'They went through hell': Pender World War II vet heads to Pearl Harbor to honor comrades

·7 min read
Louis Bourgault
Louis Bourgault

In 1941, Louis Bourgault remembers riding around the New England countryside on a Sunday afternoon.

Eighty years ago, he thought Dec. 7 was going to be a normal day, but it was one that changed life for a lot of Americans, including himself.

"When I got back to the city, the newspapers boys were yelling extra, extra," said Bourgault, now 96 years old, about a surprise attack bombing by Japanese forces on a United States naval base near Honolulu. "I said out loud, 'What the hell is Pearl Harbor?' I never heard about it before. I heard about Hawaii, but I never heard about Pearl Harbor."

After the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was a date which will forever live in infamy. Bourgault remembers when the sneak attack from Japan galvanized the country and America joined World War II.

"As one of the Japanese admirals said afterwards, all they have done is awaken a sleeping giant," he said.

Several months later, Bourgault joined the military. He currently lives in Pender County and is one of several WWII veterans selected to take a trip to Pearl Harbor. Bourgault is scheduled to be in Hawaii starting Friday through Dec. 8.

It was set up by Forever Young Veterans (FYV), a Tennessee-based nonprofit that sponsors trips for people who served their country. He was contacted by a friend about the trip to commemorate that moment.

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"It's an honor and a privilege and I'm thrilled about being invited to go," he said.

The upcoming trip to Pearl Harbor, with veterans aged 94 to 99, will be the 50th for FYV. Bourgault is one of the few Imo Jima Marines going on the trip, along with others who fought in Okinawa and Guadalcanal. A Pearl Harbor survivor and a Navy sailor who lost both of his brothers on the USS Arizona during the attack will also be going.

"These were all really bad battles during World War II," said Diane Hight, FYV founder and president Height. "They went through hell, (these veterans) are American heroes. There's no one who deserves more than they do."

During the trip, participants will attend a ceremony and parade. They will also spend time at the National Memorial Pacific Cemetery, and take a boat tour around Battle Row — a group of ships around the port — among other activities.

Paying respect to all Pacific heroes

After the war, he went back to life as a civilian and later moved to Hampstead. He now serves as an ambassador for Battleship North Carolina, assisting with tours and teaching WWII history to guests. Bourgault also spent 15 years in the Coast Guard auxiliary patrolling waterways and teaching boating classes.

Bourgault has lived in North Carolina for more than 55 years and was raised in Worcester, Mass. While growing up, Bourgault worked on a dairy farm during the summers. After getting a drivers license in high school, he drove a delivery truck in the afternoon for a hardware store. Bourgault enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on June 1, 1942. Patriotism was the reason he signed up to join the military at 17, and with America still recovering from the Great Depression, finding a job wasn't easy.

"Patriotism was something to do and everybody was doing it," he said. "It was like going to a concert now. If you didn't join the Marine Corps, the Navy, or the Army, you knew you were going to get drafted when you turned 18. You didn't have a choice."

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Bourgault started boot camp training at Parris Island, S.C. before going to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, joining the 21st Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. He described transition of being a teenager with an after-school job to preparing for war as night and day. It was an entirely different life, but Bourgault was expecting that. Everybody knew what they were getting into.

"I was in a rifle company as a 17-year-old scared kid," he said about his role with a chuckle. "I was the legal age. All of us were young. The average age in my company when we went overseas wasn't over 20 years. If anybody was over 25 years old, we called them 'Pop.'"

With his comrades, Bourgault fought in the Pacific campaign in the battles of Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima. Bourgault had a lot of experiences he described as backbreaking work. Some of the tasks were digging ditches, moving supplies and unloading trucks and ships.

"There was lots and lots of boredom, not much entertainment, no entertainment — and a few moments of sheer terror," he said. "The first time you hear a bullet go by your head, everything changes."

Bourgault was in a small landing craft in the Solomon Island and there was raid on the supply ships when they were unloading. The bullets flying by him were friendly fire, but they were really close.

"I realized then it was for keeps," he said. "They dropped some bombs near us a couple times before that, but this was getting awfully close and it was coming from our own guys."

From that moment, Bourgault went on to have many more experiences during those battles against the enemy in the Pacific, while serving his country.

"I don't what motivates anybody else, but I'm proud of every one of them," he said.

His last stop was the Battle of Iwo Jima, a major military campaign where the island was captured from the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. It was one of the most brutal and played a major role in victory for American forces. Many remembered the flag raising, which became a symbol for Marines who died serving their country. Bourgault was on the island for a couple of days, and said he "kept his head down and did what he was told."

Bourgault said Iwo Jima is the name everybody knows, but he emphasized that there were a lot of other little battles that are almost forgotten now that paved the way for America to get that far.

For Bourgault, the trip is not just about remembering Pearl Harbor, but paying respect for all of the soldiers who didn't come back from the Pacific.

"There were other nasty battles, some very drawn out nasty battles, but they never got the publicity and the coverage," he said. "They never got the publicity and the coverage. They didn't have any glamourous pictures or things like that. They don't live in history. A lot of people died (in Iwo Jima), but a lot of people died in other places too."

How to help

Hight started FYV in 2006 because she wanted to honor veterans after watching her father become an alcoholic after coming back home from WWII.

"I watched him suffer so much and our family suffered," Hight said. "But I didn't realize at the time that he had PTSD."

Now in its 15th year, Hight leads fundraising efforts for veterans by taking them back to places where they fought during WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War through the organization's Trip of Honor program.

"Our mission is to help bring healing back into their lives and we really just see miracles happen," Hight said. "That's how it all began."

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Hight added there's not a lot of Pearl Harbor survivors left, so the veterans will be welcomed when they arrive. FYV also grants wishes of seniors through service-related projects or helping a dream come true for veterans in the final stages of their lives.

"They want these veterans to come so they can honor them for everything they've done for our country," she said. "Most of these men are not going to go back to Imo Jima, so to be able to take them to Pearl Harbor, it's very special for them."

FYV sponsors trips and activities for veterans with donations for the public. According to Hight, the cost for trip is close to $3,000 per person.

Additional information about the organization and donations is available online at https://foreveryoungvets.org. Hight added that she may be reached at 901-406-4220.

Reporter Chase Jordan can be reached at cjjordan@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Hampstead veteran heads to Pearl Harbor to observe anniversary

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