I wish I could tell you that WWII veteran Paul Sedelmeyer stormed the beaches at Normandy or shivered in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge. But like many of the young men who enlisted to answer the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sedelmeyer was stationed stateside. He was a Navy man, a crewman on a blimp. Only one American blimp was shot down during WWII. Safe duty, so why should we concern ourselves with Seaman First Class Sedelmeyer on Memorial Day?
Most Americans, even those alive during WWII, do not realize the threat that German submarines posed to our security. They sank American ships near our shores, the explosions sometimes so close that coastal residents felt the shock. On occasion, the subs surfaced at night to slip spies into our country.
Blimps patrolled the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines in an attempt to spot and sink the deadly craft. Deploying depth charges, the crew called in air and sea support to finish the job. Blimp duty, however, was not without its dangers.
Coming off patrol toward their base in Galveston, the crew of Sedelmeyer’s blimp lost their bearings during a sprawling storm. Hopelessly off course, running low on fuel, the crew circled tiny Kosciusko, Mississippi, dropping flares through the night. When daylight broke, the crewmen managed to communicate their distress to the puzzled citizenry. Folks thereabouts still talk about the rescue.
In September of 2013, Sedelmeyer joined dozens of fellow WWII veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Honor Flights seek to show appreciation to our war veterans with all-expense-paid trips to D.C. to visit their memorials. Like Paul, these men returned from war, took up the tools of commerce and rebuilt a nation. They rarely spoke of their war experiences. But in 2004, when the WWII Memorial opened on a sweep of lawn near the Washington Monument, something loosened in their hearts.
They crept humbly among the soaring columns, the broad pavilions and dancing fountains. School children asked for their autographs. Strangers stooped beside their wheelchairs to say thank you. Generals, sharp and square-shouldered in their dress uniforms, took their hands and spoke words of gratitude, warrior to warrior.
Amazed by the appreciation, they spoke for the first time of memories long buried.
When Honor Flight delivered Paul back to his family, he was bubbling with enthusiasm. In the ensuing months, he could speak of nothing but his experiences in D.C. He proudly displayed his Honor Flight T-shirt in a place of prominence, pointing it out to all who visited.
Paul was a fit 91 in February, busy with his involvement in the community. Putting away his tools after helping a neighbor, he fell and hit his head on the pavement. Within days he died.
On Memorial Day, or any day, we’re often shy about approaching a stranger to extend a hand and say “thank you for defending our country.” But our words flow like sweet music into the ears of our warriors. Our gratitude affirms the significance of their sacrifice, warming their hearts long after the encounter.
Rarely can we point to proof of this truth, but sometimes we are given a glimpse. It came during Paul Sedelmeyer’s funeral. Just before the lid of his casket was closed forever, Paul’s family slipped something inside.
It was his Honor Flight T-shirt.