April 8 2013

Dearest Old Bolds, Friends, and Family,

On Friday, we had another training day in Oklahoma City. During the training, I introduced Charley, creating a ripple of murmurs throughout the audience, as it had in Little Rock. Charley is definitely enjoying Rock Star status this entire trip, as everyone knows and is in awe of Africa Corps and Rommel.

As in Little Rock, where our police guys were eager to meet Charley and have their pictures taken with him, one of our law enforcement participants came to Charley, who was sitting with me in the back, and shook his hand. He added, "Thank you for serving your country."  He had no idea how that one sentence could affect Charley, who could not contain his deep emotion.

It's important to explain that as impossible as it is for us to imagine, Charley had never heard anyone in Germany in the last 70 years say that to him. And now, the people of his former enemy were showing him the honor and respect he does not receive at home.

As Americans, it is very difficult for us to understand the type of pain German WW2 veterans endure every day. Germans can't really understand our devotion to our veterans (and those former enemies who honorably served their own countries). Not until they experience it first hand.

Charley, and all WW2 veterans in Germany, suffer greatly from a population that does not want to hear their stories, does not honor their service, and who sometimes call them murderers and physically attack them. Perhaps our Vietnam veterans understand best.

But while every year Vietman veterans have experienced improvement in their status in the US, and Americans realize that no matter how one feels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we all support our troops, things in Germany continue to deteriorate for WW2 veterans year after year. Even the Knight's Cross (US equiv. - Medal of Honor) association is not allowed to mix with active duty servicemen in the Bundeswehr and struggles to find a hotel to host them every year. The hotels fear protestors may come and throw rocks through their windows and otherwise damage their premises or reputation, and sometimes under pressure or threat cancel days before a reunion takes place.

The national tank reunion I attend in Germany every year takes place on an army base, I'm sure at least partly, if not wholly, to keep these 90+-year-old men safe while they honor their fallen comrades.

Here, Charley is overwhelmed by media eager to hear his story. He has people who want to shake his hand, have his autograph or their picture with him or hug him. People have offered to adopt him. And he's experienced Americans - men and women - who cry with him when they hear how German veterans are treated in their own country. This usually causes a chain reaction, and I find myself amidst a whole crowd of weeping people.

On Saturday, we drove with George Cone (our Dallas historian extraordinaire friend) to Alva, Oklahoma, the most famous (or infamous) POW camp in the US, where Charley resided in 1943-44. There I had to keep feeding Charley snacks for lunch because none of the museum staff, reporters, or locals wanted to let him out of their sight for a minute (I'm starting realize I need to always have food and water on hand for him for this reason).

After answering questions at the museum, and finding a picture of an old friend in Africa uniform hanging amidst dozens of prisoner photos on the wall, we drove to the site of the camp, where the last remaining building now fittingly serves as a Veterans of Foreign Wars clubhouse.

We were met there by the head of the VFW, a Sherman tank veteran of Korea. As we looked around the site and over the land where the camp once stood, these combat veterans quickly bonded. At the end of our visit, both men saluted each other with deep honor and respect as shutters clicked from every direction. There was not a dry eye to be found.

I was hoping Charley would take a break to rest that evening. But after hearing there was a college bull-riding competition at the fairgrounds on
the site of his former camp, we found ourselves back in the thick of the action in a packed viewing stand that night.

At our Bed and Breakfast in the morning, our hostess was amazed by Charley.  Her 14-year-old son and his friend begged Charley to stay and go to school with them, where they wanted him to set up a chair and have him speak to the school the entire day.

After an emotional goodbye, we ventured back to Oklahoma City, where we stopped at the airport where the Collings Foundation WW2 bombers and fighters were flying for the weekend. As a WW2 veteran, Charley was waved through without paying, and George and I, his entourage, were allowed to accompany him.

Everywhere we turned we were deluged by people eager to meet him, shake his hand, and hug him. They wanted his autograph. They wanted him in a picture with their young children. Some burst into tears when he was overwhelmed by their respect, admiration, and affection.

I thought this trip was about research for a book on Charley. But that's only half true.

More importantly, this has turned out to be Charley's Honor Flight.

The one that helps heal his soul and soften the bitter pill of daily degradation that he must bear at home.

From a hotel in Dallas, where I sit in amazement of it all,



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