Veteran Profile: E. Bruce Heilman
Oldham County native Heilman becomes face of ‘Spirit of ’45’
He was grand marshal at the 2015
Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C.
(August 2015) – To anyone who experienced World War II, his life was forever changed. Although there are very few of the brave men and women who fought for us still alive today, veteran Dr. E. Bruce Heilman is determined to preserve their legacy forever.
Dr. E. Bruce Heilman has ridden 6,000 miles on his motorcycle to promote the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War II.
Heilman, 88, is a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa and has been chancellor of the University of Richmond, Va., for the past 30 years. Earlier this year, he undertook a 6,000-mile cross-country motorcycle ride to promote public awareness of the upcoming World War II 70th Anniversary Commemorative Weekend, set for Aug. 14-16.
“I’m riding to honor all Gold Star families and to urge all America to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year,” Heilman said.
He traveled through more than 20 states during a month-long, coast-to-coast tour that began on April 23 at the Marine Base at Quantico, Va. His goal was to travel to San Diego, where he received his basic training before being shipped out with 800 fellow Marines to Okinawa.
The trip was “so unique and unusual, a long ride of about 35 days,” said Heilman, who is the national spokesman for the Greatest Generation organization. “American Legion Riders met me all over the states. I had lots of company.”
But riding solo for long distances on his bike is not a new feat for Heilman. Last year, he logged more than 10,000 miles from Virginia to Alaska and back to honor his late wife, Betty. She had given him his first Harley on their 50th wedding anniversary when he was 72, telling him he was finally old enough to have a motorcycle.
Dr. E. Bruce Heilman (center) is pictured above with four other Kentuckians on Okinawa on V-J Day. It was in the communications shack behind them that Heilman took the message that the atom bomb had been dropped in Japan.
On May 10, Heilman was escorted by a group of bikers from San Diego to Las Vegas on his return trip to Washington, D.C., where he joined the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally and rode in the National Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 25.
To cap off his 6,000-mile ride, Heilman appeared as a grand marshal in the 10th annual National Memorial Day Parade.
He rode up Constitution Avenue in front of a 70th Anniversary Commemoration float that was followed by more than 200 youth marching with photos of some of the 400,000 Americans who lost their lives during World War II. The parade ended at the National World War II Memorial, where a special wreath laying ceremony was held.
It is important to Heilman that America does not forget that more than 14,000 young soldiers lost their lives during the 83 days of the battle of Okinawa, fighting for the price of freedom.
Having worked in education for most of his life, Heilman is concerned in getting youth involved in this commemoration. He spoke to many young people at high schools and different locations along his bike ride, telling them what the war was like and explaining about places their grandfathers had been during the war.
Heilman made several pit stops along the journey, one being in La Grange, Ky., to speak at a donor’s luncheon for the Oldham County Historical Society. Dell Courtney, Oldham County resident and co-chair for activities in Kentucky for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration, helped coordinate events on May 19-20 for Heilman in Louisville upon his return trip.
“He made a remarkable trip,” Courtney remarked. She met Heilman last February at a Spirit of ’45 conference.
The national coordinator for the Spirit of ’45 event got in touch with Courtney more than a year ago about the anniversary commemoration, hoping she could help organize something locally. With not much funding available, she literally had to “work on a shoe-string budget,” she said.
Courtney said she felt very strongly that Kentucky should participate. She rallied her co-chair and other members by telling them, “If we don’t do this, who will?” Courtney knew that if organizers waited until the 75th anniversary, “There would be a very small fraction of veterans still living.”
National organizers would like for this to become an annual event and to keep the memory and stories of these men and women alive. But Courtney doesn’t know if this will happen locally without funding resources. “I’m sure there will be an annual observation across the country,” she said.
Warren Hegg, national spokesman for Keep the spirit of ’45 Alive, a nonprofit coalition of organizations planning the 70th Anniversary Commemorative Weekend, said in a press release that, “Dr. Heilman is an inspiring example of what made the ‘Greatest Generation’ great.”
There are seven national veteran cemeteries and four state veteran cemeteries in Kentucky, Courtney said. She strongly believes communities should become involved in the Spirit of ’45 celebrations. “We’re urging veteran organizations to hold observances in individual communities,” she said.
On Aug. 2, Heilman will be speaking in Hiroshima, Japan, and by Aug. 15, Heilman will still be in the South Pacific with other World War II veterans promoting the anniversary of the ending of World War II and the Greatest Generation. He even plans to visit Iwo Jima, where his airplane crashed during the war.
“This event will be celebrated all over the world,” he said. World War II “transformed my life completely. I got to travel all over the world, risking my life, but I learned a lot in the process. I’m proud to have served our country.”
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