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History of Veterans Day: What it represents to some Tyrone vets

November 11 is the anniversary of the Armistice which was signed in the Forest of Compiegne by the Allies and the Germans in 1918, ending World War I, after four years of conflict.
At 5 a.m. on Monday, November 11, 1918 the Germans signed the Armistice, an order was issued for all firing to cease; so the hostilities of the First World War ended. This day began with the laying down of arms, blowing of whistles, impromptu parades and closing of places of business. All over the globe there were many demonstrations; no doubt the world has never before witnessed such rejoicing.
In November of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued his Armistice Day proclamation. The last paragraph set the tone for future observances:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation.
In 1927, Congress issued a resolution requesting President Calvin Coolidge to issue a proclamation calling upon officials to display the Flag of the United States on all government buildings on November 11, and inviting the people to observe the day in schools and churches.
But it wasn’t until 1938 that Congress passed a bill that each November 11 “shall be dedicated to the cause of world peace and…hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.” That same year President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill making the day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia.
For 16 years the U.S. formally observed Armistice Day, with impressive ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the Chief Executive or his representative placed a wreath. In many other communities, the American Legion was in charge of the observance, which included parades and religious services. At 11 a.m. all traffic stopped, in tribute to the deceased, then volleys were fired and taps sounded.
After World War II, there were many new veterans who had little or no association with WW I. The word “armistice” means simply a truce; therefore as years passed, the significance of the name of this holiday changed. Leaders of Veterans’ groups decided to try to correct this and make November 11 the time to honor all who had fought in various wars, not just in WW I.
In Emporia, Kansas, on November 11, 1953, instead of an Armistice Day program, there was a Veterans Day observance. Ed Rees, of Emporia, was so impressed that he introduced a bill into the House of Representatives to change the name to Veterans Day. After this passed, the name was changed to Veterans Day by Act of Congress on May 24, 1954.
In October of that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on all citizens to observe the day by remembering the sacrifices of all those who fought so gallantly, and through rededication to the task of promoting an enduring peace. The President referred to the change of name to Veterans Day in honor of those servicemen of all America’s wars.
Here in the Tyrone community, there is a joint Veterans Day ceremony at the American Legion on Sunday, November 11 at 11 a.m., as it always has and should be. We have many valiant and honorable veterans from WW I to our country’s present war in Iraq, with amazing stories and memories, some hard to talk about and all detailing why these men and women should be honored every day for protecting the wonderful freedom that the United States is built upon.
Tyrone resident Nick Leasure is a WW II veteran who was a U.S. Navy Radioman Third Class in the Combat Information Center of the USS Bunker Hill, the flagship of the U.S. 5th Fleet, also known as the “Holiday Express” because all of the major air strikes were launched on holidays. Leasure’s duty was to copy down every message he heard on the radio channels.
In April of 1945, Leasure heard a pilot who was out of range of others, shouting he had just spotted a large Japanese battleship, a cruiser, and eight destroyers rounding a point of land and heading toward the island of Okinawa. He relayed this message immediately to his ship’s executive officer, which eventually thwarted a horrific attack.
The war in Europe was almost over, and in the Pacific, the Japanese were aware they were losing, so they sent the battleship Yamoto toward Okinawa to shell the Allied troops forming there for the invasion of mainland Japan, and to ambush the American fleet.
Leasure’s duty that day enabled every available Allied combat plane to be airborne, and the world’s largest battleship, along with all but one other Japanese ship in the group, was sunk.
Leasure’s single action helped save the lives of tens of thousands of American sailors and soldiers, as the Japanese Navy was crippled. That was 62 years ago, and for many years, he hesitated to talk about his action, because he respected the secrecy of all of the messages he monitored.
Leasure noted the only recognition he ever received for his action was from the ship’s executive who said, ‘Good job, sailor.’ For Leasure, that was enough for him.
“I knew everything that was going to happen before it happened, and on May 11, 1945 my carrier ship (USS Bunker Hill) was attacked by four Japanese Zero’s (Kamikaze aircrafts), three struck the ship and completely destroyed it, killing nearly 500 and injuring 1,000. I knew the planes were going to hit us, but couldn’t do anything about it because it was too late – it’s an unbelievable feeling,” stated Leasure.
Leasure served for two years and was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal (2 stars) and the WW II Victory Medal. Veterans Day is spent in remembrance for Leasure, and he also is the toller for all the deceased veterans at the Legion’s joint ceremony on Veterans Day.
“It’s a day you remember everything, you can remember everything like it was right there,” added Leasure.
Tyrone resident and Korean War veteran Gordon Cox served four years in the United States Air Force, 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Kimpo Air Force Base in South Korea. He served as Airmen First Class, which in today’s terms his position is titled Weapons Specialist.
During the Korean Conflict, the United States offered $100,000 to the first MiG-15 pilot who would deliver a MiG-15 into military hands. The Soviet aircraft was superior to the U.S. F-86 aircraft.
On September 21, 1953, a North Korean Air Force pilot flew a coveted MiG-15 fighter into South Korea and landed at Kimpo Air Force Base, surrendering himself and his plane to the United States.
The MiG pilot, Lt. Kum Sok No, parked the aircraft at the alert pad on the base and later on it was pulled up to the main hanger at Kimpo AFB, and soon after that, the MiG-15 was ready to have its ammunition cleared in order to be secured and transferred out of the country for evaluation.
Cox was asked by a lieutenant on the base if he was an armorer because he had a job for him at the main hanger. Cox said he was an armorer and was taken to the hanger where the famous MiG was sitting.
“We went into the hanger where the MiG was and there were a couple Army men there, the manual was apparently written in Russian, and I never knew if the manuals were in the airplanes or whether they came from other sources, but they explained how to lower the guns down out of the aircraft, which we did, and took the ammunition out. They had heavy caliber machine guns, two 23 mm and one 37 mm,” said Cox.
Cox cleared the ammunition out of the famous MiG-15 aircraft, which then was airlifted to Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in late 1953. The technology learned from that Soviet jet saved countless American lives during the Cold War. Today, that MiG is on display at the Air Force’s Wright-Patterson Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
“I’ve seen it a couple times out in Dayton,” said Cox. “The first time I saw it out there, I didn’t know it was there, and I saw that thing and it gave me an odd feeling – I don’t know why, but it did.”
Lt. No, the North Korean pilot who landed the famous MiG at Kimpo AFB later defected to the U.S. and changed his name to Ken Rowe, graduated from UCLA and is now a retired professor and a legion commander living in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Veterans Day for Cox is a proud day for him. Sometimes he goes to the parades and this year he is planning on going to the Legion and Soldiers Park for the ceremony.
“Whenever I go by the Veterans Home in Hollidaysburg or the medical center, I think of all the hundreds of guys in there and every one of them has a story. It may be humorous or sad or happy, it’s just too bad you can’t talk to them all,” said Cox.
Another Tyrone veteran, Michael J. McNelis, served in Vietnam as a Staff Sergeant for the United States Army, Co. B 1/52 198th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division (23 ID), Republic of Vietnam, I Corps. He served as a squad leader, platoon sergeant, and later on a platoon leader.
In McNelis’s unit, the casualty rate was two out of three soldiers either killed or wounded. That is what he thinks of most every day, not just Veterans Day – he thinks of all his friends.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t really think of them. I think of especially the ones that died and the early deaths later on, and what they’ve sacrificed – families not seeing their kids grow up,” said McNelis.
He added, “I think of what’s lost, I had a cousin who was killed in WW II who I never met and his body was never recovered. What would he of contributed? A lot of good people died, and it’s hard to relate combat stories because if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t have any reference point to compare it with. It can be very difficult for veterans to really talk about that.”
McNelis also said the anecdote that he remembers for Veterans Day was being down at The Wall on Father’s Day and seeing all the flowers, the notes from the children of the people and their names forever etched on the wall, and he remembers watching one lady who had a letter and a picture saying ‘Dad, I’m your little girl, here’s your granddaughter, you never got to see me grow up and here’s what your granddaughter looks like, you’d be proud of her.’
“It really rips you apart, it’s very difficult,” stated McNelis. “I have trouble personally dealing with Veterans Day myself, I sort of like solitude and think about it. I like the idea that they have speeches and the people are honored, and I do think about it, WW I, the 11th hour, the 11th day – I definitely think about it, but I like to do it in solitude, that’s how I deal with it.”
It’s those lives lost and those veterans who survived protecting the freedom we live within every single day that defines Veterans Day. What each veteran endured, lived, re-lived and even died for makes our lives, the way we live, possible.
A simple gratitude doesn’t seem to fit the bill, but thank you, for all that it is worth.