Springfield State Journal Register

May 29, 2004

Local vets in D.C.
Memorial honors their service in World War II


WASHINGTON - C.K. "Tuck" Belton was just 20 years old when the B-17 bomber he was flying was shot down over German-occupied Holland during World War II.

It was supposed to have been a "milk run," an easy mission, he recalls.

But it quickly turned deadly when the bomber they dubbed "Lucky Lady" took on German fire. His eight crew members were killed. He survived in part because a friend had helped him jury-rig a parachute to his pilot's seat just a few days before. Pilots didn't usually wear parachute packs because they got in the way of the controls.

Lying injured in the January snow, Belton was rescued by Dutch resistance fighters. When he was well enough, he went on raids with them so that he could exact a little revenge on the enemy. With food scarce, they ate tulip bulbs to survive.

In April 1945, his Dutch friends smuggled him out disguised in civilian clothes and a badge that declared him to be a deaf-mute. With their help, he was able to pass through enemy checkpoints and rejoin Allied troops in Belgium just weeks before Germany surrendered.

“I owe my life to them, getting me out of Holland,” recounted Belton, now 81.

Memories came flooding back for Belton and other Springfield-area World War II veterans who traveled to Washington for today’s dedication of the National World War II Memorial.

With 1,100 veterans from that war dying every day, Belton prayed that he would live long enough to attend the dedication. He wanted to be here to pay tribute to all the friends he had made and lost in the war.

He and his wife, Virginia, had both planned to come. But she suffered a stroke a few years ago, leaving her unable to travel. In her place, Belton invited his twin 15-year-old grandsons, Alex and Andrew Hardwick, freshmen at Springfield High School.

They’ll be among the 130,000 who have tickets for today’s ceremony. But organizers are expecting 200,000 visitors to the Mall and are taking special precautions for a crowd of octogenarians.

Catching an early glimpse of the memorial, Belton immediately made his way to a massive, 17-foot-high granite pillar marked “Illinois” - one of 56 pillars that circle an oval-shaped pool. Then, he was drawn to a huge arch at one end marked “Atlantic,” for the theater of war he served in, and the wall of 4,000 gold-plated stars representing the 400,000 U.S. service personnel who died.

“It’s quite impressive, isn’t it?” Belton said. “It’s even larger than I thought it would be.”

It was an emotional moment. Asked whether he thought it was too long in coming, Belton said “look at all the guys who will never see it.”

Although 16.4 million Americans served in the war, fewer than 5 million remain alive. The memorial was opened to the public April 29, a month before its official dedication, to ensure more World War II veterans had an opportunity to see it.

“It’s just too bad that everyone can’t look at these memorials and say ‘enough is enough,’ and stop the craziness,” Belton said. “Nobody wins in these wars. You may win the war, but everybody’s a loser. I don’t think we’ll ever learn our lesson.”

For many World War II veterans, visiting the memorial is part of a lifelong healing process.

Six decades later, Harold Pankey of Elkhart still has nightmares about the things he saw in his 11 months of combat.

Pankey, 81, is a D-Day survivor. He was in the third wave to go ashore at Omaha Beach about noon on June 6, 1944. He encountered a beach already littered with bodies of soldiers who had gone before him. The sights and smell would haunt him forever.

Pankey went on to fight in four more campaigns, including a bloody battle under impossible conditions at Hurtgen Forest along the German-Belgian border.

“It was a terrible thing, the worst thing,” he said. “It should never have been fought.”

The Germans had them nearly surrounded in a dark section of the 500-acre pine forest and were bombarding them with artillery and mortars. His foxhole buddy, James Schwetz, was wounded and evacuated. But by the time they received the order to pull back, everyone else in the squad had been killed.

Somehow, Pankey was able to move a huge pine tree out of his way and hitched his 57mm anti-tank gun to a half-track, a truck with tank-like treads, a task that normally requires six people. He then backed the half-track out of danger.

To this day, he doesn’t know how he managed it alone.

“God did it. I didn’t move that tree,” Pankey said. “My life was saved there.”

Although overshadowed in history books by the Battle of the Bulge, the Hurtgen Forest is one of the battles commemorated at the new memorial. More than 24,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in a five-month battle where Germans held every advantage.

Pankey was wounded twice, receiving a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

When he came home, “he was screaming in the night for many, many years and not knowing why,” said Mary Lou Pankey, his wife of 59 years. “He was 11 months in combat, and you don’t go through that at 20 years old and come home the same.”

They didn’t learn of post-traumatic stress until much later.

Like many World War II veterans, he never talked much about his combat experiences back home. In 1994, she encouraged him to travel to Europe to observe the 50th anniversary of D-Day. And she encouraged this trip to Washington as well.

“Now he’s getting the recognition and he’s accepting it,” Mary Lou said. “I think it will help.”

Many veterans said they simply want people to remember what it was like back then, when everyone sacrificed in the name of freedom.

“I would like all the children to realize their lives would be completely different if we lost World War II,” said Katherine Leavy Smith of Rochester.

Smith, 81, served in the U.S. Navy WAVES, working as a supply clerk at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. Her late husband, Grover Smith, was a Navy signalman.

The National World War II Memorial cost $176 million to construct. Organizers raised $195 million in private donations, ranging from large corporate contributions to small donations from schools, including some in Illinois.

For instance, $920 was given by Rochester Junior/Senior High School, $100 by the Girard school district, $158 by Pawnee High School, $131 by Staunton High School and $16 by Jonathan Turner Junior High School in Jacksonville. The state of Illinois contributed more than $750,000.

The extra funds will be used for maintenance.