Louisiana American Legion Post 69 hosts WWII Tribute Tour

Lafayette, La., LA

American Legion Post 69 has recently hosted their second World War II Tribute Tour.

The inaugural WW II Tribute Tour was sponsored in November 2014 by American Legion Post 69 Daniel J. Bentley, commander. The second tour, April 2015, was sponsored by a local Iberia Bank.

Assembling at daybreak at the post home, World War II veterans and their chaperones gathered for coffee and donuts before boarding the chartered bus for their destination: The National D-Day museum in New Orleans.

They were accompanied by a younger generation of veterans, who served as their chaperones. These veterans admired the stamina and courage of the noble men of the Greatest Generation, whose average age was 91.

Their bus was escorted to the parish line by a duo of Lafayette City Marshalls, lights and sirens blazing.

During the bus ride, World War II veterans seated with their chaperones shared stories of training, sacrifice and hardship. These veterans from Acadiana have served in every military branch and corner of the Pacific and Europe: Rhineland, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Marshal Islands, Guam, Aleutian Islands and occupation duty in Japan.

They served as parachute riggers, tail gunners, combat infantry, mechanics and cooks. They spoke of troop ship transports, C rations, USO shows and wet socks.

Among the participants was Robert D. Lowe, vice commander at Post 69, a USMC Pearl Harbor survivor; Jim Bollich, Army Air Corp soldier who was captured in the Philippines, endured the Bataan Death march, and spent almost four years as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in Mukden, Manchuria; and Kenneth LaFleur, who flew combat missions as a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific.

The excitement began to build as the bus passed the Superdome and arrived at the museum. Upon entrance to the museum, the entourage was greeted by their hostess, who had anxiously anticipated their arrival. She would later comment about how lively and inspirational this group of veterans was.

After assembling for a photo beneath the massive D-Day logo, the group opted to view the Tom Hanks documentary “Beyond all Boundaries.” The movie featured actual war footage that included the flash of bombs and rumbling of tanks.

The chaperones watched in amazement as these veterans were transformed into the youthful soldiers of WWII. They recounted life aboard the USS Princeton, USS Kitkun Bay and USS Tennessee as they navigated the dangerous waters of the South Pacific.

Honorable Judge Kaliste Saloom jr, recounted his duty in the European Theater that included a trek across North Africa. His Cajun French dialect would prove invaluable to his assignment in counterintelligence. To his credit, he was instrumental in capturing a Nazi two-star general, as well as protecting British Prime minister Sir Winston Churchill. At age 96, he is affectionately known as a living historian.

Shirby Breaux served aboard the USS Kitkun Bay during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He was a gunner and also worked in the laundry aboard ship. The vessel attacked enemy forces in the Philippines and participated in the waters of Saipan, Guam and Peleliu. The USS Kitkun Bay was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and six battle stars for its heroism in the Pacific.

A box lunch was served in the spacious Arizona-Missouri Conference room, and the veterans continued the tour through the museum. They visited aviation exhibits which included the B-17 Flying Fortress, North American B-25 Mitchell, and the B-24 Liberator. The Vehicles of War exhibit houses the M4 Sherman tank, White M3 Half-track, and the Dodge WC-54 Ambulance. European and Pacific galleries document the prelude to war as well as its resolution at the signing of the treaty in Tokyo Bay.

As the veterans boarded the bus for the trip home, they were immersed in conversation regarding the details of the exhibits, the realistic display of personal artifacts and the enormity of the new additions to the post-Katrina museum. Their hearts were filled with gratitude that founder Stephen B. Ambrose had chosen to honor their sacrifice and courage.

Settling into their seats, the bus became quiet as they rested on the trip home. As the police escort came into view, the veterans returned home to a reception that included local dignitaries, veterans, general public and fellow Legionnaires.

As they disembarked the bus, our heroes were escorted through a greeting line and met with smiles, hugs and applause. They responded with handshakes and salutes. Local bugler Gary Edmondson played WWII era music as they entered the building. Local media outlets were present to document the entire event.

An evening meal of the finest cuisine from local restaurants provided the perfect setting for the participants to celebrate their service. Commander Daniel J. Bentley introduced each veteran, acknowledging his dedication to duty. As each veteran rose to his feet upon being announced, introductions were met with thunderous applause from a grateful community.

The evening concluded with the cutting of a cake in their honor. Families left Post 69 with a renewed sense of appreciation for their veterans and their sacrifice.

If you are interested in sponsoring a WW II Tribute Tour in your local community, please contact American Legion Post 69 Adjutant John Rougeau at
(337) 233-3296 or vetmom01@aol.com.

Enjoy this video of the November 2014 WW II Tribute Tour https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFBxVLfqc2s&feature=youtu.be

American Legion Post 69 Commander Daniel J. Bentley, top row, last on the right; Pearl Harbor survivor Robert D. Lowe, top row, third from right; Honorable Judge Kaliste Saloom Jr., front row, seated with red hat; Jim Bollich, former prisoner of war, bottom row standing, fourth from right. The Acadiana Veterans Honor Guard is in uniform on the top row.

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