Spirit of ‘45 WW II commemoration soars anew

By Martha Elson - The Courier-Journal

CALHOUN (AP) — Dr. James Wheeler’s account of his mother’s experience during World War II at home in western Kentucky is almost as heart-rending as the story he tells about his father.

His late mother, Alma, living in the small town of Calhoun on the Green River south of Owensboro, told people she was married at 20, a mother at 21 and a widow at 22.

Her husband, Lt. E. E. “Gene” Wheeler — Jim Wheeler’s dad — was the co-pilot of a C-47 transport plane in the Army Air Corps flying paratroopers behind German lines during the United States’ D-Day invasion of Europe June 6, 1944 when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire at night.

Wheeler, 23, and the pilot managed to keep the plane airborne until all but one of the paratroopers — who was injured in the initial barrage — had jumped before the plane crashed in the woods in Normandy, France, killing Wheeler, the pilot and a crew member. Another crew member already had been killed by the gunfire, which knocked out the left engine, and the injured paratrooper later was determined to have died from a gunshot wound to the head, presumably fired on the ground, Wheeler said.

Of the 15 paratroopers on the plane, 12 survived the war.

It was viewed as a selfless act of courage by Wheeler’s father that forever marked him as a hero, and Jim Wheeler — only five months old at the time — has spent the rest of his life paying tribute to his dad and sharing his story. “He was one of thousands and thousands of heroes that night,” Wheeler said at his home. “It gives me a great sense of pride.”

Seventy-two-year-old Wheeler a retired dentist from Hardinsburg and who lives in Tucker Lake Estates outside of Jeffersontown, will continue his efforts as an exhibitor at the 2016 Keep the “Spirit of ‘45 Alive” commemoration event Aug. 13 at Bowman Field. He will be among about 50 exhibitors, also including veterans and their families, the Clark County, Indiana, Historical Society, Louisville Fire Department, museums, Armed Services branches and companies in the Louisville area that contributed to the war effort. Exhibits will include vintage aircraft, restored military vehicles and radio controlled WWII model aircraft.

The first “Spirit of ‘45” commemoration — part of an international observance — was held last year at Bowman Field to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. “We all thought last year would be a one-time event,” said Dell Courtney, co-chair of the volunteer Spirit of ‘45 — Kentucky organizing committee, which also includes Thunder Over Louisville commander Wayne Hettinger.

But it was so successful that organizers decided tentatively to continue annually until 2020, the 75th anniversary of the war’s end, Courtney said. This year will focus on anniversaries of events and organizations associated with 1941 — the bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, founding of the Tuskegee Airmen March 22 and the founding of the Civil Air Patrol.

People may also bring memorabilia the day of the event. Historian and author Chuck Parrish of Fern Creek, an exhibitor and chairman of the exhibit committee, says that the aim of the “Spirit” commemorations is to honor veterans and the military and call attention to the region’s contribution to the war effort. He cites the Mengel Box Co. in Louisville as an example, which helped with production of the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Co.’s wooden cargo planes and sites across the river that helped with production of LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks).

“Spirit” Corporate event sponsors include the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, Honor Flight and The Courier-Journal.

Wheeler will bring items from what’s virtually a museum that he has created in the finished basement of his home, which is filled with every imaginable type of memorabilia related to the war and his parents — including books, photos, posters, medals, newspapers, a diorama of Omaha Beach he built and countless model aircraft that Wheeler also put together. “You will be amazed,” Wheeler said, before descending a carpeted staircase with walls lined with framed photos of his dad, a flag preserved in a case, a helmet and other items.

A clock marked with “Douglas C-47” tells the time in the “museum,” and a blown-up black and white photo taken from a German POW shows the crash scene and the body of Wheeler’s father, still wearing a metal identification bracelet given to him by his mother. Wheeler’s dad was buried in Normandy for several years before his body was returned in 1948 to the U. S. to be buried in his family’s cemetery in Calhoun. His wife had spent a year not knowing that he had died, only that he was missing in action. She remarried when Jim Wheeler was six.

Wheeler and his wife have visited Normandy five times and have tracked down the site where the plane went down, on property where a manor house now stands. It brought him “riches untold,” he said, “to stand where your father died and to know what a hero he was.”

Among the other exhibitors will be Dr. George Pantalos, a professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery and bioengineering at University of Louisville, who also exhibited at last year’s event. His dad, Jim, who died at age 92, was a corporal in the 15th Air Force of the Army Air Corp, serving as a communications specialist with a B-24 bomber group in North Africa and Southern Italy during World War II.

But he also was a musician and band leader who played saxophone and clarinet. At one point, he was selected to serve in one of the military bands, before his technical skills ultimately landed him in the Signal Corps, Pantalos said. After being drafted while a student at Miami University in Ohio, “Dad would help organize pick-up bands to entertain the troops in hospital wards when off duty and have an occasional jam session in the USO clubs,” he said.

Among his exhibit items are Big Band books and CDs, and he has at least 25 Benny Goodman albums. While his dad enjoyed entertaining soldiers, he thought it only had “short term benefits,” Pantalos said, and he returned from the war to switch from majoring in music to social work, earning a master’s degree and becoming a professional social worker “to help people in a much more lasting way.”

Still, “evenings and weekend he was a musician,” Pantalos said. He regards being an exhibitor as a chance not only to share his stories but also to hear other people’s stories. “It’s a chance for everybody to share,” he said.

By Martha Elson

The Courier-Journal

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