The face of a hero

Published 2:48 pm Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Memorial Day invokes some of our strongest memories and sense of patriotism.

It was first a holiday to honor those lost on the Union side during the American Civil War. It was expanded following World War I to include all in the military that have fallen in the service of our country.

It is a time the veterans in Seminole County erect many individual crosses with the name and war of every veteran killed since the county was formed. Unfortunately, the name of a young man was recently added when he paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. I can see these crosses at the corner of 84 and 39 from our offices and always walk past them in respect for what they have done.

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I was born almost 10 years after the end of World War II. My own father fought in the Korean War. Although I have enjoyed long friendships with many World War II veterans, I only remember actually knowing two of them as a small kid in Cottonwood.

The first was my Uncle Bill. He fought in the European theater and later in the Battle of the Bulge. He and his family have always lived on the West Coast. He is a great person and inspiration to me, but we really never talked very much about his service and in particular about the war.

The other veteran I remembered was Lamond Hughes, who was the longtime postmaster in Cottonwood. His son, Jimmy, was one of my very closest friends growing up in that small town. Other than the fact he was Methodist and I was Baptist, I expect we pretty much did everything together in those days.

Jimmy and I have not been in touch since our college days. He wound up working for the Postal Service in Montgomery. After my family departed Cottonwood for Panama City, there really wasn’t much opportunity for paths to cross.

Until Facebook. We recently connected through a mutual friend from those days. On our very first conversation he reminded me that we had watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon together from Compass Lake. We watched the snowy picture on the black and white TV and then went out on the dock. For two boys looking up at the moon and knowing that there were actually Americans up there was pretty amazing at the time. It still is.

Jimmy recently took his father on one of the “Honor Flights” to Washington. I told Jimmy that his father was the only POW I remembered growing up and still mentioned it whenever our family might pass by his house.

Imagine my surprise when Jimmy informed me that he wasn’t a POW, but had actually been shot down over China before escaping with the help of the Chinese underground. He also shared with me a short manuscript his father had written in 1946 in his first college class at Troy for extra credit about his ordeal.

It was only his 11th mission when he was shot down near Shanghai, China, which was occupied by the Japanese at the time. He was stationed on Okinawa and his B-24 made runs over mainland Japan and China.

Each night before a bombing run he would write his mother, his girlfriend and his brother, Hubert, who served in the Navy. This particular run they were given “blood chits,” sets of flags with information written in the Chinese language and 5,000 Yuam bills. These were for the purpose of bribing in aiding escape if shot down.

The plane had just dropped its load of bombs when they felt their plane being hit. Two of the four engines were shot out and the entire electrical system failed. The fuel cells were damaged and the plane was losing altitude at the rate of 400 feet per minute.

Numerous holes, both small and large, were torn throughout the floor, walls and top of the plane, including one only six inches from Hughes’ head. Moments later they were given the signal to jump. He saw three others jump into the night before landing in water. He could see the big smoke stacks of Shanghai.

Hughes had landed in the mighty Yangtze River. He saw one other raft and they paddled toward each other for over two hours before they became certain that both were Americans.

Eventually they were picked up by a Chinese junk. Their instructions had been “If you fall into the hands of the Chinese let them do whatever they desire with you.” The two young, scared, isolated airmen did just that; entrusting their lives to people whose language they could not speak.

For several days they slept in wet clothes, lying in muck full of mosquitoes. They changed into the ragged fishing clothes of the poor and ate fish and rice. They walked barefooted like those they were traveling with. Yellow mud was put on their feet and legs and they held their heads low so the old straw hats would partially cover their faces.

From hut to house they were moved. Walking barefoot and traveling by a variety of Chinese junks on the water, they gradually made their way through the underground. Along the way they reconnected with several others from their plane, some more injured than others but all glad to see such friendly faces.

Finally they arrived at the home of a Chinese general, head of the underground around Shanghai. He arranged food, clothing and for a sailboat to take them on a six-day trip down to the coast of China.

There were many more close calls and instances of heroism during this trip than the space of this column will allow. Ultimately all but one of that ill-fated flights returned safely.

When I saw the pictures of Mr. Hughes from the recent Honor Flight, he looked just the same. He is frailer and aided by a cane and wheelchair. I would know him anywhere, but there was something different about the face. After nearly 50 years, I realized it is the face of a hero.