Military Heroes Month: Celebrating an American Hero

Dec 6, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Military Heroes Month: Celebrating a True American Hero’s First Trip Back at Sea (post under Whitney Bartels name in SWALife)

By: Jack Barnes

Guest blogger Jack Barnes is the President of the American Fallen Heroes Memorial Foundation. The Foundation focuses on honoring and remembering the sacrifice of our nation’s fallen military heroes.  He wrote to us about a particularly special trip he took on Southwest Airlines with his longtime friend and World War II veteran, Cleatus Lebow.

This past summer, I escorted my good friends Cleatus and Joan Lebow through the Southwest terminal, and this was no ordinary trip. In fact, this trip was the first step in the return to the sea for a true World War II Naval Hero.  During Cleatus’s remarkable military career, he earned both a Purple Heart and Presidential Citation, an award given to soldiers who show extraordinary heroism during hazardous conditions. He earned the award for his extraordinary esprit de corps demonstrated during the single greatest loss of life at sea in U.S. naval history.

On July 30, 1945, Japanese submarines torpedoed the U.S.S. Indianapolis the ship that delivered parts that later were assembled into the atomic bomb and where Cleatus served. The ship sank in just under 12 minutes. Surviving the blast, it turns out, was only the beginning. Cleatus and his fellow surviving crew members faced five days and five nights stranded in the Pacific Ocean in shark infested waters without food or water.  Of the 1,196 men aboard the USS Indianapolis, 317 survived, and Cleatus is only one of 38 living survivors that carry the legacy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

With all that he and his family have given in sacrifice to this country, I was honored to escort him on a much-deserved vacation. As a survivor of the worst shipwreck in naval history, Cleatus decided he wanted to finally return to the sea after all these years. He and his wife decided to take a cruise to Alaska, giving Cleatus his first opportunity to step foot on a ship since the Indy.  Cleatus was celebrated on each and every flight—there and back—making the trip especially joyous for him.  In the gate area, we were delighted to be greeted warmly by Southwest Employees, who took special care of Cleatus and his wife. The Flight Crews allowed me to take the intercom and introduce Cleatus to the other passengers on each of our flights. The applause and support was thundering - something I know we will never forget.  The trip meant the world to Cleatus, a man that gave his all for our country.   To that end, I wanted to thank Southwest for going above and beyond to honor my friend, a true American hero.