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Published: 10/5/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Honor Flight veterans hailed as heroes

98-year-old becomes oldest from area to make trip to WWII Memorial

BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Edgar Willis, a retired University of Michigan professor, enlisted in the Navy at age 30 and served aboard the USS Alaska scanning for Japanese aircraft. Edgar Willis, a retired University of Michigan professor, enlisted in the Navy at age 30 and served aboard the USS Alaska scanning for Japanese aircraft.
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Edgar Willis, 98, couldn't believe the homecoming reception as strangers kissed him and thanked him for serving in the military, all those years ago.

It was if he had just returned from the war -- all the excitement and the anticipation as people cheered for him and shook his hand at the airport.

Three generations of his family watched last Wednesday as Mr. Willis and 77 other World War II veterans returned to Toledo after spending the day in Washington, touring the memorials and then visiting Arlington National Cemetery on a trip paid for by Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio.

"It was very emotional," said his daughter Andrea Weaver of Perrysburg. "It was an overwhelming experience."

Since April, 2008, the local Honor Flight has flown 859 veterans on 22 trips to the nation's capital. Each trip costs an estimated $55,000, which is raised through fund-raisers and donations.

The next trip is planned for the spring, said the organization's president, Lee Armstrong.

For many of the veterans -- a generation that is slowly dying out because many are in their 80s and 90s -- the trip is a chance to reflect at the memorials and share stories about their wartime days.

Murel Harpel, a retired mail carrier from Lake Township, had seen photographs of the World War II Memorial, but said he always wanted to see "the real thing."

He finally got his chance last week. Looking at the monument, Mr. Harpel said, he thought about the pointlessness of war, of all the people killed.

The trip was one he'll never forget.

"It was just fantastic," said Mr. Harpel, 87, who was drafted into the U.S. Army at age 19 and spent the war in Europe, where he repaired tanks and heavy equipment.

"I've had two fantastic days in my life. The first one was when I married my wife. The second was seeing those memorials."

He said one of the most memorable parts of the trip was the crowd who stood with flags in Toledo Express Airport to greet the veterans.

"I'll tell you the truth, it brought tears to my eyes to see the people -- the way they welcomed us back," Mr. Harpel said.

Mr. Willis, who is the oldest veteran ever to fly with the group, said he felt appreciated, and it reaffirmed his decision to join the U.S. Navy those decades ago.

"It intensified the feeling I did the right thing," said Mr. Willis, who seems much younger with his salt-and-pepper mustache, his radio broadcaster's voice, and his ability to remember everything from historical facts to the actors' names in a movie he saw 65 years ago.

Mr. Willis went on active duty in the Navy at age 30, leaving behind his wife, Zella, and children in Detroit.

His old job had been directing radio documentaries for the Detroit board of education, but soon he was aboard the cruiser USS Alaska scouring the radar for Japanese kamikaze pilots.

Mr. Willis recalled writing a letter to a friend's parents, telling them how much the crew missed their son after the young pilot disappeared one day in 1945. Mr. Willis warned them not to give up hope even though the man was listed as missing because he was lost in the ocean.

He recalled hearing the explosions as a plane bombed the USS Benjamin Franklin, only a few hundred yards from where Mr. Willis was on the Alaska, during the Battle of Okinawa.

He remembered returning home on Christmas Eve in 1945 as his sons ran to him and Mrs. Willis cried tears of joy. But his daughter, Andrea, was only a baby and didn't remember her own father because he'd been away so long.

Mr. Willis, a retired University of Michigan professor who now lives in Perrysburg, also has more lighthearted memories about his military career.

He was no career military man, having enlisted with no previous military experience. Mr. Willis had never issued marching orders before until a July 4, 1944, parade in Philadelphia.

He hoped the parade route was a straight path because he didn't know the order to get the men to turn.

And sure enough, when the group came to a winding part of the road, Mr. Willis led the men onto a curb and through the crowd of people.

Unsure what to do, he ordered, "Squad dismissed. Reform alongside the curb."

"I said it with enough authority and they obeyed me," Mr. Willis said, even though the other sailors snickered at him.

Fortunately, Mr. Willis added, there were no more turns on the rest of the parade route.

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.



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