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Brent Wheelbarger
Brent Wheelbarger

America on Its Best Day

Nov 11, 2017

Moore resident Jessel Williams has no difficulty recalling one of the most shocking memories of his life, a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany at the close of World War II. 

 “All the clothes were in a pile out there,” said Jessel. “They had them take off all their clothes before they put them in the gas chambers. And then the survivors were walking around, just like skeletons. They forbid us to give them anything to eat or drink because their systems wouldn’t accommodate it. It was just horrible to see those people walking around.”

On Jessel’s uniform was an American flag patch. It represented something important to the survivors of that camp, where an estimated 30,000 people were gassed. Men with the U.S. flag symbolized liberation and freedom from that awful place.

According to Jessel, “They were exhilarated to head back home. Regardless of how bad it had been, they were glad they survived. They were glad to see us, and thankful, no doubt about it. We flew them from Dachau back to Paris, where they would send them back to their homeland.”

In those moments, everything the flag embodied literally changed history. But Jessel’s relationship with it started long before the war.

“It started out in the Boy Scouts, where I was taught to properly respect the flag,” said Jessel. “I’m an Eagle Scout and I’ve really tried to be a scout and live up to the scout code. It’s been part of my life. And that includes honoring the flag.”

Jessel entered the European theater of WWII in January of 1944 as a member of the Army Air Force; just in time to witness the full scope of devastation in Britain, Germany and all of Europe. He then stayed on several years after the war as the U.S. military helped Germany rebuild.

“They weren’t really glad we were there, but they knew they were being treated honestly and they appreciated that,” said Jessel. “It’s still going on today; we’re still there. And it’s paid dividends. They don’t have the problems there that they have in the Middle East.”

He stayed on with the Air Force for many years after the war, flying troops and supplies to far-flung places including the Pacific, Europe, Africa and South America.  He witnessed the dawn of the cold war during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and flew supply missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961.

In each case, the flag served as a symbol of something special to him, a reason for the mission, a standard of freedom throughout the world; and in some situations, a symbol of loss.

“I’ve seen men killed in service,” said Jessel.  “And I don't understand now why people don’t always honor the flag and those who have given their lives.”

Undoubtedly there are varied reasons why people sit when the anthem is played and the flag is raised. Some might view those reasons as justifiable. But for a generation of Americans who are quickly passing away (Jessel is in his 90’s), the flag isn’t anything to be toyed with. It represents a continent liberated from totalitarianism and hatred, of a free society that won the Cold War, of the men and women who died in service to others, of his Boy Scout patrol learning to believe in things bigger than themselves. For Jessel, even when his country doesn't always live up to the lofty precepts, the flag still represents our highest ideals. You could say it’s a symbol of America on its best day…and for The Greatest Generation, that’s worth standing for.


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