Spirit of ‘45 tour rolls into Charlotte

After 25,000 miles on the road, the Spirit of ’45 bus stopped at The Cypress of Charlotte retirement community on Friday for one of the tour’s celebrations of what many call the “greatest generation.”

The national tour is organized by Auston and Bonnie O’Neill, a couple on a mission to help younger generations remember the men and women of World War II and to draw attention to the anniversary of the war’s end.

The anniversary, celebrated on the second Sunday in August, was officially recognized by Congress in 2010 and is known as Spirit of ’45 Day. Aug. 14, 2015, will mark the 70th anniversary.

The spirit, described as “can-do” and modest, rolled into The Cypress, where about 25 of the 475 residents are World War II veterans.

The event included World War II re-enactors, speakers, memorabilia and a flyover by a C-46 plane used in World War II.

Inside, an eight-piece swing band played for a crowd dressed in red, white and blue.

“It’s fabulous,” Bonnie O’Neill said. “This has knocked it out of the ballpark.”

For the O’Neills, the celebration was personal. Auston O’Neill’s father served in World War II and the couple’s son and daughter-in-law are serving in Afghanistan.

Last year, O’Neill was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“Death comes for everybody, but when it’s put in your face, we decided we wanted to do something,” Bonnie O’Neill said, fighting back tears as she spoke of her husband’s illness.

Soon after his diagnosis, the O’Neills bought an old RV and partnered with the national nonprofit organization Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive! The organization, founded in 2008, and the tour rely largely on donations.

Col. Quincy Collins, who served in the Vietnam War and was a prisoner of war for more than seven years, described the event as “good medicine.”

“Just that band playing ... I remember those tunes,” Collins said. “What a great nostalgic moment.”

But Collins worries that younger generations have forgotten the sacrifices of the great generation, a fear several attendees shared.

Robert Cooley, who lives at The Cypress with his wife, described today’s youth as “guardians of American heritage” and the “gatekeepers to the future.”

Fred Grossmann, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, said “you grow up fast” in the military.

“Every generation should have the responsibility of saving our freedoms,” Grossmann said.