Eighty-nine-year-old Bruce Heilman just put another 7,000 miles on his Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic in a cross-country ride that was all about the pain and pride of war that the nation honors on Memorial Day.
Along the way, the World War II “Buck Sergeant” Marine veteran of the horrific battle of Okinawa met with the Gold Star families who lost a son or daughter, to tell them about the sharing of sacrifice.
“It’s a somewhat personal thing, but it actually is something in the hearts and minds of those of us who have been fortunate enough to survive,” Heilman said. His message to the families: “Share with me what your son did. You can share your sorrow but you can also share your pride” in a life given to sacrifice.”
Heilman had just returned last week from his 50-state trek to Richmond, Va., where an honor guard of local police and veterans led him to a ceremony at the Virginia War Memorial.
“Everybody thinks I’m on a three-wheeler,” said Heilman, who will turn 90 in July. “I’m saving that until I get old.” Next up for him and his Harley – a ride down Pennsylvania Ave. tomorrow in the Memorial Day parade.
Heilman credited the Marine Corps for giving purpose to a life in which he became president of the University of Richmond and is now its chancellor.
Not bad for the Kentucky boy who flunked out of high school. Heilman said he was the son of a tenant farmer and had to get up at 3 a.m. to feed the animals.
“I slept through classes,” he said.
At age 17 in 1944, he joined the Marines. It was supposed to be 12 weeks of boot camp but they cut that to eight “because we were losing so many Marines out in the South Pacific,” he said. In training, Heilman finally found something he was good at -- he could shoot. Using what he called a little “Kentucky windage,” he was a top scorer on the rifle range.
After training, he was sent to gunnery school to become a tail gunner on the bombers while his buddies went straight to the Pacific, but he later ended up on a troopship bound for Okinawa.
“We almost didn’t get to Okinawa,” he said. “We had an encounter with a Japanese submarine, then there was a (kamikaze) suicide attack.”
“We got restless, we thought it was going to be safer on Okinawa,” where the Marines would then confront what was called a “typhoon of steel” in 82 days of battle. More than 12,500 Americans were killed or went missing.
The memories of the battle, but more of a determination to prevail, have never left Heilman. He recently gave a eulogy at the funeral of another Kentucky boy he met just once on Okinawa – 92-year-old Bob Oldham.
Heilman said this fierce and strange-looking guy walked up to him and said “I hear you’re from Kentucky. I said ‘Well, yes I am.’ Well, he was muddy, had on a steel helmet, M-1 (rifle) on his right shoulder, submachine gun on his left, had a pistol in his belt. Nobody could imagine this guy was a Marine.”
“I said ‘you’re a mess.’ He said ‘Well, I’ve been in that damn foxhole for three months. Last night, I slept standing up because it was full of water.’” Heilman paused: “You know, sometimes it seems as if it just happened.”
“There’s good and bad that comes from war,” he said. “There’s good and bad that came from Vietnam, there’s good and bad that came from World War II,” and all who survive are changed forever.
For Heilman, the Marine Corps was a catalyst for what he called his “transformation.” He said “I finally grew up,” and not just because he actually got four inches taller. “I began to have a sense of being capable of doing something in life that could be more important than my lackadaisical ways.”
In Depression-era Kentucky, “earning a living was much more important for us than education,” he said. “I had never dreamed of going to college,” but after the Marines he earned a doctorate.
As a national spokesman for the “Keep The Spirit of ’45 Alive” organization, Heilman said his goal was to “talk to people, identify what life is all about, talk about commitment to your country.”
The Harley ride was his way of reaching out. Heilman said he bought a motorcycle in 1946 but his wife, Betty, made him get rid of it. “My wife bought me a brand new one when I was 71,” he said. “She said, ‘You’re old enough now to have a motorcycle.'”
Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.