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Couple that met in World War II soak in Honor Flight experience

June 18, 2012

Menomonee Falls - If Helen and Joseph Clayton Shaver had a choice to go back in time, they wouldn't change a thing.

When Joseph entered into the Navy in 1945 while World War II continued to rage on, he never thought his years of service would end in marrying the love of his life.

After countless trips across the ocean on the USS Monticello, burying a friend at sea, days sweating in the boiler room and battling diphtheria, Shaver, now 86, ultimately met the woman he would marry. Helen, also a World War II veteran, was a nurse in the Navy. The two have four adopted children, grandchildren and a great grandchild and have been married for 64 years, 48 of those spent in Menomonee Falls.

Though their years in the service have long since passed, the World War II veterans were brought back to their days in the Navy on June 2 when they embarked on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Stars and Stripes Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that takes veterans to Washington, D.C. for a day. The veterans do not have to pay a dime and each flies with their own volunteer caretaker to keep the trip stress free.

"You couldn't ask for finer people to take care of us," Helen said of their caretakers.

Veterans visit the World War II Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The organization runs solely on donations with the goal of giving back to the veterans who already gave so much of themselves.

For Joseph and Helen, the trip was well deserved. Joseph feels like it was a dream that was too good to be true. Helen, 91, beams when she recalls the trip and the surprising homecoming they received upon their return to Mitchell International Airport where they were greeted by hundreds of people thanking them for their service and honoring them as veterans.

"The people just seemed endless wanting to greet you and shake your hand - the children, adults, the service people." Helen said. "It was unbelievable. You had to be there to see it. It was very emotional and touching."

The days in the Navy

"I know what it is to be a homesick," Joseph said. "But, I enjoyed it."

Joseph's father encouraged him to join the Navy, saying he could learn more in the service to utilize later in life. That's exactly what Joseph did. He enlisted in 1945 and went to the Great Lakes Naval Base for training. There was still six months left of the war.

Joseph worked mainly in the boiler room of a ship that went back and forth across the ocean 10 times. He said the ship was utilized to "bring the boys over there and back."

One particular mission changed Joseph's life forever. The mission was to go to Bremerhaven, Germany, to bring back one of Adolf Hitler's ship's to the U.S. that could carry 70,000 people. On the ship, Joseph danced with singer Jane Froman and he learned parts of the German language he still remembers today.

While in Germany, Joseph contracted diphtheria. He was put in an isolated unit in the 121st Army hospital in Germany. He temporarily lost the ability to speak and his eye sight was greatly affected. His days and nights revolved around continuous shots of penicillin.

After a few months, Joseph was transported back to regain his health at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital.

Two worlds intersect

Helen wanted to join the Navy. She left her home that was located in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania to become a nurse. She trained at Canonsburg General Hospital and accomplished her goal.

She was stationed at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital, as the nurse of the ward where Joseph was recovering.

In the Navy, whether someone was on a ship or in a hospital, Joseph said routine inspections are commonplace.

Right before one of many inspections, Helen was checking some of the beds in her ward.

"We didn't have beds and sheets in the Navy and she came and told me I had to make the bed all over again and she made me take it all off," Joseph said. "I never thought I would marry that nurse. I'm still making the beds."

Finishing his duty

Joseph signed on for three years of service. With three months left of his tour, Joseph had the choice to take a medical discharge from the Navy or finish up the three years.

Though Helen and Joseph had plans to elope and get married, Joseph chose to finish his last three months in the service in 1947. Joseph was quickly sent to Philadelphia before being sent to Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Bermuda.

"I don't regret my time as wasted, I did some good and met all kinds of people," Joseph said.

The couple met through their service and together they were honored for it June 2.

For veterans to participate in the Stars and Stripes Honor Flights, they have to fill out an application. They are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

"I don't regret serving my country and I think nobody should, but then this parade (at the airport) they put on, I couldn't believe it," Joseph said. "I didn't want it to end."

For information on the organization, flights or to make a donation, call (262) 238-7740 or visit starsandstripeshonorflight.org.

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