A Solemn Military Tradition Lives On

The old photo is tucked inside a plastic slip, protecting the memory of the crew of The Liberty Run. Fifty years ago, Bill Rochat protected the crew with a machine gun. He was a ball turret gunner who saw the war from the belly of a B-17 in 25 missions over Nazi territory, including five over Berlin. He would have died with these men, if not for some skill, some luck and some answered prayers.

"You want to know their names?" One by one, Rochat points them out. "William Miller from Nebraska. Huck Harrison from Texas. That's myself. I enlisted here in Los Angeles. Ray Glasser. He was our tail gunner. And that's Washco. Ray Washco from Chicago. . . . "

On this morning, Bill Rochat, who is 72, is wearing a natty khaki uniform accented with a white dickey, a white shoulder braid, black boots and a brown campaign cap trimmed in gold lettering that identifies him as a member of Veterans of Foreign War Ship 8310 in Burbank. This is a "ship," not a post, because the unit is named after the Gudgeon, a submarine sunk in the Pacific during World War II. A memorial plaque, bearing the names of the 80 men who died on the Gudgeon, is erected near the ship's flag.

Rochat totes a rifle and a Bible. He is the chaplain of a VFW drill team, which on this day has an appointment in Downey. It is the team's duty to provide the sad pomp required of a military funeral--a prayer, a 21-gun salute, the playing of "Taps." Chances are, not a single member of this drill team knew the veteran they are burying this day. But he is a comrade just the same.

It wasn't so long ago the military would routinely provide these services for any veteran. Lou DeSantis, a Korea veteran who is captain of the Gudgeon drill team, says it is now usually up to the VFW to provide such a service, not to mention ceremonial appearances on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In the last eight months, he says, VFW members have assisted at a dozen funerals.

They do it to honor the memory of all veterans, because, as John DeBasion puts it, "a lot of people don't know what happened, and some don't care." These men are ever at the ready in an America that today tends to be episodic in its tributes.

The 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor occurred three years ago. My father was at Ewa, not far from Pearl, when the Zeroes arrived. Like the other Marines, he grabbed a rifle and returned fire. Historians say that one Zero was downed by small arms fire at Ewa. I prefer to think my father fired the critical shot.

Now comes the 50th anniversary of D-day. Among the 375 members of VFW Ship 8310 are three men who participated in the invasion of Normandy. W.R. "Web" Raduenz and Victor Estrada were paratroopers who dropped behind German lines. Rochat was in The Liberty Run.

There is, Raduenz says, nothing fuzzy or distant about the memory.

"I think most of us think about it quite often," he says. "You read something in the paper and it gets you thinking."

Raduenz was stationed near Exeter. For a week, maybe two, the men studied their mission. "The town was off limits. They kept us behind barbed wire, to keep a guy from going into a pub and spilling his guts to some broad."

It was about midnight when their plane reached the English Channel and the antiaircraft fire. The flak exploded all around. Tracers raced through the sky. "Every one was aimed right at you," Raduenz says. "At least it looked that way." And the enemy fire continued as they parachuted to earth.

The Liberty Run, Rochat says, escorted generals who were monitoring the progress of the invasion. Unfortunately, Rochat says, the German camouflage was so effective near Ste. Lo, "We bombed our own people. . . . Things like that happen."

Victor Estrada has traveled to France to attend the observance in Normandy. Another American who will participate is President Clinton, who famously avoided service in Vietnam. For this reason, the veterans regard Clinton with ambivalence, to put it mildly. Many expressed personal resentment toward Clinton, the man, but a patriotic respect for the office of President and commander in chief.

"A lot of vets talk about this. I think it's a disgrace we have a President who's a draft dodger," DeBasion says.

Another veteran expressed similar sentiments, yet was more outraged by the reports that a man had disrupted a Clinton speech with catcalls of "draft dodger." "I think that guy should have been taken out and shot," he says.

But this is not a time to talk politics. The drill team, having gathered its World War I vintage rifles and its blank shells, is now ready. Rochat has his Bible. And 74-year-old Dez Tenke, who fought at Saipan, has his bugle. The car-pool is waiting.

DeSantis fishes from his pocket the notes for this mission. On this day, they will offer a final salute to Richard Vargas, who as a young man had served in World War II as a seaman in the Pacific.

They have performed the ritual many times. First, a rifle with fixed bayonet is stabbed into the earth, and a helmet is placed atop the butt to symbolize a battlefield grave marker. Then Rochat reads a prayer from the Book of Nehemiah. Three rounds are fired from seven rifles. Then Dez Tenke plays "Taps." And, finally, the flag is folded and presented to the next of kin.

Tenke has played the sad tune many, many times.

"He's very good," Rochat says. "He'll tear your heart out."

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

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