World War II veteran Samuel Winstead arrives today on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. following a seven-day, 350-mile bicycle Ride for Peace.
It has been a long time coming.
At 86, the First Marines Division serviceman has had decades to think about his course of action decrying war since returning in the autumn of 1945 from the Pacific where he fought at the Battle of Okinawa and saw more than half of his comrades killed on the island of Peleliu. But it was Winstead’s grandson, Sam, about to embark on his third tour of duty, who lit the fire that took the North Carolina native on the road from Raleigh for an end to war once and for all.
His blue eyes tearing and the sweat still on his brow from the day’s rigorously hilly 60-some mile bike ride up U.S. 522 from Gum Spring, Winstead and his support crew stopped overnight in Culpeper Wednesday. Sitting at a picnic table outside Red Carpet Inn, the World War II veteran talked about the letter his grandson sent him that spurred him to action.
“Granddaddy, I’m in Iraq and really distressed. I don’t know why we are here. The Iraqis don’t want us here. My comrades are stressed and make such outlandish statements. I don’t trust them. We have destroyed this beautiful country along with the artifacts of the world’s oldest civilization. Is it true that America has placed my generation in a $15 trillion debt to tear the world apart?” said Winstead, recalling the correspondence. “He said, ‘I don’t understand it.’ So I just decided I believe I’ll do something, damn it, whether it’s right or wrong. Maybe if I decide to ride up to Washington I’ll get some attention.”
Slightly sad though full of vigor, the veteran remembered his experience with “ugly war” on the Pacific Front. When he got home, Winstead said, he assumed everybody, like him, would be sick and tired of it and stop warring.
“But then some big money changes out there,” he said, “and they kept promoting it. They’ve just gotten away with continuous war. They just kept on and on.”
Winstead avoids war movies and doesn’t watch TV due to endless reports of global strife. He skips the war coverage in newspapers and is not a fan of war memorials, he said, when told about the Wine Street Veterans Memorial to World War II and Korean War vets in Culpeper.
Winstead grew up in the upper Piedmont region of North Carolina, near the Virginia state line, in the small-town of Leasburg. He hails from a long line of citizen soldiers, as his grandfather fought in the Civil War and his father in World War I.
Winstead’s grandmother was eight years old when the Civil War ended, and passed on stories of horror to her grandson. World War I was the same, he said.
“War is just slaughter and terrible things,” Winstead said, wiping his forehead.
When his time came to go off to war, “I felt like I should do it,” he said. “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
Winstead, like many boys, was just 18. He recalled serving 18 months to the day. Nearly 67 years later, Winstead still has nightmares about his World War II experience.
“You don’t forget,” he said. “One of my last Marine buddies died two weeks ago in Florida and you get real close to these people over the years. He was wounded twice, once on Okinawa, and he was a hell of a good Marine. He said, ‘I want to get back up there with my platoon, my outfit,’ and I said, ‘No once you’re wounded twice, you don’t go back.’ We visited a lot over the years, for a while we had reunions then it got to be nobody to come.”
Winstead hadn’t ridden a bicycle since before he left for war, and so it took a bit getting used to when he decided to embark on the Ride for Peace. He did a trial run, and found that he could do it even with a knee and hip replacement and his balance being off.
Asked if he felt World War II veterans deserved recognition for their service, Winstead said at one time he believed so.
“But after we turned the world a loose to keep having war, spending money and having my grandchildren shot at, I’m not sure,” Winstead said, mentioning “Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw’s famous book about the courage of the World War II generation. “Well I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like someway we let our country down.”
A couple years ago, Winstead launched Americans for Peace, and started reaching out to the N.C. branch of Veterans for Peace. He said now is the time for change.
“I think if enough people rise up and say let’s quit – it has happened in the past. The trouble is people forget so easy, so quickly, they go back to it. I felt like I needed to speak up. At my age, I felt like it might get more attention,” said Winstead.
Veterans for Peace member John Heuer is along for the ride. A Vietnam-era veteran of the Merchant Marines, he said when he heard Winstead’s story he had to get support the Ride for Peace.
“Sam impressed me as someone with great sincerity. It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss,” Heuer said in Culpeper.
What does he think will come of the ride?
“I see people learning about Sam’s efforts – particularly older folks who think they might be too far over the hill to make their own statements –will take some inspiration, take some heart.”
Sam’s Ride for Peace ends today at 2 p.m. in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Winstead has written President Barack Obama and notified 85 members of Congress about the ride and rally.