By Shannon Collins
World War II veteran James Washburn celebrated his 93rd birthday by honoring fellow World War II veterans at a ceremony marking 75 years since two pivotal battles that turned the tide of the war during his first-ever trip to Washington.
Washburn and other veterans laid a wreath at the World War II Memorial at a ceremony commemorating Operation Market Garden, a key battle in the Netherlands, and the Battle of Angaur, which supported the invasion of the Philippines in 1944.
After paying tribute, Washburn was full of emotion. “I can’t talk. It’s been wonderful. I’m just speechless. I’ve never had anything like this before,” he said, his voice cracking.
Washburn, an Army veteran from Alburnett, Iowa, was the only World War II veteran on his Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization program that flies veterans of the nation’s wars to Washington to visit the national war memorials. “I deliberately wanted to come on my birthday, and everything is so beautiful. I never expected anything like this,” he said.
Washburn said he never went to war, but he came close. He trained in Korea and at Fort Meade, Maryland, where training was fatal for some of his fellow soldiers. “The cadre needed two volunteers to carry the bazooka. Five of us raised our hands. He picked two. Within 30 minutes, three of them were dead. The bazooka blew up – that’s how close I came,” he said.
After his training was complete, Washburn was prepared to be part of an invasion force. “On our last day of amphibious training for the invasion of Japan, they surrendered,” he said. “I went to Fort Meade, Maryland, to go over to Germany, and they surrendered. I was just lucky.”
Washburn said a lot has changed since his time in uniform. For example, in his day, few women served in the military. Now, he says, it’s great that there are more opportunities for women to serve. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said.
And he has a bit of advice for the young service members of today: “Do what you have to do,” he said. “The faster you get it done, the quicker you come home.”
Trip Down Memory Lane
For World War II Navy veteran David Lowhorn, the ceremony was a trip down memory lane. The 100-year old veteran said he and his brother, Sherman, served on minesweepers, finding and untethering mines to allow safe passage for other Navy ships.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lowhorn said he felt it was his duty to serve. “I love my country,” he asserted.
Lowhorn served in several battles around the Philippines and in Japan, including the battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa.
“We was at Leyte, and that’s when the Japanese came down through the channels,” Lowhorn said. “Our admiral was waiting for them, and we destroyed the Japanese navy there.”
During the Battle of Okinawa, Lowhorn said the Japanese lost their airplanes and their gas. “They didn’t have nothing to fight with after that,” he said. “The military forces moved in with ships and planes. Our Navy was going around Japan in circles. The way I see it, they couldn’t have lasted another 30 days.”
Lowhorn now enjoys life on his farm with his family and has visited the National World War II Memorial twice. “I’m a country boy. I raised world champion horses. It’s good to be out there with the fresh air and the trees,” he said, grateful he made it home. “I was married to my first wife for 68 years and am now married to my wife, Doshia.”
Lowhorn said his favorite World War II service member was Army Gen. George Patton. “He’s my hero,” he said. “He could’ve been president.”
He said his advice for the new generation is to learn world history and to appreciate their country.
Honoring the Fallen
The ceremony honored the sacrifices of the Allied forces, paratroopers and glidermen from the Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade.
The mission in Operation Market Garden was to capture key bridges in the Netherlands that would open routes across the Rhine River and into the Third Reich’s industrial complex in the Ruhr Valley. This happened after D-Day’s Normandy invasion and the liberation of Paris in 1944, said Maj. Gen. Mark Schwartz, special assistant in the Office of the Director of the Army Staff.
The Allied troops failed to get through Germany’s western defenses, the Siegfried Line, but they freed the Dutch and are still celebrated in the Netherlands.
At the same time, the campaign of Palau with an amphibious landing on Angaur and a follow-on invasion of the Philippines was going on in the Pacific, Schwartz said. “Marines wrestled with controlling a neighboring island of Palau, while Angaur was successfully fought and captured in just four days.”
But Schwartz said Japanese defenders in cave complexes harassed the U.S. service members on Angaur while they were building an airfield, so U.S. troops used bulldozers to seal off the entrances to the caves. “The American troops were able to neutralize the Japanese on Angaur by the end of the month, and men were able to further deploy and reinforce the Marines on Palau to complete the airfields to support the invasion of the Philippines,” Schwartz said.
The ceremony paid tribute to the 17,000 allied service members who were killed, wounded or missing during Operation Market Garden and the more than 1,600 Americans who were killed or wounded during the Battle of Angaur.
“They will never be forgotten,” Schwartz said. “We can never forget the sacrifices and leadership demonstrated by those who served before us. We don’t spend enough time …to reflect on the sacrifices, the leadership and the service of those that have come before us. So, they are a great example of what Americans should strive to be with every generation that has come forward from the greatest generation of World War II.”
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