Heroism Was On Time, WWII Medals Delayed

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013

BUCKINGHAM – After 67 years and 30 minutes, Charles Lewis finally received medals he earned for his service during World War II. The medals were presented to Lewis during a ceremony at the Buckingham VFW Hall on Wednesday, February 27.

By the way, that extra half-hour added on to those 67 years was due to a scheduling mishap, which sent a trio from the Richmond Reserve Unit of the United States Marine Corps on a race to Buckingham a day earlier than they had marked on their calendars.

Marie Sweeney, Commander of VFW Post 8446, explained that the unit would be late and encouraged the audience to relax and enjoy themselves.

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Addressing Lewis, Sweeney asked the honoree if he wanted to take the opportunity to say anything the audience of family, friends, and well-wishers.

The 89 year-old Lewis, who is usually packing his trusty harmonica, responded, “No, but I'll play them a couple of songs today.”

Beginning with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Lewis followed with a medley of patriotic songs including the theme songs for the branches of the Armed Services, and, of course the Marine Corps Hymn.

As the tunes continued, Lewis took a short break, at the urging of long-time friend Henry Fulcher, to talk about a treasured experience from his youth.

He shared that as a young boy growing up in Richmond, he, with his trusty harmonica rigged so he could also strum his tenor banjo, and a friend, who played the accordion, would entertain the residents at the “old folks' home.”

Then, they would walk another block and a half to play for the veterans at the “old soldiers' home.”

Lewis prided, “We had the privilege and the honor to play for Confederate Veterans.” He added, “And I think I am blessed to have been able to do that.”

Still waiting on the Marines, Lewis told the audience if they'd like, he would play some gospel music. However, noting that he would be playing the old gospel songs, he offered, “I don't know the new ones. I don't like the new ones. And, I ain't going to learn the new ones.” Subsequently, tunes including Amazing Grace kept the audience singing and swaying.

Presentation of Awards

During the fitting preamble of Music by Lewis, the Marines arrived. Subsequently, the ceremony began with the presentation of the flags by the JROTC Color Guard from Buckingham County High School.

In her opening, Sweeney explained, “These medals were earned by Sergeant Charles F. Lewis during World War II, when he served his country in the Marine Corps from 1942 to 1945, as a member of the S.B.D. Squadron.”

Sweeney, welcoming everyone, extended a special thanks to the Richmond Marine Corp Reserve Unit and the BCHS JROTC “for helping to bring this day to a reality for Charles.”

She also thanked Donna McRae Jones, who became friends with Lewis after joining the Buckingham Country Ruritan Club, for organizing the event.

In a follow-up conversation, McRae explained that Lewis told her the medals would be sent to the Marines in Richmond who would arrange to give them to him.

She, in turn, told Lewis she would be honored to put together an awards presentation ceremony. Subsequently, McRae contacted Sweeney. “We became a committee of two,” she explained.

McRae shared, “I felt the awards ceremony would be a special thank-you to Charlie for his dedicated service to our country.”

As the three Marines stepped forward for the presentation, First Sergeant Guthrie stated, “The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal to Sergeant Charles F. Lewis, Jr., United States Marine Corps.”

With commendation in hand, he read, “For extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while serving with Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 231 from 28 April to 8 September 1944.”

The sergeant continued, “In the successful completion of these missions, Sergeant Lewis contributed materially to the success of the United States' efforts by his undaunted courage, superb airmanship, and unyielding devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions.”

Guthrie shared, “Sergeant Lewis reflected credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps, the United States Naval Service”

The sergeant concluded by adding that the letter of commendation was from the President of the United States, and General James F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps.

At that point, Captain Bailey began the process of pinning the medals onto Lewis' lapel. The medals included the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal, with a Gold Star designating the second award; and the Air Medal, with a Bronze Numeral 8 designating the first through eighth Strike Awards.

For us non-military-types, that translates to two Distinguished Flying Medals, and eight Air Medals.

Lewis also received his American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ Bronze Campaign Star, WWII Victory Medal, the Combat Air Crew Insignia with three stars, and the Rifle Expert Badge.

Thanking everyone for attending, the captain offered, “In the Marine Corps we don't get very many opportunities to be involved in real world history of the warriors who have come before us. It is certainly an honor for me today to be part of this to pay homage to Mr. Lewis' honor, courage, and commitment and his dedication to the cause of World War II.”

Addressing Lewis, Captain Bailey shared, “Generally, we only get to see these in the annals of history, in our readings, on TV, or in a museum. But it certainly is an honor for me to be here with you today sir. Without a doubt, on behalf of the President, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and certainly a grateful nation, I am very appreciative to be here with you to share this.”

As Lewis thanked the captain, the audience began applauding and then rose for a standing ovation.

Lewis, obviously moved by the gesture, thanked the audience and shared, “Ya'll make a guy tear-up.”

Offering that he would like to share a few of the highlights of his life, Lewis related that when he was a teenager, he accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. “That has affected my whole life,” he stated.

He talked about meeting a young lady named Ann shortly after being discharged from the Marine Corps. “We married and that was a big change in my life,” he laughed. “We raised two children and this April we are going to celebrate 67 years.”

Moving on to his military service, Lewis said he enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 18 years old.

Boot camp was spent at the infamous Parris Island. “This was a drastic change in what I was used to,” he stated, with emphasis on the word drastic.

After boot camp, he went to radio school. Then a choice was offered to either volunteer for the air division of the Marine Crops or the ground troops. “I took the air part,” stated Lewis.

“We went to another gunnery school that gave you all kinds of moving targets and that kind of stuff,” shared Lewis.

Subsequently, he was temporarily stationed on Midway Island, after the Japanese tried to invade it. Lewis stated, “Our job there was constant surveillance to make sure there were no foreign ships or submarines.”

Continuing, he stated, “After that we went to the Marshall Islands. This is where we went into combat.”

He explained, “Our job in the Marshall Islands was to protect Task Force 58. They were the main unit in the Pacific during the war. They went from aircraft carrier, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines-the whole works.”

According to Lewis, his unit was almost centrally located between four Japanese-held islands. “Our job was to keep those islands inoperable,” he stated. “Every time they repaired the runway, we put holes in it again. We kept it so they could not land planes or get ships in there.” He added, “That was our job and duty.”

Lewis shared, “During the time I was in there, I didn't feel like I did anything special. We just did the job that they trained us for.”

Referencing his awards, Lewis offered, “This is a privilege that Lisa Good put me on. She has been working with me for about four or five years.”

Noting that Good is an employee with the Freedom of Information Office at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, Lewis explained that he first contacted her during his search for copies of an accident report and photographs from a plane crash he was in during his military service.

“She worked very diligently on that,” he stated. “And we still haven't finished. But she is the one that put me on to the awards division and gave me the telephone number.”

Lewis told the audience, “After I made that call, I thought to myself, 'The government is pretty slow sometimes.'” Laughing, he added, “And this is how long it took for me to get these awards.”

Noting that he would look at his wrist if he wore a watch, Lewis offered, “If I did, I would look at it and say, 'It's about time.'”

From his seat near the stage, Fulcher encouraged Lewis to tell the audience about the number of flights he made.

“When we moved from Midway Island to the Marshall Islands, somehow or another, the whole squadron's flight logs were misplaced. We have no actual record from February 1944 until April '44,” shared Lewis.

“The Seabees went in there February 3rd. They built a runway for us. They finished on the 18th of February and we started flying on the 19th. We have no records for a little over two months,” explained Lewis.

“So I ended up with 60-some dive-bombing missions. And, I did not get credit for the reconnaissance flights that we went on,” he shared, revealing later that he does have his flight log for those dive-bombing missions.

“I'll tell you one thing, we got shot at even on those reconnaissance missions,” shared Lewis.

Explaining that his job was that of a radio gunner, Lewis said, “We took care of all the radio equipment, the homing equipment.” He continued, “And I also manned the twin .30 caliber machine guns, which was mounted on a ring that we could take 360 degrees.”

He shared, “We were to protect the backend of the plane.” He added, “I have a friend who says that everywhere I went I was looking backwards.”

As Lewis began talking about the medals being 67 years late, Captain Bailey evoked laughter from the audience when he added, “And 30-minutes.”

Commenting on the long delay, Lewis told the audience, “I am not upset with anybody because I volunteered. He added, “I enlisted in the Marine Corps with the idea of serving for the duration of the war.”

Lewis offered, “When the war was over there must've been hundreds and thousands of people getting out at the same time. Well, they didn't know I was out here. And, I didn't know these were due me. So that's the reason it took so long.”

When someone from the audience asked if he was wounded during combat, Lewis answered, “No.”

However, he shared that he was injured during a plane crash at Oak Grove Airfield in North Carolina, near Cherry Point MCAS.

“We were flying in what they called the SB2C. That was nicknamed the Hell Diver. We lost power and I was injured pretty bad. But that is the only problem I had in the whole service,” said Lewis. “Praise the Lord.”

During a follow-up phone call with Lewis, he explained that the crash occurred during flight training practice. He said the Hell Diver's engine caught on fire about ten minutes after take-off.

Lewis suffered back and leg injuries in the crash and spent approximately three months in the hospital recovering from those injuries.

He offered that the reason for that initial call to Lisa Good was in hopes of obtaining photos from the crash to put with his personal history.

By the way, Good, who said she has truly enjoyed getting to know Lewis over the last few years, was on hand for the ceremony.

She explained to The Herald that it would definitely be a requirement now to include photos for a Class-A mishap but she did not know if that was the case in the 1940s.

Talking about condition of the plane according to the accident report, she shared, “It was absolutely beyond repair.” Good added that the building where those records were stored burned in 2007. She noted that she has contacted various other sources in hopes of finding photographs of the crash but has not been successful.

Near the conclusion of the ceremony, Lewis thanked everyone for attending, He shared “This is so much more than I expected.”

After the JROTC retired the flags with the precision of a military Color Guard, Sweeney encouraged the audience to stay for refreshments and visit “with Charlie.”

From the stage, Lewis shared, “I'm overwhelmed.” With Good by his side, he offered, “And this young lady right here did me wonders because she put me onto the number to get these awards.”

After the ceremony, Good, a retired Marine, sharing her respect and reverence for Marines and all veterans, told The Herald, “I really believe our freedom is because of our WWII Veterans and the legacy they leave.”

In 1942, Charles F. Lewis, like so many of his generation, stepped forward to serve this country without giving any thought to medals and recognition.

However, on Wednesday, after 67 years and 30 minutes, the smile on his face and the tears glistening in his eyes amply reflected his appreciation for being appreciated.