Ernie Andrus had insisted all along that his epic transcontinental trek across America was not about him.
And for a sun-sparkling moment Saturday morning on a tiny island off the South Georgia coast, the 93-year-old World War II veteran was almost right. Because when the footprint of Andrus’ final step in a journey of 2,500-plus miles disappeared in the Atlantic surf, a couple of thousand folks who represented a broad cross-section of America erupted in unified applause. Somewhere out there, Donald and Hillary still sparred at each other in the shockingly divisive presidential election. The argument over banning guns or bearing them still raged. And a community out in the middle of Iowa, probably, embroiled itself in a zoning variance or some such heated but miniscule ruckus.
But for those who watched this self-deflecting nonagenarian stride across the sand at Coast Guard Beach and step into the Atlantic Ocean, none of that stuff mattered.
“Thank you for your service, Ernie!” shouted Joe Taylor, a voice in the adoring throng that surrounded the affable old man as he stood on the beach afterward. “You’re an American hero!”
And the crowd erupted again into euphoric cheers.
Andrus, a Navy medical corpsman from that Greatest Generation, had started this walk/run across American some two years, 10 months and 20 days earlier in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, Calif. Moments after completing it, he talked like a man who won’t be standing still for very long to bathe in this glory.
“Oh, it’s great,” Andrus said, not even breathing heavily. “I’m glad to have finished and met the goal. But I wish it wasn’t over.”
He looked around in grateful recognition of his adoring admirers, some of whom had traveled to this corner of Georgia from as far away as Prescott, Ariz., and Syracuse, N.Y., to be here at the bittersweet end. Andrus has had some warm welcomes from large crowds at stops throughout this crazy road trip, but none like this.
“All these people, it’s so wonderful,” he said. “This is great, this is the biggest crowd I have had, ever.”
Reneé Krajcar flew down from Syracuse, and fellow runner Kelly White hopped on a plane in Boston to be on hand. Both had joined Andrus at some point along the road. Theresa Johnson and husband Erick came over from Prescott, Ariz., having known Andrus since he was spry 88-year-old endurance runner back in Arizona. Somewhat closer to home, Kaye Riley, the mayor of a speed bump in Clinch County known as Argyle (pop 212), rode over with three friends from her church in the county seat of Homerville. Marine veteran Carlos Cano of Corpus Christie, Texas, has joined Andrus for more than 40 legs of the trip. He was there, too — somewhere among the big, happy exuberant crowd of celebrants.
They waved American flags, of course. Folks in “Run, Ernie, Run” T-shirts were prominent in the crowd, among whom that slogan was oft repeated. “USA, USA, USA!” also rang out frequently and in unison. Brunswick High School’s marching band struck up patriotic tunes and escorted Andrus’ army of walkers as they trudged through the Coast Guard Beach parking lot and over the beach ramp onto the sand. A Naval color guard from Kings Bay submarine base down in Kingsland lined his route along the beach. A local American Legion group stood at attention for his passing. A contingent from Coast Guard Station Brunswick turned out in dress uniforms to honor the fellow maritime military man.
Ryan Anglin, an Army 101st Airborne veteran of the Iraq War, acted in his capacity as military liaison to the GeorgiaSecretary of State’s Office and presented Andrus with a certificate making him an honorary citizen of the Peach State.
But most everybody there was just an average Joe like Taylor, a Brunswick resident. And for them, this definitely was about Ernie Andrus. They wanted to thank him for this moment, this opportunity to come together and celebrate all that is good in America.
“I think he’s amazing,” said White, the young lady from Boston. “He’s just such an inspiration, to accomplish this at his age, it’s so amazing.”
Gwen Murphy of Brantley County works for the Veterans Administration office in Brunswick. She was not disappointed after driving to the coast to join co-worker Debbie Gibson of Brunswick.
“It was just a privilege to be able to support him,” Murphy said. “To see him accomplish what he did, and at his age, he gives us all a reason to be proud of America. Anything for a veteran.”
Andrus took this challenge upon himself to raise awareness and money for a tub of metal and bolts known as the LST 325, one of the sturdy amphibious landing vessels that helped win WWII by bringing men, machinery and firepower quickly to shore in heated battles from Normandy to Iwo Jima. But LST 325 is the last of its kind in active service, sailing to ports across America as a floating museum dedicated to that war and the Landing Ship Tank’s important role in it.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s a tough old man,” said John Tallent, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War from Okeechobee, Fla., who represents the LST 325 and its educational efforts. “Even if he doesn’t raise another dime, the attention he’s brought to WWII, and the sacrifice those men made, has just been phenomenal.”
Army veteran Glenn Queener went ashore during the conflict in Somalia. It was not pretty, the St. Simons Island resident said. The memories of that ugly military engagement linger still, he said. But then an old man walks across the continent and steps onto your beach, and you know why you went, he said.
“That’s why,” Queener said, hiking a thumb over his shoulder to the beach and fighting a tear. “I saw a lot of bad things, bad people. But that’s why.”