Dorothy LeClair, an Army nurse during World War II, holds a photo of herself, left, and her husband, Carl LeClair, who served in the Army during World War II. North Country Honor Flights is transporting local veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the World War II memorial there.
KEESEVILLE — They are the kind of memories that don’t fade over time.
Merwin Cowles, Second Marine Division, described the noise—the roar of the planes overhead, the rattling of the machine guns—as if he had just been there.
Cowles was stationed in Saipan during World War II with the Amphibious Corp. He fought in the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa Island in 1945.
“I often still dream about the war, situations where my buddies were killed in combat,” Cowles said. “When your buddy gets killed right beside you, you just sigh and keep on going.”
You have to keep on going, because for every soldier lost there are many more who are relying on you.
There’s no time to grieve.
“The first trip in, you’re not afraid because you don’t know what to expect,” Cowles said. “From the second trip on, you’re a little more careful. You realize you might not come back.”
It was Cowles’ job to transport squads of men from a ship to land in an amphibious tractor.
The tractor was also armed—it had two machine guns in the back and one in the front that were used for defense, or to take out machine gun nests.
It also transported fresh water and food to the battlefield.
After dropping the soldiers off, Cowles would pick up wounded men and take them back to the hospital ship.
“I was no hero,” Cowles said. “We just did our jobs.”
It is clear as Cowles speaks that he believes that, too—that he and his fellow World War II veterans were just doing a job that needed to be done.
On May 29, 2004, the first-ever memorial to World War II veterans was dedicated to the honor of those who fought in that war.
One year later, the Honor Flight Network brought 12 World War II veterans from Ohio to see the memorial.
It would be the first of many such flights.
On Saturday, May 18, North Country Honor Flights will bring its first group of veterans to the memorial, and Cowles will be among them.
“I almost see the guys that got killed and hurt,” Cowles said. “I have that feeling that they’re there, and I’m there. It (visiting the memorial) is something that is most necessary in my life.”
Danny Kaifetz is the director of North Country Honor Flights, which is a part of the larger Honor Flight Network.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about them. This is the best way to honor them.”
Currently, North Country Honor Flights has two flights scheduled—one on May 18 and the other June 15. There will be two more in the fall, but the dates have yet to be determined.
The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization, so it relies on contributions and volunteers to fund the flights.
To that end, the North Country Honor Flight held its second annual Cabin Fever party at the VFW in Keeseville on Saturday, March 2.
Chicken dinner sales, raffles and an auction helped raise money to send five veterans on the upcoming honor flights.
For many of them, it will be their first time seeing the memorial, but some have been there before.
John West, a former Navy Seabee, visited the memorial as part of a senior bus tour about three years ago.
“The Seabees were all men with experience, guys in their 40s,” West said. “We did a lot of concrete work for ammunition dumps. We made a lot of 36-inch, reinforced concrete walls.”
The Seabees, which is a play on “C.B.”, for Construction Battalion, often went into a region first to clear the way for the rest of the troops.
West said the World War II memorial is important for all the vets to see, and praised Honor Flights for making it happen.
Sitting in the VFW during the Cabin Fever event, he looked around the room, and began pointing out people he knew from his time in the war.
“It’s funny, you know,” he began. “There’s just so many of us.”
Kimberly Bouissey, guardian coordinator for North Country Honor Flights, knows a few vets, too.
Her father was in the Airforce for 24 years, and her son is currently in the Army Special Forces.
“I’ve been a teacher for 13 years, and for the last 10 years I’ve been involved with veterans,” Bouissey said. “All of my veterans are like a family.”
Each Honor Flight guardian travels to the memorial with two vets.
“I can’t even describe the joy it gives me,” Bouissey said. “I feel honored every time I meet one. I could win the lottery and it wouldn’t fill me up as much.”
Bouissey said that getting to know the vets is also a constant source of inspiration for her.
“They’re the reason we have this country, and to them it’s just a job,” Bouissey said.
But not everyone in World War II performed the job they signed up for.
Dorothy LeClair, a former Army nurse, was stationed at the now-closed Pilgrim State Hospital in Long Island for eight months.
LeClair put down orthopedics and surgery as her choices for duty, but she was put into psychiatry because that’s what was needed most at the time.
”The doctors we had, they were not psychiatrists, they were general doctors,” LeClair said. “A lot of them were not up to doing it. When you’re delivering babies, and all of a sudden you’re in psychiatry, that’s bad.”
Most of the patients LeClair saw were only 18 or 19 years old, and she spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to help them.
She said a lot of the patients wanted to see the doctors, but, oftentimes, the doctors didn’t realize how much help the patients needed.
“We had one patient, he was 19 years old,” LeClair said. “I’ll never forget him. He sat by the doctor’s door for two days; he just didn’t move from there. And then all of a sudden, he got out in the hall and he took a running start and slammed his head right into the radiator. He died right there.”
Like many of the other vets, LeClair will be visiting the memorial for the first time.
She is happy for the opportunity to see it, and for the chance it will give her to reflect on her time serving in the war.
“It’s going to bring back so many memories,” LeClair said. “What they’ve done here is just so wonderful.”