Ceremonies are always moving experiences. I’ve been fortunate to volunteer at several in recent years, and the Veterans I am fortunate to meet stick with me forever. I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to make this year’s Veterans Day ceremony, because I was supposed to be traveling for work. I still have my job, but the trip was canceled. A bit of a bummer, but I was definitely excited I was able to participate in the National Park Service/Friends of the National World War II Memorial joint ceremony. As in the past, I was selected to escort a Veteran during the wreath-laying.
Traffic was kind on the holiday Friday, so I arrived at WWII at 7:09 AM. Plenty of time to help set up, take a few pictures, and get ready to meet my Veteran before the 9 AM ceremony. When I first walked into the Memorial, I found the North Dakota pillar. You may recall the pillar was vandalized the previous weekend. The pillar was cleaned as much as possible without damaging it, but the graffiti is still visible.
So, that didn’t start my time at WWII off on such a great foot. But the day was young and I had a Veteran to meet!
While I waited for the person who assigns us our Veterans, I helped put name stickers on chairs for the invited guests. We had a HUGE contingent of students (Midshipmen?) from the Norwegian Naval Academy. And the usual assortment of family members and Veterans groups. And finally, I was assigned my Veteran for the day.
Waiting to meet my Veteran always feels like Christmas Eve. I’m excited, a little nervous, and I know it will just be amazing. But this time, after I was assigned a Veteran, I was already in awe before meeting him. Here is his chair:
Yep, that says “Ex POW.” Wow.
Shortly after I was assigned to escort him, Chief Master Sergeant William Tippins arrived with his family. I introduced myself and his daughters told me he didn’t hear very well. So I told them I would take care of him, and asked them if there was anything special I should know. His daughter Carmen told me a little about his time as a POW, but nothing could prepare me for his whole story. My fellow Volunteer, George Kerestes, was nearby and I asked him to snap a picture for me.
USA Today and a bunch of other media outlets kept coming by to interview Mr. Tippins, and I did my best to help him understand what they were asking him. It was pretty loud with all the people and the fountains, plus it was windy. He did fine, and after everyone moved on to other Veterans, I asked Mr. Tippins to tell me his story. I was not prepared.
CMSGT William Tippins: Chief Master Sergeant Tippins was in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was a paratrooper and made some of the first jumps into Africa and Europe in 1942. He was captured in late 1943 and became a prisoner of war. During his 18 months in captivity, he escaped three times from the Germans and once from Russian liberators before returning to American care. He escaped for the last time on April 20, 1945, with a few other men. They traveled at night and spent their days in abandoned German houses. They made their way into Allied territory on May 5, 1945–the day before the war ended in Europe. After the war, he tried to join the Army again to go back to Germany to find the nurse who kept him alive by sneaking him food. Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to go while in the Army due to an agreement with the Germans, which did not allow prisoners of war to return to Germany. So, he joined the newest branch of the military – the Air Force. After joining the Air Force, he was stationed in Germany and eventually found the nurse he was looking for. He found her in a post office. He didn’t know her name, but had called her “Pinky” because her cheeks were always rosy. They were married seven months later. He retired after serving 24 years in the military. He then worked for the US Department of Agriculture for 20 years. Mrs. Tippins passed away in 2003 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Their children and grandchildren didn’t learn how they met until after she passed.
Here we are while he was telling me the story. I was completely blown away.
Before the speeches, they introduced each Veteran and told his or her story. The ceremony went on, and we presented our wreath at the field of gold stars. They played Taps (when I told Mr. Tippins they were going to play Taps, he said, “But I’m still alive!”) and then the media came up to take photos of all of us behind the wreaths. Senator Bob Dole was there, so of course he was mobbed after it was all over. I stayed with Mr. Tippins until his family made their way over to us. I met his grandson and granddaughter, and told them he was a bit of a troublemaker. They said they hear that all the time. Then it was picture time. I took one of him with the wreath, then one with his grandson and another with his daughter, Carmen.
Carmen asked if I would like a photo with him, so of course I said yes. I hugged them all, and as they were leaving, Mr. Tippins picked up two carnations that had fallen off another wreath and gave them to me. They are currently drying in my kitchen. 🙂
I’ve met a lot of amazing people, but Mr. Tippins blew me away. I located his wife’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, and next time I am there, I am going to visit her.