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WWII veterans honored

Along a gauntlet of “Welcome back” and “Thank you,” five Bainbridge World War II veterans were greeted Saturday night at the Dothan airport after having been treated to an Honor Flight to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“It was great,” said T.P. Bryant, 88. “It was all so good. It was like a storybook.”

Bryant, Bennie Brookins, Jack Gray, Spencer “Onion” Davis and Frances Lee accepted invitations to join about 80 other World War II veterans from Southwest Georgia, Florida and Alabama in being treated to a flight to the nation’s capital to see the memorial.

The veterans were also taken to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard.

When they left Saturday morning at 5, they were sent off as heroes. Soldiers from Fort Rucker, Ala., in a show of respect, held an umbrella over each veteran’s head during the rain as they entered the plane for Washington, D.C.

When they landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, they again were greeted with hand-shakes and pats on the back from two lines of emergency workers.

When they arrived back in Dothan more than 15 hours after their day began, the veterans were welcomed home like none of them said they had been more than 60 years ago.

“They weren’t told to be there. They were told that we were going to be there,” Brookins said of the hundreds who greeted them on their departures and arrivals. “They wanted to be there.”

They were greeted with cheering and clapping well-wishers, a military band playing patriotic music, politicians happy to shake their hands and military personnel who lined their entrance into the terminal with an honor guard and handshakes.

After almost 65 years, these five veterans from Bainbridge were formally welcomed back and thanked for literally saving the world.

“Today, they treated us like we were somebody,” said Lee, 89, who was an Army nurse in Europe and had been captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war for approximately two weeks.

Brookins, who served four years in the South Pacific as a gunner on a torpedo plane and came home aboard a hospital ship and later a hospital train, said Saturday’s event was the first time he had been formally welcomed back.

“I was really shocked. I didn’t know that there were that many people who cared,” said Brookins, whose trip was his first to Washington, D.C.

Brookins said the trip to see the World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery—and the rows and rows of headstones of all those who fought for freedom during the country’s history—was special.

But it was the reception each veteran received that “brought back 60 years of my life,” Brookins said.

Gray, who was served in the U.S. Coast Guard on the U.S.S. Knoxville in the North Atlantic from 1943-45, said Saturday was the first time he saw the World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

But the special part of the trip was the thanks and reception he received.

“That reception was really something else. Those soldiers really impressed me,” Gray said of the present members of the military who thanked each World War II veteran. Gray lives in a house on Shotwell Street that he was born in, and he had worked for Citizens Bank many years, then worked in a ski shop in Aspen, Colo., for 14 years before retiring back to his hometown of Bainbridge.

Gary said he joined the Coast Guard at 17 years old. He came close to joining the Army Air Corps, but his father had read an article the night before that stated how many airplanes were shot down, and his father asked Gary to rethink his decision to become a pilot.

Instead, Gary was escorting convoys crossing the Atlantic and chasing German submarines. One incident, Gary said he looked up and saw a ship get hit by enemy torpedoes and another incident, the U.S.S. Knoxville followed a German submarine for three days, dropping more than 300 depth charges on the submarine before the Germans finally surrendered to an English ship.

Bryant was a Navy commando, being among the first on Omaha Beach prior to D-Day on June 6, 1944, because his unit blew up underwater obstacles and served as “traffic control,” and he did the same for the Battle of Okinawa in the South Pacific in March 1945. Bryant, who joined the Navy when he was 19 years old, said he was in the first days of the two bloodiest conflicts of the war.

“We never looked for any credit. It was a job, and we did it. We just wanted to come home,” Bryant said.

“This sweet life we enjoy today is because those boys gave it to us,” Bryant said of the thousands of American servicemen killed in the war, especially those who were killed on Omaha Beach, which Bryant said was the battle that changed the world.

Davis, who residents of Bainbridge know was an outstanding winning Bearcat football coach, was training as a coxswain of landing craft in 1945, preparing for the assault on Japan. He was in Manila Harbor in The Philippines when news came that the war was over.

Davis joined at 17 years old, and served 1-1/2 years in the Coast Guard. He said he fully supported the United States’ decision to drop the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

“It was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Davis said of Saturday’s reception. “You could feel pride in yourself.”

From the moment they arrived at the Dothan airport on Saturday until after they got off the plane more than 15 hours later, the five Bainbridge World War II veterans were reminded just what they did.

Some in wheelchairs and some with hearing aids, they were thanked Saturday night—thanked for what they did more than 65 years ago.