Originally created 05/25/04

Georgians to see World War II Memorial



ATLANTA - Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Richard Echols was the captain of an escort boat that shot down Kamikaze pilots during the invasion of Okinawa, Japan.

Platoon Sgt. Eugene Baker was part of the 101st Army Airborne division that parachuted over Utah Beach in Normandy during D-Day.

Tech. Sgt. Hank Arnold didn't see much action as a mail handler at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, but he delivered many of the top-secret correspondences that would shape the war.

They are among 20 World War II veterans in Georgia who have been selected to receive a special gift: an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., this weekend for the dedication of the national World War II Memorial.

The state American Legion arranged the trip and raised about $20,000 through donations to pay for the veterans' transportation, lodging and spending money.

Because the state Legion couldn't afford to send every one of its 244 World War II veteran members to the long-awaited event, the names of 20 were selected from a bingo tumbler at the spring convention in March.

Fund-raising for the trips started last fall. Through enthusiastic donations from within the organization, the state Legion raised $1,000 for each veteran to pay for transportation, three nights of hotel accommodations and $650 spending money.

"We didn't need a raffle or anything for this," said Charlie Knox, the Legion's state adjutant.

Mr. Arnold, who has made donations over the years toward the memorial's construction, will be sitting toward the front during the dedication.

"You know, we're known as the greatest generation," said Mr. Arnold, who will turn 83 on Independence Day, "not that we're any better than anyone else, but we went through a lot of things."

Mr. Baker, 80, of Blackshear, Ga., who saw the war from beginning to end, said he considers himself blessed that he wasn't among the more than 400,000 U.S. soldiers killed.

"There's a lot of things I wanted to forget about that war - and I did - but I never forgot my friends I left over there," he said.

Mr. Baker remembers broad aspects of his involvement in the war - especially the day in Berchtesgaden, Austria, when he learned he was going home - but specifics seem to escape him.

He remembers missing the landing targets at Utah Beach, along with many other Airborne paratroopers storming Normandy.

"It seemed like it was a goofed-up affair, but it turned out well after all," he said.

It might seem strange that a man attempting to forget much about the war would drive 600 miles to an event staged to remember it, but Mr. Baker said neither his nor any soldier's personal experiences are the memorial's intended focus.

"The nation needs this," Mr. Baker said, "if for nothing else than to make people stop and think about how we got here and where we're going."

Mr. Echols, 79, of Marietta, Ga., hasn't forgotten much at all about World War II. He remembers greasing the 40 mm cannons used to protect U.S. destroyers from suicide pilots.

"They came over with the intention of destroying and dying and not going back home," Mr. Echols said.

He remembers most the morning he heard U.S. forces had attacked Hiroshima. About three weeks later, his boat was one of several U.S. and British ships in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally signed the Instruments of Surrender on board the USS Missouri.

"We could see them signing the document," Mr. Echols said.

While the state Legion offered to drive them to Washington in vans, Mr. Baker, Mr. Echols and Mr. Arnold are going on their own. Mr. Arnold is flying with a friend and fellow veteran from Statesboro, Ga., and Mr. Baker is driving with his wife, Margaret, whom he married while stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., during the war.

He and Mrs. Baker plan on stopping to visit a friend and veteran Mr. Baker hasn't seen in almost 50 years.

Mr. Echols, who also is flying, said he is grateful he was among the veterans chosen to make the trip, but he would have made the trip anyway. He said he's fortunate because many of his friends didn't live long enough to see the national memorial come to fruition.

"We really haven't received the recognition that some wars have," he said. "I was going to Washington whether I'd gotten this trip from the Legion or not."