Winfred Tuten long ago earned the trip he’s taking this weekend to Washington, D.C.
Tuten paid for his ticket while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, when he served on both a destroyer escort and submarine and, in the process, became part of what’s often called “the greatest generation.”
That was seven decades ago. Now 91, Tuten lives in Richmond Hill, and the memories are clear and sharp.
“I was glad I could do what I did do,” he said. “But I wasn’t the only one. There was a bunch of them to serve.”
And their numbers are dwindling. Only about 1 million of the more than 16 million men and women who served in World War II are living.
That’s one reason Honor Flight Savannah does the trips, to provide a reminder to Tuten and other veterans that their long-ago sacrifices are remembered.
“It’s kind of like their last hurrah,” Luis Carreras said. “They’ve earned this. It’s the least we can do after what they’ve done for us.”
Carreras is no spring chicken himself. Now 73, he fought in Vietnam, went on to retire from the Army and now works as an Army Reserve ambassador while also serving as a board member of Honor Flight Savannah, the nonprofit group tied to the national network.
“I was born in Cuba, and my family moved here when I was a child,” Carreras said. “Everything I do is paying back this country. And part of that payback is doing this. I really respect them.”
That’s evident when Carreras talks of Tuten and his peers.
“I don’t want to take anything away from young troops, but these guys went through the Depression, the Dust Bowl days and then World War II,” Carreras said. “And then you went for the duration; you didn’t get to come home.”
Joining the battle
Tuten left the family farm in Grays, South Carolina, enlisted in the Navy and went to war in 1943.
He didn’t come home until November 1945, after he had sailed oceans on the destroyer escort USS Wingfield and then helped get a submarine ready for service.
Aboard the Wingfield, Tuten was a gunner. He remembers shipmates, hobbies, even finding a telephone pole floating, standing straight up, in the middle of the Atlantic.
At first, the Navy thought it was some sort of mine.
“You’ll think I’m kidding you, but about that much of that pole was standing up out of the water, and we were circling it trying to figure out what it was,” Tuten said, holding his hands up to show how much was above the surface. “Finally, they let the lifeboat down and I went over there and touched it, and that’s what it was. Somebody had left it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”
There are stories of comrades and learning to fire torpedoes, and Tuten remembers leaving Norfolk, Virginia, to go home to Grays to marry his girlfriend.
“At that time, if you went 75 miles outside the base, you were AWOL, and that was 400 miles,” Tuten recalled.
He took some heat from his skipper, but ended up with an eight-day pass so he could go on his honeymoon.
But there are parts of the war Tuten prefers to avoid discussing.
Normandy, for instance.
“People always want to talk about Normandy, but I hate to talk about it,” he said. “I try to get it out of my mind. If I talk about it, I lose sleep for a day or two.”
He does recall firing at planes that were firing at ships the Wingfield was escorting.
“We were trying to keep the planes off …. It was a busy time,” he said.
After the war
Like so many of his generation, Tuten came home to build a life. He’d already married his childhood sweetheart, Josephine. After the Navy, they lived in Savannah, where Tuten worked for Oatland Island and, later, the U.S. Post Office as a mechanic.
Somewhere along the way, the Tutens, who were married for more than 60 years, became friends with Pat Starling’s family, and Starling is now taking care of Tuten.
“He is the most wonderful person,” Starling said. “Everybody that meets him falls in love with him. He never meets a stranger.”
He also is recognized for his service, thanks to the gift of a World War II veterans’ hat.
Starling recalled a time at a deli in Chatham County when five tables full of soldiers from Hunter Army Airfield “acknowledged Mr. Tuten being in the room,” she said, and one gave him a more-accessible seat.
“Every single one of them came up to him and shook his hand and thanked him for his service,” Starling said. “And then, at Southern Image in February, we were having a nice meal after church, and a young guy with a family sitting nearby came over and shook his hand and thanked him for his service and left. We didn’t think any more about it, and then I went to pay the bill and they told me that gentleman had taken care of it. It’s just amazing, but people are so appreciative.”
Starling, who also praises the work Richmond Hill United Methodist Church has done to support Honor Flight trips, will accompany Tuten on the trip. He insists she go along and calls her “the best friend in the world.”
“You’re coming with me,” he told her during the interview, more than once. “I’m not going unless you go.”
But it isn’t easy to move an aging group of veterans, some of whom either are ill or have debilitating conditions. That’s why Honor Flight Savannah decided to abandon the flights for the older veterans, Carreras said. It makes it easy on them.
“We used to fly them up, but then when we got there they had to get off the plane and onto a bus, and that was just too much for some of them,” Carreras said. “We had a former Marine who owns a charter-bus company who donated the use of a bus. And it’s got every luxury you can think of. These guys deserve it.”