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Honor Flight South Carolina affords Maltese, Vincent chance of a lifetime

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Honor Flight South Carolina affords Maltese, Vincent chance of a lifetime

By Greg Summers

When 100 of South Carolina’s World War II veterans fly to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15 to tour the monument placed there in their honor, two Lancaster men will be among them. John Maltese, 86, of Indian Land and L.J. Vincent, 92, of Kershaw were selected for the very first Honor Flight South Carolina. They will visit several landmarks, including the National World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital.  The purpose of the nonprofit Honor Flight South Carolina is to fly veterans like Maltese and Vincent to and from the memorial free of charge. Because of their advanced age, many of them don’t have the financial means to visit it. Others have special needs, so the planes will be equipped with wheelchairs, a doctor and staff. Attendants – called guardians – are paying $500 each to escort the veterans on the one-day flight to Washington, D.C., from Columbia. So far, Honor Flight South Carolina has raised more than $50,000 and hopes to raise more than $300,000 to pay for six flights so that Palmetto State veterans who haven’t seen the monument have an opportunity to do so. Applications are available at the Web site, www.honorflightsc.com. Each day, about 1,400 World War II veterans die, most without ever visiting the memorial erected to honor their service and sacrifice.  There are about 3 million World War II veterans alive today, but it is expected that almost all of them will be gone within the next 10 years.  The youngest World War II veterans are now 78 years old. Maltese flies to help map out China Maltese served in the Army Air Corps 24th Mapping Squadron from 1942 to  1946 during World War II. “This country was in big trouble and we went in,” Maltese said of enlisting with two of his childhood friends.  However, they were assigned to different military branches and different jobs, based on their skills. “You went where they put you,” said Maltese, a radio operator and top turret gunner who rose to the rank of staff sergeant. He also received a somewhat unusual assignment when he was tabbed for the flight crew of one of the 12 B-24s that mapped China from Tibet to its coast. “We did it one plane at the time,” said Maltese, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after the war. “We had several close calls, including some that were so close you couldn’t swallow, but that’s what they trained us for,” he said. “War really is a young man’s sport. I know when you’re young, you can handle what you are up against a lot better.” Maltese’s wife, Lyra, said she wrote to Honor Flight to tell them about her husband’s service record after seeing a program about it on PBS.  “I thought it was cool,” John Maltese said, laughing. “After being married for more than 40 years, she still does some crazy things.” Vincent escapes captors first time Vincent, a squad leader, served in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry (“The Big Red One”) and was attached to the “Fighting First” during the invasion on North Africa (Operation Torch) in 1942.  Vincent, who was 25 at the time of the landing, considered himself as one of the lucky ones. “I had some good training for about six months and then three more months in the British Isles, where some of the guys were just out of basic training when we landed,” Vincent said. “To be honest, I never had a chance to learn  many names and a lot of them were gone before I could.” That training came in handy when Vincent and two others were captured after fierce fighting in February 1943. “We attempted to escape the same night we were captured,” he said. “I was the only one who made it. I never saw those other two guys again.” After the German “Afrika Korps” surrendered in May 1943, Vincent’s unit had a new assignment.   The Big Red One was redeployed in July for the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky). Ten days later, Vincent was taken prisoner again. He was moved to Stalag IIB, just west of Hammerstein, Germany, and then to Stalag IIIB near Furstenberg.  “I never got the chance to get away,” he said. “They got us out of there and behind enemy lines in a hurry.” Assigned to the stalags’ working farm because of his farming experience, Vincent said he felt blessed. “When you look at the Bataan Death March and what soldiers there went through, it’s hard not to feel that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, nobody wants to be taken prisoner, but given a choice, I would’ve rather been captured by the Germans instead of the Japanese.”     Assigned to the stalags’ working farm, Vincent said he was able to sneak a few extra potatoes into the barracks at night for the soldiers to share. “Other than that, all we got each day was about a cup of boiled barley,” he said. “I didn’t smoke and traded my cigarettes for food because the Germans really liked American cigarettes for some reason.” Vincent remained a prisoner of war for 21 months. In April 1945, the camps were overrun by Russian troops and POWs were freed. “I feel blessed,” he said. “I always have.”    About Honor Flight Ohio physician’s assistant and retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse is credited with starting Honor Flight in 2004. Morse started the grassroots movement by flying veterans one by one to see the National World War II Memorial in a small plane. When word of what Morse was doing got out, other pilots joined in the effort. Now the movement has grown into a network with 73 hubs in 30 states. Organizers hope to have hubs in every state by the end of the year. Leading the charge in South Carolina are restaurateur Bill Dukes Jr., Medal of Honor recipient Charles Murray and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. Dukes was inspired to starts a Midlands area Honor Flight chapter to honor  his father, Bill Dukes Sr., who served as a U.S. Army sergeant during World War II. The elder Dukes fought with the Army’s 81st “Wildcat” Infantry Division in the Pacific theater and was wounded by a grenade during the battle of Peleliu.  Bauer’s grandfather, retired Navy Rear Adm. Rudolf Charles Bauer, was executive officer on the USS Midway and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. “I’ve been very impressed by what they are doing,” Maltese said. “They are very organized and I think the flights are filling out. We’ve been to Washington a couple of times, but that was a long time before anybody ever had a thought of putting the memorial up.” Veterans will visit the World War II Memorial and place flags by the South Carolina pillar.  They will also visit the Vietnam, Lincoln and U.S. Marine Corps (Iwo Jima) memorials and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a changing of the guard ceremony during the day-long trip.    “I know it’s going to be a long day, but I’m looking forward to it. There’s a 98-year-old (veteran) going with us, too, and I figure if he can handle it, I can. I’m very excited,” Maltese said. So is Vincent. “It means a lot,” he said. “Especially at my age.” Local stone part of National World War II monument Georgia Stone Industries is Kershaw supplied more than 18,000  tons of granite used for the vertical elements of the National World War II Memorial. The quarry is located near the border of Lancaster and Kershaw counties.  The granite was sent by rail car to North Kingston, R.I., where it was cut and shaped into more than 1,700 pieces and then used in the building of the permanent tribute that takes up 7.4 acres at the Rainbow Pool between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Local stone part of National World War II monument