Military feature: Program sends local veteran to visit World War II memorial

CNJ staff photo: Gabriel Monte Philip Gillespie said he joined the service in World War II to contribute to the war efforts. Gillespie served as a gunner on a Navy dive bomber aircraft where he hunted submarines and provided ground support for Allied Forces in the Philippines.

By Gabriel Monte: CNJ staff writer

Philip Gillespie hasn’t thought about his time in World War II in a long time.

Last week, memories of his time in the Pacific theater as a Navy gunner and the friends he served with kept him up some nights during a trip to the World War II memorial in the nation’s capital.

“It just started coming back,” the 83-year-old Gillespie said Tuesday as he leafed through a red photo album at his Clovis home that contained letters and mementos from his time in the war. “It makes you think of your old buddies when you went to school, some of them you can’t even remember their names.”

Gillespie and 38 World War II veterans from New Mexico participated in the Honor Flight program, which provides veterans with a free trip to the memorial.

Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico Chairman Bill Mattiace said the program is for World War II veterans who are too sick or can’t afford to make the trip on their own.

The memorial was built in 2004, almost 60 years after World War II ended.

“It wasn’t good they waited 60 years to build the monument, by that procrastination many of these soldiers have grown very old,” Mattiace said. “We wanted to honor them, have them see their memorial that was a tribute to their service.”

Mattiace said about 20 volunteers and two doctors joined the veterans.

The Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico is based in Las Cruces and is funded with donations from local businesses, according to Mattiace. He said the organization began raising funds last year and the first trip was last week.

He said a second trip is planned for May 19, 2009.

“It was a fascinating trip,” Gillespie said. “I’m glad I went and those people, they did a lot of good for a lot of those people that went. I’d like to see something like this in Clovis.”

Gillespie, who was born in Levelland, Texas, said he signed up with the Navy in 1944 when he was 17 years old. During the war he served as a gunner in the Pacific hunting submarines. He left the service in 1947 and worked in construction. He settled in Clovis during the 1960s.

Emotions ran high during a banquet where veterans introduced themselves and spoke about their time during the war. Gillespie said some men broke down in the middle of their comments.

“They would just melt,” he said. “When that happens, it affects all of (the veterans).”

He said he joined the service because everybody was helping the war effort in their own way.

“It was a whole country that participated in (the war effort),” he said. “And the country ended up better for it.”

On the ‘net:

Honor Flight network Web site:

www.honorflight.org

Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico Web site:

www.honorflightnm.org

By the numbers:

16 million – American soldiers who served during World War II

Source: National WWII Memorial Web site, www.wwiimemorial.com

670,000 – U.S. casualties in WWII

Source: New York Times 2008 Almanac.