Veteran walks 844 miles between Normandy and Berlin to honor father

Houston, TX

Photo | James Joseph Pelosi's father, 1st Lt. James Vincent Pelosi, in uniform, some time between 1942 and 1945.

The year 2014 marks many significant anniversaries in American military history, particularly for World War II buffs. For James Joseph Pelosi, a West Point graduate and retired Army officer whose first tour of duty was with the Berlin Brigade, it marks three dates he will commemorate: June 6, the 70th anniversary of the landings at Normandy; Sept. 30, the 65th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift; and Nov. 9, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

His father, James Vincent Pelosi, served in the Army Air Corps on D-Day, flying B-17s and B-24s over Nazi positions to support the Allied landings. After the war, he went into the reserves, and was called to service in the Air Force during the Berlin Airlift. He flew in food, supplies, clothing and other necessities to Germans during the Berlin blockade.

But Pelosi's memorial to these heroes, including his father, isn't a new monument or ceremony or even an air-conditioned bus tour of historic sites.

It's a memorial of distance, "Normandy to Berlin: Trek Honoring the Legacies": an 844-mile path, taken literally one step at a time. Pelosi claims to be the only person to trek from Omaha Beach in France to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in Germany to honor these three anniversaries. His walk roughly traces the route taken by an Army unit that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and worked its way to Berlin in 1945. It will take him about 54 days to complete.

But Pelosi said, it wasn't just his family military history that prompted his walk. When the WWII veterans were barricaded from their own memorial during the government shutdown in 2013, he knew he wanted to do something.

"That truly was my motivation. I felt that the discredit and disrespect shown those veterans needs to be reversed," Pelosi said. "And I felt the best way to do that would be to take advantage of the 2014 opportunities and then move forward with some sort of activity that might get local or regional or national attention and do something — do something unique."

Days before Pelosi's journey begins, not just honor for veterans but numbers fill his head. He will average 15 miles a day between four countries carrying about 38 pounds on his back. He'll eat about 1.5 MREs a day. Pelosi knows how many hours of daylight there are in the summer in Western Europe (between 15 and 16) and the average temperatures (10 to 15 degrees less than in the Houston area, where he lives and has trained).

The day before the D-Day fanfare, he will place 500 American flags at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The flags were purchased with donations. After that, Pelosi's days will be focused on putting one foot in front of the other through four countries: France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. He'll walk through the heart of world-class cities, such as Paris and Berlin, and in long swaths of countryside.

He will carry 38 pounds on his back - about, he said, what a servicemember would have carried during WWII. In his pack: a two-person tent, a poncho to put underneath the tent, a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a raincoat, first-aid kit, flashlight, a few layers of clothing and personal hygiene items, two pairs of socks to rotate and five days worth of MREs. He's shipped food to himself in locations along the trail to re-supply.

American Legion Post 490 and the local VFW in Houston teamed up to donate the MREs.

Pelosi, 62, said he's trained for several months, beginning with leg exercises, then six miles a day with no weight, gradually increasing to 15 miles a day with his pack. Because the climate in Europe is cooler and much less humid than Houston, he said he isn't anticipating any problems finishing.

But the last steps are the ones Pelosi said he looks forward to the most.

"To tell you the truth, I'm really looking forward to the end when I have that last mile after 843 miles to walk in Berlin and end at the Brandenburg Gate, which is right next to the American Embassy."

He said he hopes someone from the American Embassy will greet him at the end of his journey, as he sent personal letters to living U.S. presidents, actors who have played military characters, political TV and radio personalities and more.

But if the ending is lonesome, it will still be a worthwhile journey. Pelosi's cousins, whose fathers also served in WWII, said his own father "would be very proud."

Yet, Pelosi said, he doesn't want to recognize his own family's military legacy above others. He said his family's story just gives him an awareness of the larger history of WWII and its veterans he wouldn't otherwise have.

"This walk by me says basically there are some people who cared then and care now and will care in the future when they’re gone," he said. "You're all for the troops or you're not for the troops, and the troops aren't just the current serving military, they’re also veterans."

He will return to the U.S. at the end of August, then make two return trips to Berlin for ceremonies marking the end of the airlift and the fall of the wall.

Pelosi plans to keep a blog detailing his experiences at his website. To keep up with him, click here:

For another story from a veteran who served during the Berlin airlift, click here:

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