The late Jack Plotts, of Milton, and the late Norman Ulmer, of Lewisburg, both highly decorated veterans of World War II, along with a few of us from The Daily Item, stood in the downtown Washington office on a spring day in the year 2000.
We were there to meet Bob Dole, the former U.S. Senator, presidential candidate and World War II veteran who died early Sunday morning at age 98.
Dole greeted each with a handshake and we all took seats around a conference table. He wanted to hear about the war experiences of the two military veterans from the Valley.
Plotts was first, telling Dole about his role as a paratrooper in the Normandy invasion and how he, and his parachute, first landed in an apple tree.
“How were the apples,” Dole quipped, filling the room with laughter.
But almost immediately, Dole, a platoon leader who was gravely wounded in Italy in 1945, seemed to sense that there was much more to Plotts’ story.
“Were you hurt over there,” he asked, directly meeting Plotts’ eyes.
Nodding “yes” and glancing downward to the table, Plotts told of the rifle grenade that hit him while he was on an overnight patrol 29 days after landing in the apple orchard, causing severe, life-changing injury.
Dole also listened carefully as Ulmer described his experiences as a Navy signalman, serving on 11 flagships in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. He survived the sinking of the USS Yorktown CV-5 in the battle of Midway in 1942, was aboard the USS Saratoga when it was torpedoed off Guadalcanal that same year, and was aboard the USS Essex when it was hit by a kamikaze plane in 1944.
Dole was generous in granting his time that day after hearing that The Daily Item would be publishing the stories of World War II veterans and seeking donations for the National World War II Memorial, set to be built on the National Mall in Washington.
The former senator, who had been appointed to serve as national chairman of the World War II Memorial fundraising campaign, told us that the memorial would be designed to honor everyone who served in World War II, including those who worked in supporting roles here in the United States.
The story of our meeting with Dole kicked off The Daily Item’s news series, “Our Heroes, Their Stories,” which ran daily from Memorial Day through the Fourth of July in 2000, all based on a suggestion from the late Gen. Colin Powell, who in a speech earlier that year, noted that the country was losing thousands of its aging World War veterans every year, and we needed to hear their stories.
We teamed our news series with a fundraising campaign, generating more than $63,000 in local donations for the construction of the National World War II Memorial.
We later learned from the memorial committee that it was one of the largest community-based fundraising campaigns in the nation. We, as a newspaper, were honored to take a busload of World War II veterans to the groundbreaking dedication of the memorial on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2000.
Today, 80 years to the day after Japan launched an attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, people are walking past the beautiful fountains, reading the inscriptions engraved in that magnificent memorial in the center of the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
Most of our World War II veterans are gone now, but we were fortunate to know them, to listen to, and learn from, their actions and words of wisdom.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.