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Service the Common Thread In Veterans' Diverse Experiences

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday , November 11, 2000

Twenty-eight were laid to rest on Thursday, a gray, rainy day at Arlington National Cemetery. Their caskets were lowered into ground now covered with leaves, or their ashes were placed inside the limestone vaults of the columbarium.

An Arlington baker who flew combat missions off aircraft carriers in the Pacific. A navigator on a World War II bomber who never forgot the consequences of war. An Army nurse who put her medical training to work for GIs in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. A proud Army veteran who grew ill from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. A Navy musician who put down his instruments to save shipmates after an attack. An Alexandrian who went to sea during World War II, then fought in two more wars.

Today, as the nation marks Veterans Day, here are the stories of those six, laid to rest with the other veterans or family members and saluted with the traditional words of a military funeral: "On behalf of a grateful nation."

9 a.m.: Warren Laughery, 79 Beulah Bowling was engaged to Warren Laughery, a quiet and earnest young man she had met in Washington before war called and sent her fiance to England in 1944. Laughery had one of the most dangerous assignments: navigator aboard a B-17 bomber.

Bowling tried to concentrate on her work downtown at the Washington School for Secretaries, but it was difficult. On the street outside, vendors hawked newspapers with alarming headlines. "So many bombers exploded in mid-air," she said. "It wasn't easy."

She would go long stretches without hearing from him, because of wartime mail restrictions. "There'd be a couple of weeks there that would be very rough," she said.

Laughery flew 35 bombing missions over Nazi-held Europe, but made it back, married Bowling, settled in Arlington and began a career as an insurance man.

"He had a very high moral code," his wife said. "And yet, he could forgive someone pretty much anything."

Tom Laughery didn't hear many war stories from his father. "He didn't go into a lot of details about the missions he flew," his son said. "For him, he knew the war was a necessary thing, but he was aware of what it did to people."

10 a.m.: Charles McKnight, 78 Service took Charles McKnight far from his Alexandria home.

First, the Navy took him to the Pacific during World War II, where he served aboard ships and at a critical Navy base in New Caledonia. He came home after the war but was soon bored, joining the Air Force in 1949 and going to Korea after war broke out there.

"He volunteered to go," said his wife, Edmonia McKnight. "I'd liked to have had a conniption when he went. Anywhere he wanted to go, he would."

A decade later, he volunteered to go to Vietnam, which made his wife even angrier.

"When he was in Vietnam, he wrote my mother a letter which he had to close very suddenly, because they were under fire," said his daughter, Celie Mobley. "He said that the sky seemed like a ball of fire, and that he loved us, and he would be back. God looked after us, because he came back."

By the time he retired in 1967 as a master sergeant, he had served in three wars. "There's not that many of them around," said his son-in-law, Melvin Mobley Jr. "That's dedication, as far as I'm concerned."

A month ago, an acquaintance recommended he buy a plot at a Falls Church cemetery. McKnight demurred.

"I already have my plot in Arlington," McKnight replied, according to his wife. "I served my time, and they can't take that away from me."

11 a.m.: Julius Brenner, 80 Amber Brenner loved it when her father would come home from the family bakery. "I always liked him to pick me up, because his hair smelled like a bakery," she said.

Raised in the District, Julius Brenner joined the Navy in 1938 at age 17, soon after graduating from Central High School.

Serving in bomber squadrons aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific, Brenner, a radioman, flew 44 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal.

After the war, he joined his father and brothers at Brenner's Bakeries, with shops in Arlington, Alexandria and Oxon Hill.

A joyous man, Julius Brenner didn't talk much about the war, although he saw plenty of combat; he'd lost too many comrades.

"He never said anything about people getting killed," Amber Brenner said. "Mostly what he talked about were his friends."

1 p.m.: Elizabeth Sprague, 88

26th April, 1945

Germany

Dearest Family:

I've been ages writing to you, I know, but we've had an unprecedented rush of casualties (as you may have surmised by the newspapers). We have barely had time for chow--most assuredly we have not had time to sleep--also thanks to "Bed Check Charlie" and his little machine gun which goes faithfully every night. But now things are coming to a lull and I can take a breather--wash my clothes, take a much-needed helmet bath (I've been covering up with some "liberated" cologne, I'm ashamed to say) and write home, again. The activity in an evac hospital is indescribable--I've never known such work, but you don't notice it as it is all conducted at such fever heat.

To her nieces, Army nurse Betty Sprague lived a magical life. "She was a fairy godmother," Eleanor Colombo said. "She was always off in some exotic place. We remember the German dolls and the Korean costumes she would send us."

An independent woman from the start, Sprague studied at Yale, and then volunteered as a nurse anesthetist as the U.S. Army battled through Europe in World War II.

Sprague left the Army after the war but was called back to active duty with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit for the Korean War. She had gray hair by the time she went to Vietnam, a comfort to the young soldiers she treated. "They looked at her like their mothers," Colombo said.

She retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1969 and lived in Colorado and then Michigan, and kept traveling. At the age of 80, she packed up her cats in a van and moved to Montana.

I'm sure I would be no other place at this time--though I long for home and you all constantly . . .

As ever,

Betty

2 p.m.: Marvin Walker, 68 Marvin Walker was proud of his Army service in Vietnam, but it cost him dearly.

"He got tied up with Agent Orange, and it gave him cancer," said his brother, James Walker.

Walker served two tours in Vietnam--he was twice awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service--and was also stationed in South Korea.

"He was cool, laid back," said his nephew, Bryan Walker. Marvin Walker did not talk much about his service but was
"absolutely" proud of it, his nephew said.

After retiring from the Army as a staff sergeant in 1971, Walker lived off his retirement pay. He was divorced many years ago and had no immediate family other than his brother.

His last years living alone in Philadelphia were pretty lonely, his brother said. "He wasn't able to do anything, because he was so sick," James Walker said. "I was the only one coming around."

3 p.m.: Herman Wolf, 79 Herman Wolf almost ended up in Philadelphia.

After Wolf died a year ago, his son Rick loaded his father's saxophone, clarinet and ashes into the car and drove to the Philadelphia National Cemetery. He didn't like what he saw, specifically the neighborhood. "He turned around," said Herman Wolf's wife, Shirley. "He said, 'Mom, you'd need a gun to get to it.' "

Instead, the family arranged for Wolf, a Navy veteran, to be interred at Arlington. It was the sort of twist he would have appreciated. "He was a character, my dad," said his stepdaughter, Sheryl Noland. "A pistol."

Wolf, a native of Philadelphia, was a professional musician before joining the Navy during World War II and being assigned to a band. The band was aboard a ship hit by an aerial attack in the Atlantic, family members said. "The band had to abandon their activities," Noland said. Wolf worked with Navy corpsmen to help the wounded.

After the war, Wolf led an eclectic life in Florida, pursuing many professions and passions. His spirits were high even as he battled a heart ailment in his last years. Said Shirley Wolf, "He was not only a great veteran and a great citizen, he did go out like a warrior."