WICKLIFFE - The anniversary of a once-in-a-lifetime trip gave added meaning to Thank A Veteran Day, an annual celebration held Saturday at the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum in Wickliffe.
Ten years ago today, 17 buses full of the region's veterans and their families arrived at the new National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
It started as a small undertaking. Veterans advocate Sandy Hart thought she'd find half a dozen people who'd travel with her to see the memorial before it officially opened in late May of 2004. But as word spread, more than 800 veterans and their loved ones from the region joined the caravan, Hart said.
The memory of the trip brought tears to the eyes of several who reminisced Saturday about that rainy, but rewarding journey. Part of what moved them, they said, was the generosity of the community: none of them had to spend a penny to get there.Hart managed to raise more than $225,000 in donations over the course of 18 months. With discounts and donated services, the amount reached more than $400,000 - enough to cover travel and housing expenses for the more than 800 people who made the trek, Hart said.
Thank a Veteran Day also brought other veterans, their families, law enforcement officers and Patriot Guard Riders to Wickliffe for food and camaraderie.
"We feed them and we entertain them for free, just because of what they did for us," said Hart, who runs the museum off Ky. 286.
Edgar Harrell, a Trigg County native and arguably one of the busiest of today's World War II veterans, journeyed from his current home in Clarksville, Tenn., to speak at the event.
Harrell, 89, was one of 316 service members who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. The ship sank 12 minutes after two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck it. About 900 of the 1,196 on board made it into the shark-infested Pacific waters, where they battled hypothermia, dehydration, starvation, delirium and shark attacks for four and a half days before they were rescued.
Harrell and his son David recently wrote and published a book, "Out of the Depths," about his experience during the catastrophe. Harrell was a 19-year-old corporal in the United States Marine Corps at the time, and is now one of only two living Marines who survived the disaster, he said.
"I think it made the best of me," Harrell said. "(I survived) not because I was a good swimmer or a Marine. I want it thought of as being really the providence of God that any one of us survived," he said.
Harrell relocated to Clarksville in order to be closer to Nashville, Tenn., after he first published the book in 2005. He now travels the country to speak about his experience. The flights, interviews and talks run him ragged, he said, but he welcomes the opportunity to meet with other World War II veterans. He said their collective trauma has erased whatever divisions may have existed between various branches of the service.
"Today we're one. We're comrades, we're brothers," he said.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.