A large crowd enjoyed baseball under the sun and paid tribute to local veterans and active duty military Saturday during the Military Appreciation Day at Olympic Field.
Lee University Flames head baseball coach Mark Brew is hopeful the tribute to men and women in uniform will become and annual event. The event tied the American traditions of its armed forces and favorite pastime together as the Flames hosted the Talladega College Tornadoes.
The game began with Claude Wallace and Bill Norwood throwing out the ceremonial pitches. Norwood tossed the first pitch for George Allen who stood by and watched.
Wallace, 87, saw heavy action in the Navy during World War II in the South Pacific. He was at Leyte Gulf aboard LST 600. He was a coxswain and gunner on a landing craft on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Wallace described his war experience in last December when he was the guest speaker at the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Ceremony.
“And then the first of April, Easter Sunday, we went into to Okinawa,” he said. “We had lost over 6,000 men at Iwo Jima. We went into Okinawa the first of April and secured it the 23rd of June. We lost over 8,000 men there. We lost 3,000 men at Leyte Gulf, putting MacArthur back on the Philippines [islands].
“I still think about those boys today. I left a lot of good buddies laying on them beaches in the Pacific. I wish I could have brought them all home.”
Norwood, 83, was a Prisoner of War during the Korean War. He enlisted in the United States Army in September 1947 at the age of 17 after being turned away twice before because of his age. He was assigned to combat duty in Korea with the 24th Infantry Division soon after the outbreak of the Korean War.
He arrived in Korea in July 1950 and was taken prisoner by the North Koreans nine months later in April 1951. He has said that at that time, he was faced with a decision — a decision he still faces in his mind. When given the choice between instant death or being taken prisoner of war, he chose life.
“I became faced with the most difficult decision that will ever face me in my lifetime — a decision to accept instant death or surrender my arms to a brutal enemy who we’d already discovered had little regard for human life. I can truthfully say I’m still not certain I made the right decision. The harsh memories of those experiences I witnessed in those 2 1/2 years as a prisoner of war still remain very vivid in my mind today, and at times, they haunt me, both day and night.”
He was released from captivity Aug. 15, 1953, during a prisoner of war exchange 28 months after his capture.
Allen will celebrate his 91st birthday on April 10. In Bradley County, he is the lone survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army in 1940 and served until 1945. Shortly after basic training, he was attached to the 24th Infantry and shipped to Hawaii en route to the South Pacific to provide support to the Allied Forces in anticipation of war with Japan.
On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, Allen was assigned KP, or kitchen police, duty. He and an Army buddy had finished their inside tasks and were ordered to go outside and get 100 pound bags of potatoes to peel for lunch.
“We were sitting outside. I looked up at Kolekole Pass,” he has said on other occasions. “I was born in Maine and we used to see the geese coming from Canada and I thought, ‘My God, the geese can’t be coming back from Canada already.’”
A few seconds later, he said a “Jap Zero” fighter plane flew around the corner of the building and let go a blast that passed just over their heads.
Fortunately for the two men, they were sitting on low stools at the time and the bullets went over their heads. Otherwise, he said, had they been sitting on the higher stools normally provided, they would have lost their heads.
After missing the two soldiers the first time, the plane made another very low pass, but instead of shooting, the pilot pulled back the canopy and waved at them. The pilot looked out of the right side of the cockpit at them and Allen says he couldn’t tell if the pilot said, “‘I missed you’ or ‘I’m going to get you next time.’”
After surviving the attack, Allen joined his unit in the hills where it had dug in and waited four months for another assault which never came. Allen went on to participate in six major battles in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines, and other major engagements in the Pacific. He said during his war experience, he never saw a bed for three years, but instead slept in a foxhole, or, when conditions permitted, he stretched a hammock between two trees.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said in his thank you address to the crowd Saturday that it is because of the sacrifices of those three men and the thousands of other local veterans that made it possible to enjoy the baseball game.
“We’ve had wars that weren’t called wars, but gentlemen, I think you’ll agree they were wars because you were in harm’s way and in battle,” the mayor said.