At long last, WWII vet recognized for his service
Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 5:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 5:18 p.m.
Sixty-eight years after completing his stint in the military, longtime Alachua County resident and World War II veteran Howard Douglas finally received a Bronze Star Medal for his service.
Fittingly, it came on Veterans Day.
Flanked by men in uniform, the 96-year-old veteran appeared Sunday before the crowd at the Alachua County Veterans Services' annual Veterans Day Celebration as his Combat Infantryman Badge and Bronze Star Medal were pinned to the light-green suit jacket he wore.
Douglas later saluted the crowd as they applauded.
"Oh, I think it was a wonderful thing, and it could've come later when I was dead," he said after the ceremony. "I'm glad it came when I was living."
Douglas served in the historic 366th Infantry Regiment, one of the nation's first and final units composed entirely of black enlisted soldiers and officers.
He remembers hearing guns fire all night as he served in Italy during the war. "I used to flinch every time I would hear one go off," he said.
His military records were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s, but he was finally able to get proof of his combat service with the help of Rosemary Larry, a lawyer who lives in Arlington, Va., whom he has known since she was young. Larry starting searching for records in 2007.
"It really felt good because he has finally got his recognition, and he can realize that people realize he really did ... help win the war," she said.
Douglas was part of the county's annual celebration, which was held at the Alachua County Veterans Memorial in Kanapaha Park in Gainesville.
The two-hour event featured a flag-folding ceremony, drill team demonstration and other military tributes.
The Fort Clarke Middle School Band played for the crowd, including a recital of the U.S. military theme songs for the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy as veterans from each branch stood to applause from the crowd.
Bob Gasche, an 87-year-old Gainesville resident who served in World War II and the Korean War and was part of the Battle of Iwo Jima, always attends the annual event.
"I look forward to it every year," he said. "It's good to see such a turnout."
Gasche said it was wonderful to see Douglas receive a medal for his service in the war in which they both fought.
"It's a recognition he certainly had coming to him," he said.
Earlier, as the band finished its performance, Alachua County Veterans Services Director Major Stroupe told them a bald eagle was circling the celebration — a fitting sight on this holiday.
People stood on the bleachers, pointing to their children as they caught sight of its widespread wings.
"There it is!"
But they quickly turned from the national symbol in flight to watch four veterans from Skydive Palatka glide into the park on parachutes, snapping away with their cameras.
The final skydiver to arrive bore an American flag waving from the straps of his parachute.
"Over the course of 237 years of independence, these patriots have stood watch over our liberties," Thomas Wisnieski, director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, said of U.S. veterans during the event. He also recognized current members of the military.
"They are tomorrow's veterans," he said.
The celebration concluded with a wreath-laying ceremony where veterans were invited to walk up to the memorial for the war in which they served.
Douglas was helped from a wheelchair by fellow military men who clasped his arms as he approached the World War II memorial, piled high with bricks representing his fallen comrades.
He saluted as a wreath was laid in front of it, his new Bronze Star Medal pinned on his chest.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.
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