MCALLEN, Texas—A cleansing thunderstorm raced over the Veterans War Memorial of Texas in McAllen the night before Memorial Day.
On the day, Lloyd Walker and Robert A. Watkins were among the handful of World War II veterans—their bodies slower, but their poignant memories of that time still sharp—who gathered at the memorial.
Walker, a tail gunner on a B-26 Marauder bomber, said he flew 62 missions during the war, from North Africa to Dijon, France. He was in the 12th Air Force, 17th bomb group, 432nd squadron.
“I’m not a hero,” he said on May 29. “The ones who didn’t come back are the heroes. And we must never forget that.”
Walker went on to share a vivid memory from December 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge.
“We were bombing ahead of [General George] Patton,” he said. “We were putting everything in the air that we could.”
Walker was with his crew in Dijon, France, readying for takeoff. His job on takeoff was to sit between the pilot and copilot and pull up the wheels when instructed.
The runway had undergone a fair bit of jerry-rigging.
“They’d filled in these bomb craters with brick and glass and everything else, and there was 6 inches of snow on the ground,” Walker said. “We blew a tire. … We didn’t have enough speed to get in the air, and we skidded into a dirt mover.
“The plane was on fire. The whole crew got out,” he said. “When it collapsed, the nose wheel came up through the floor where I was standing and carried me all the way back to bomb bay doors and knocked me out.”
Walker said there were two 2,000-pound bombs in the bomb bay.
“When I come to, I got out. I fell in a ditch. I managed to … roll in the snow to get the fire out and I walked into a mess hall, and you can imagine what kind of a mess I was in, what I looked like,” he said.
“The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital and they were wrapping my face up. I had first-, second-, and third-degree burns on my face.”
Walker was in the hospital for about eight weeks to recover, but, he said proudly, “I finished my missions.”
His eyes conveyed that he had many more painful stories locked away. But it is today’s world that troubles him most.
“The last few years, I’ve been very disturbed with our country. We’re leaving God out of too much. And like Ronald Reagan said, ‘When we leave God out, we’re going to lose ground,'” Walker said.
“And to me, the morals of the United States have gradually gone down, and that bothers me very much. Not just for me, but for my grandkids and my great-grandkids and all the children that are growing up in this country now. It’s not like it’s supposed to be.”
Watkins, 89, served in the Navy from 1943 to 1951, which means he signed up when he was just 16.
When asked about the significance of Memorial Day for him, he replied, “It brings back memories that I don’t care to remember, if you want to know the truth, because of the fact that the good Lord says you’re not supposed to take lives.”
Watkins served on the USS St. Louis during the war, as a boatswain’s mate. He was aboard at the time of the kamikaze attacks at Okinawa.
“We shot some airplanes out of the sky,” he recounted. “I have gotten over that, but it was a long time, a long time. They didn’t want to do it either. I have come to the conclusion that the guy that was flying the airplane didn’t want to die. He wanted to kill us as bad as we wanted to kill him. And my pastor has kind of gotten me to believe in that—it’s a two-way street.”
Watkins said Memorial Day is more important to him than the Fourth of July, or birthdays, or anything else.”And I’ve got my 90th coming up.”
“I love this particular day, where we recognize all those who have passed and all those who haven’t passed,” he said. After the war, Watkins served on the USS Prairie and was at Bikini Atoll in 1946 for the atomic bomb test.
“We were on the horizon when the mushroom went up,” he said.
The man heralded as being the driving force behind the memorial site in McAllen is Col. Frank Plummer, a sprightly 91-year-old.
“It’s built for you parents and for the teachers,” he said. Plummer served in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
“Our Constitution, it rests on a thin piece of paper, that’s all. It doesn’t have concrete under it. It’s our foundation of this nation.”
Plummer said the power of the Constitution can only be realized when patriotism, which is learned, is behind it.
“Patriotism is the single most effective factor in building the desire to protect our country,” he said.
“Our schools, our football teams—it’s our team, it’s our country, it’s our state, it’s our city. We learn that. And that’s where children learn to work as a group and support this country.
“How do we tell the children in the future? Well, we start right here in the families today. You show them the values of what freedom can do.”