AUGUSTA — Today marks the 100th anniversary of World War I's conclusion, and the focus on Saturday for a group of local veterans was on another of the 20th century's greatest calamities.
World War II veterans mostly from around the CSRA gathered for a gourmet luncheon at Augusta Country Club, sharing fellowship and a few memories from 70-plus years ago.
"It was one of the best – if not the best – affairs I've been to in a long time," said Fred Gehle, a history enthusiast who has worked with hundreds of WWII veterans over the past decade to record their memories in print and on video.
"Everybody seemed extremely compatible," he added, noting that the guests represented Aiken, Modoc, North Augusta, Belvedere and several Georgia communities.
Some of the 10 guests of honor, such as Modoc resident Jim Bennie, saw some of the war from aloft. Bennie served in the Army Air Corps – the Air Force's predecessor – with a Chinese-American composite group, as a mechanic dealing with P-40 and P-51 fighters. His military career grew to include working on bombers and stretched for a total of 30 years.
Tom Clark, also of North Augusta, focused on the ocean, serving in the Navy, based in Jacksonville, Florida, as a mechanic on a blimp that searched for German submarines. He went on to work for 39 years at the Savannah River Plant.
Thoroughly grounded was Belvedere resident George Trusler. He saw combat as a Marine in the course of a military career that ran for 20 years. His action came in such locales as Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa.
The diners' backgrounds included action in a variety of scenarios, such as Operation Market Garden (largely known through the movie "A Bridge Too Far"), service on a destroyer chasing Yamamoto (the world's largest battleship), Battle of the Bulge, meeting Russians at the Elbe River, liberating prisoners of war in the Philippines and service in England with a plan to shoot down German paratroopers who were expected as a possible reaction to landings in Normandy.
Each veteran came with a family member or other helper. Among the more spry vets was Aiken resident Earl Hite, 97.
He later recalled, "I've been pretty quiet on my military thing. For maybe 20 years, I didn't want to talk about it, so now, at my age, I guess it's all coming back, and I thought today was a mighty good deal."
Hite served in the Army, in Europe, doing reconnaissance operations with a division that was particularly loaded with troops from Tennessee.
Recalling some of his elderly neighbors – "Air Force men" – from the Saturday event, he said, "They was way above me. I guess they was probably officers or something. I wound up an old, mean sergeant, and I think them fellows that were here today was probably officers. They seemed to be a good and a nice group of fellows, all of them."
Some of the diners' wartime memories have been recorded over the past several years, largely through Gehle's efforts in association with the Augusta Richmond County Historical Society. The results have included a book titled "In Their Own Words: Augusta and Aiken Area Veterans Remember World War II," and also a companion video: "War Stories: Augusta Area Veterans Remember World War II."
Gehle, an Augusta resident, grew up in New Jersey and was 8 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, so his wartime memories are from childhood, having come largely via newspapers and radio.
Saturday conversations touched on such topics as Iwo Jima, Japanese bayonets, war souvenirs, firearms of choice, K-rations and what the post-war decades have brought.
Hite, looking back, said, "I was lucky with my health, because I didn't drink, I didn't smoke and I come from a farm."
He recalled being assigned by his father to hunt squirrels for breakfast and being given two bullets, with the expectation to bring back two squirrels. Years later, he came to appreciate the talents of some of his fellow soldiers from farms and tiny communities – "the nicest bunch of guys from all over the United States, and they was wonderful fellows."
Remembering fellow soldiers from Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Iowa, he said, "Them's good soldiers. All them boys is. They knew how to rough it. They was farm boys, most of them."
Hite's Georgia neighbors at Saturday's gathering included Augusta resident Hiram "Pete" Cartee, who served in the Navy; Augusta resident Ernest Riley, Army; Evans resident Tony Ferrara, an Army paratrooper; Augusta resident Joe Gwaltney, Army; Augusta resident Emory Sayer, Army Air Corps; and Statesboro resident Bob Scherer, Army.