Shreveport with my escorts carrying my Harley, where I met another American Legion group. Lots of interviews with magazines and newspapers took place, and Shreveport proclaimed the day Bruce Heilman Day. There, the Richmond delegation dropped off my motorcycle and headed back to Virginia. I was then given an escort on to the road to Texas.
At Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, I laid a wreath, spoke and observed two military funerals. The flags were flying, and patriotism was in full bloom. The military and motorcyclists commingled. Then I was escorted on my way.
My next visit was to Tyler, Texas, where I was hosted by a wonderful group of enthusiastic individuals. With the time of day yet early enough, I set out for Abilene, where I overnighted before a visit to Midland and the Commemorative Air Force Base.
Next was Pecos, Texas, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I dined with the New Mexico Honor Flight organization and enjoyed the excitement of conversation about these veterans’ visits to the memorials in Washington.
Then came Yuma, Arizona, and the Marine Corps base for a night’s rest. The next morning, I was met by members of the Marines Leatherneck Motorcycle Club, who escorted me to their meeting place. A few hundred people and breakfast offered a pleasant period of relaxation before some 100 motorcycles converged to lead me into San Diego to a party at the Harley-Davidson dealership. I shared with those attending my mission and the importance of recognizing the veterans who fostered the preservation of our freedom.
The next day, I visited the aircraft carrier USS Midway, where I spoke after being met by other Marines. We laid a wreath at the cemetery at Miramar Air Station, where I was once stationed. We then visited the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, where I was in boot camp some 71 years ago.
I had committed to giving the commencement address at Campbellsville University, so I flew back to Richmond for one day to check my mail and then on to Campbellsville before continuing my journey. In the meantime, my motorcycle was undergoing a 50,000-mile service in preparation for the 3,500-mile return to the East Coast.
Together with a host of motorcyclists from the Leathernecks Motorcycle Club, who were accompanying me to the City of Lights—Las Vegas—I was again on the road. We had another party with the Harley-Davidson dealership upon arriving in Las Vegas. I spoke about my mission and emphasized the Gold Star Mothers. During WWII, for every son lost, there was a Gold Star placed in the window of the soldier’s home; some had two Gold Stars or more. I shared that we still have Gold Stars today.
I met with parents who have lost sons and daughters in recent wars, who have Gold Stars in their windows. I talked to young people in schools and colleges about the Gold Star.
After a night at the famous Bally Hotel, I was up bright and early the next morning to meet another host of riders to escort me to Denver. We overnighted in Grand Junction after 500 miles, where I had breakfast with some of today’s Gold Star parents.
Everywhere I went, I met with the press and spoke a number of times off the cuff—short messages because people wanted to hear from me. In Denver, I was greeted with two days of press coverage and met with veterans there. A police escort led me out of Denver the next day.
I then traveled to Nebraska, where I rode through pouring rain for several hours. The rain subsided as I reached Iowa, where I stayed overnight to meet the governor the following morning. That meeting proved to be a delightful experience.
After meeting the governor, I moved on to Marseilles, Indiana to meet Diane Nowak of the Dignity Memorial organization. We had a high school band and parade, and I was able to share my story. Next, I went to Indianapolis, where I visited the American Legion Headquarters. I also visited the Indianapolois Motor Speedway and met Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indy 500 in 2014 and 2015.
From Indianapolis, I was escorted to Cincinnati, where Bruce Heilman Day was observed. I spoke at a dinner that evening where my daughter, Terry, joined us.
From there, I traveled to Louisville. As in many cities I visited, I was met by the highway patrol as well as those on motorcycles who escorted me toward LaGrange, where the LaGrange Police and Louisville Highway Patrol met me at the Jefferson/Oldham County line. A proclamation was read by Mayor Paul “Joe” Davenport and another from Oldham County Judge-Executive David Voegele. A luncheon at the Historical Society provided a speaking opportunity, after which I visited with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and had dinner with a group there. It was just like old-home week being in Louisville and LaGrange, where I knew my way around and saw old friends.
Then the next day, I headed for Richmond, Virginia, where I wanted to unload the heavy weight off my motorcycle before going on to Washington, D.C., and the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally and Memorial Day parade, the culmination of my ride as a modern-day Paul Revere. In Washington, I laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and also at the WWII veterans memorial, after which I rode my motorcycle at the head of the motorcycles in the Memorial Day parade.
Along my journey, I met so many warm and friendly people and engaged in so many activities with receptive people and warm spirits. Some of the younger people thought I was cool, being a WWII veteran, while some of the older people thought I was crazy. But it was a grand adventure, and I am happy to share it wherever I go. By ending the war, we terminated the killing that was transpiring everywhere.