MANATEE -- William Field, 80, commander for the past four years of American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24, the largest veterans organization in Manatee County, and a former Manatee County Veteran of the Year, died Monday in a traffic crash.
Mr. Field was on his way to the Kirby Stewart Post from his home in Ellenton when he was broadsided by a tractor-trailer in Palmetto, near the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
Witnesses said the truck driver ran a red light.
Members of Kirby Stewart Post, which has about 1,200 members, were in shock when they heard the news of their commander's death.
"It's devastating," said Philip McArthur, who is now the post's interim commander. "He had a heart the size of an elephant."
Mr. Field, who retired as an Army first sergeant after 21 years military service, was a combat-wounded veteran
of the Korean War.
He was dedicated to helping veterans and their families, said McArthur and Warner Weil.
"He was a wonderful guy," Weil said.
Mr. Field was known to work 18-hour days, seven days a week at the post for veterans and was unafraid to get his hands dirty with post maintenance duties.
"I can't speak highly enough of him," McArthur said. "He is a great friend who will be sorely missed."
In a 1999 Herald interview, Mr. Field shared some of his life experiences.
He joined the Army in 1950, three days after graduating from high school, because he wanted to learn to drive a bulldozer. He planned to put three years in the Army and then leave the service to use his bulldozing experience in land development.
But Mr. Field never learned to operate a bulldozer. Instead the Army sent him to Korea where he was a machine gunner.
"There's a lot of ideals you have as a young boy that you don't have after you've been through combat and you see your best buddy get killed. I was 19, but I felt like an old man," Mr. Field told the Herald.
The misery of war-shattered Korea never left him.
"One-hundred twenty degrees in the summertime and 30 below in wintertime. From April to June it rained every day. From September to November it snowed. Mud up to your ankles. Sitting in foxholes with water up to here," he recalled. "Sitting under two GI blankets on top of a mountain in 30 below. You couldn't dig a hole because the ground was frozen. No trees, no nothing. If there was any beauty to that land, I never saw it."
Moreover, he remembered the frustration of the stalemated war that claimed 53,000 American lives.
"We'd take a place, the Chinese overran it, then we'd retake it," Mr. Field said. "It was bloody and nothing was ever resolved."
He was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by mortar shrapnel.
After he left the Army, he became a carpenter. He had an appliance repair business on Long Island, Weil said.
Mr. Field never lost his appetite for helping vets, or doing his best to educate the public about their sacrifice.
"I wish that all the people in the area would think about the significance of the day and what the veterans have done for this country," he told the Herald in 2010, prior to Veterans Day.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and two children.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021. Vin Mannix and Sara Kennedy assisted with this report.