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VFW Post 10141 members build wheelchair ramp for disabled WWII vet

BRADENTON

Bill Williams saw mankind at its worst.

The concentration camps he helped liberate as a teenage infantryman in the closing months of World War II.

The racial unrest he faced in the 1950s as director of Florida’s Council on Human Relations.

Williams has also seen mankind at its best.

Like Tuesday morning in his backyard.

Members of VFW Post 10141 began building a wheelchair ramp for the disabled 85-year-old veteran, who suffered frostbite in combat 66 years ago and undergoes dialysis three times weekly.

“I’m very touched by it,” said the Boynton Beach native. “It’s one heck of a gift.”

He and his wife tried and failed to get assistance -- i.e., a motorized wheelchair -- from the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies.

“After three years of fighting with the VA, just to have somebody willing to help is astonishing,” said Binnie Williams, 74. “I’ve been pushing his wheelchair for 10 years and it’s getting too hard.”

On a whim, she called the VFW two days before Christmas.

“I asked if they had any interest in doing something to help a disabled veteran?” Williams said.

Absolutely, she was told.

Post Commander Joe Best, a Navy veteran, and Mike Clinesmith, a former Marine and combat engineer, got busy Tuesday morning.

“This guy here is a hero to us,” said Best, 66. “Any time we can do this for another veteran who has a need, we always try to step up to the plate.”

“What we’re doing for him only pays him back a little bit for what he did for us,” said Clinesmith, 59.

Bill Williams did a lot for many people.

He was 18 when the 9th Infantry Division pushed into Germany in 1945 and liberated several smaller Nazi concentration camps.

“They were mostly for slave labor,” he recalled. “Such brutality. It’s incredible anybody can treat people that way.”

The German winter was doubly cruel to Williams.

“I expected every day to die. People died all around me. I figured it’s got to be me next,” he said.

“Then my feet and legs froze. We were moving at such a pace, nobody paid much attention. I didn’t think much about what was happening when I went numb. When I was discharged, the doctors said there wasn’t much anybody could do.”

Hypothermia and subsequent circulation problems -- for which the VA is treating him -- did not stop Williams.

He joined the Methodist ministry for seven years, then moved onto Florida’s Council on Human Relations for another seven and later the Illinois Commission on Human Relations for 13.

“I looked for something I could do that would warrant having this gift of staying alive,” he said. “In those days, people thought you were crazy or a traitor to suggest black people were normal.

“Such brutality in our relations with blacks -- and Jews -- I thought was too reminiscent of what I saw in Germany. That’s not what America is all about. So I went to try and do something.”

Ultimately, the Midwest winters chased him and his wife back to Florida, where they lived on a 55-foot boat.

They engaged in coastal trading with the Bahamas, swapping bolts of cloth, cooking ware and sewing machines for shells, sponges and handmade goods to sell back in Florida.

One of their stops was in Bradenton.

“We had a whole string of docks around this coast, but they were wonderful to us here,” Binnie Williams said.

The new wheelchair ramp was another example.

“A Christmas miracle,” she said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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