Sam Nelson arrived in time to say thanks.
The retired lieutenant colonel, who visits hospice patients as part of the “We Honor Veterans” program, dropped by the Northgate Drive home of retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Troy “Pop” Wakefield last month to thank the World War II vet for his service.
“It hasn’t been long that veterans came home and nobody said thank you,” said Nelson, who was wearing his dress blue uniform. “You are one of the guys that made the country work. You took a tremendous risk. You are a hero.”
He presented Wakefield with a framed certificate of service and a lap blanket.
“I’m glad I made it this far,” said Wakefield, 82. “I was proud I could serve my country. I’m relaxed and just enjoy being here. I’m thankful.”
Less than three weeks later, Wakefield was dead.
An ambitious goal
Nelson has honored about 35 veterans over the last 15 months as part of the national program, which is sponsored in Columbus by VistaCare Hospice and has the goal of recognizing every veteran in hospice carefor service to the country.
“They are never the same,” said Nelson, chairman of the Chattahoochee Valley Veterans Council, of his private ceremonies with veterans. “I have walked in right after the guy went unconscious, I have been there when they looked healthy or when they were just hanging on. I have done them in wheelchairs; I have done them standing up and in bed. It’s never the same, but they all are meaningful.”
During his recent visit, Wakefield told him he served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-1947 after his mother signed for him to join at age 16. He was on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands when two nuclear devices were tested, one underwater and a second above, creating a huge mushroom cloud. Records show there were 23 nuclear devices detonated between 1946 and 1958 at Bikini Atoll, beginning with Operation Crossroads.
“The bomb that ended the war was tested after the war,” Wakefield said. “They took a ship out to Bikini and then on the first test they transferred us to a transport ship. We were 18 miles from the first test and nothing happened. It was exploded underwater. They put us back on the ship for about two weeks.”
Wakefield, a native of Nashville, Ark., said the ship was radioactive, forcing the Navy to transfer sailors to another. “We stayed there for the second one. That is the one they dropped from the air. That is the one you see in the big mushroom. We could see that mushroom 18 miles away. They didn’t know what it would do to you.”
Years later, Wakefield would join the Atomic Veterans Association and the Underage Veterans Association.After his two-year hitch ended, Wakefield worked briefly in radio and television before spending 30 years as an administrative and supply technician in the Army Reserves in Alexandria, La.
He and his wife, Earlouise, ended up in Columbus after their son, Kenneth Earl, moved to the area after retiring as a master sergeant from Fort Benning in 1997.
For the soldiers
A month earlier, Nelson visited retired Sgt. 1st Class James Billingsley in his Melrose Drive home.
“It was wonderful. It was really great,” said Billingsley, 86. “I thought they forgot me.”
A native of Alexander City, Ala., Billingsley joined the Army in April 1944 and retired 21 years later. He was a surveyor during World War II, building air strips and repairing targets in Okinawa.
A few shots were still flying on the island when he arrived, Billingsley said. “It was still kind of hostile there,” he said. “We had to go up there by plane, and it was kind of scary.”
During his career, Billingsley also served in Germany, France and Korea. After retiring in 1965, he served as a surveyor at Fort Benning.
He stayed at the Melrose Drive home until his daughters, Cynthia Jones and Barbara Mitchell, moved him to Arlington, Texas.
“We moved him to Texas with us,” Jones said. “He hated it. He conned us into moving back here. We are back in the home with him.”
She said her father requires constant care, but he’s still going strong.
Nelson, an intelligence officer during his career, said none of his former soldiers retired in this area and that his hospice visits are a way to honor soldiers in general.
“I just want to do for the guys what I can do for them,” he said. “I really think every officer owes a lot to the guys they worked for. These guys may not have been my soldiers but they were somebody’s. So often we forget — everyone one of us has the freedoms we have because of the sacrifices of others. I never had it too bad myself, but I knew a lot of guys that did.”