CUMBERLAND – A group of local World War II combat veterans will be honored Aug. 18, at the Cumberland Beagle Club, which for the fourth year in a row, is giving the public an opportunity to hear the stories and unique experiences of what Richard Souza calls “true American heroes.”
“Being on the front line and dealing with life and death situations myself, I know how chaotic and scary war can be, but when you hear what these veterans went through it’s easy to understand why they are hailed as America's greatest generation,” says Souza, a Vietnam veteran and club member who chairs the veterans recognition ceremony every year.
Every August, the Cumberland Beagle Club, a sportsman’s club on Nate Whipple Highway, honors the military service of World War II combat veterans at a roughly three-hour ceremony, which will be held this year from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the club, 425 Nate Whipple Highway. The ceremony, which typically draws 75 to 100 people, is open to the public.
The ceremony is a continuation of the annual barbecue Edward Nawrocki, a retired police chief and Korean War veteran, used to hold in his Cumberland backyard for World War II veterans. At Nawrocki’s request, the Cumberland Beagle Club agreed to take over and host the event four years go.
Souza, a Navy corpsman who served with the Marines in Vietnam from 1967-1968, volunteered to coordinate the annual ceremony, which he says is an opportunity to tell the veterans’ stories, reminisce and pass on the history to the next generation.
The ceremony, which includes catered food and refreshments, kicks off with a procession in which the veterans are led to their seats as patriotic music is played in the background. Once they are seated, Nawrocki will stand behind each veteran and give brief biographies as well as their personal stories from the war.
Among those to be honored is Wilfrid E. Hebert, 91, an ex-POW and a resident of Flat Street. Hebert went off to war in October of 1942 and ended up as a flight engineer with the crew of a B-17 bomber in the 840th Squadron of the 483rd Bomber Group. A native of Lawrence, Mass., he had moved to Woonsocket in 1927 and attended Mount St. Charles Academy before he joined the service.
The first mission Hebert flew out of Stamperone, Italy, taught him the hard and lasting lessons of air combat. His flight of bombers was on a run to Vienna, Austria, when it ran into heavy flak from enemy guns below. Hebert’s plane took a hit and his pilot sent him down to check on the bombardier and navigator who were not responding on the intercom.
Both of the flyers had been killed instantly by the blast.
Hebert ran into trouble in the air again on a mission to attack a munitions factory in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on Oct. 23, 1944. His B-17, the Shadrack, took a hit in one of its four-engines and the 10-member crew made a bid to fly back to Italy on the remaining three engines. The plane lost additional engines along the way until just one was still running as the plane flew over Austria. When that engine gave out, Hebert and his fellow crew members bailed out. All survived and only the co-pilot was hurt when he broke his legs in the landing, Hebert said.
Hebert and other members of the crew were captured near Landeck, Austria, and held in prisoner war camps until the end of the war in spring of 1945. All of the crew members, including the injured co-pilot, survived and returned home.
Souza says its stories like these that need to be remembered.
“The rapidly-declining number of World War II veteran are advanced in age, and these tales of valor are slowly are being lost to history as more and more who fought in WWII pass away,” he said.
It was Hebert and Souza who were behind the effort to install a granite monument to combat veterans of all wars at the town’s Cumberland Monastery property off Diamond Hill Road in 2000.
“I only wish that more people really understood what these guys went through and the heroic deeds their generation accomplished,” said Souza.