FOX31 returns with veterans to tiny island that played large role in WWII

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World War II vets like Jack Holder return to tiny island in Pacific where war changed

World War II vets like Jack Holder return to tiny island in Pacific where war changed

As the nation pauses to honor our war dead this Memorial Day weekend, FOX 31 Denver is traveling back to battlegrounds of World War II with a group of men who survived. Men returning to the battlefield for the first time, to pay tribute to their fallen friends.

FOX 31 Denver anchor Jeremy Hubbard recently journeyed to the Northern Mariana Islands, halfway around the globe, and he’s put together a special report on the journey, airing Monday, May 25 (Memorial Day) at 9:30 pm. The trip included 17 World War II survivors, and was organized by a Denver-based charity called The Greatest Generations Foundation.

This is a preview of that special, and it takes us to one of the smallest islands in that part of the Pacific ocean. A tiny island that played a giant role in the war.

We arrived there on a prop plane, loaded with aging veterans. And even for these guys who made history, and changed history … this little piece of history they’re about to witness is captivating.

It’s the island of Tinian. A place that barely shows up as a dot on a globe. Ironic, considering the massive impact the miniscule island had on our planet. You can see where it sits in the Pacific on the map below.

“This is where the Enola Gay took off from,” noted World War II veteran William Thomsen of Springfield, Missouri.

He’s pointing to a stretch of concrete known as “Runway Able.” It’s the runway that won the war. “Runway Able” was the departure point for the famous Boeing B-29 Superfortress, on a world-changing mission. The Enola Gay dropped a 9,700-pound atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Within days, the war was over.

“I never dreamed I’d see the runway that (was) used to go to Japan on. It’s quite a revelation. I’ve done a lot of flying in my life, military and civilian, and I never dreamed I’d see this runway,” said Jack Holder, one of 17 World War II veterans who’ve come along on our journey.

Aviation holds a special place in Holder’s heart. He’s one of the rare veterans who served in both the Pacific and European theaters during World War II as an aviation flight engineer in the Navy.

As he stands on Tinian, staring for the first time at the very spot where “Little Boy,” that atomic bomb, was loaded for its mission, he can’t help but feel the weight of that decision to deploy it, killing 66,000 Japanese, and injuring just as many.

“And in turn it saved many lives of ours, many U.S. lives. If we had had to invade Japan proper, there’s no telling how many young men we would have lost,” noted Holder.

No matter where you travel on the tiny island of Tinian – you can’t help but feel the big impact it had. And you can’t help but feel reverence for the lives lost ending a war that spanned the entire globe, took six years to fight, and left (by some estimates) 56 million people dead, when you total up battle deaths and civilians.

Death is something that eluded our group of veterans when they were first here 70 years ago. But it’s an encroaching reality now. Even the youngest of the veterans on our trip is pushing 90.

So they’re using the time they have left to honor the guys who didn’t make it off these islands alive. Their fallen friends. By teaching others something about World War II we may never have known before. Before it’s too late to hear it first-hand.

Tinian is just one of the tiny islands we visited with 17 World War II veterans – as part of a program sponsored by Denver-based charity The Greatest Generations Foundation, which returns World War II veterans to the battlefields where they served. Over the last decade, the foundation has returned hundreds of service members to places like Pearl Harbor, Normandy and Iwo Jima.

And we hope you’ll join us for a FOX31 Denver news special featuring their stories. It’s called The Forgotten Islands of World War II and it airs Monday, Memorial Day, at 9:30 p.m.