While many a fraction of E. Bruce Heilman’s age would be looking to pump the breaks, this 89-year-old USMC vet is still going full throttle — literally. In fact, while you’re reading this, there’s a good chance he is rolling along an open highway riding his Ultra Classic Electra Glide Patriot Edition Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Heilman was born and raised on a farm in Smithfield, Kentucky. At age 17, he left high school for boot camp in 1944, there he became the highest scorer on the Rifle Range in his platoon and one of the top three out of 600.
“I was the youngest and the smallest,” he said once in an interview. “But I had the best eye.”
His skills landed him in the Radio Gunnery School in Memphis’s Naval Air Training Center while many members of his platoon were fighting in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Shortly thereafter, he would arrive at the shores of Okinawa. His bio on the website Spirit of ’45 describes that day:
He had his steak and egg breakfast, went down the rope ladder into a landing boat, and landed on the beach with all of the anticipation of a first time green Marine anxious to get into battle, but uncertain as to the outcome.
He would come out alive.
He managed to walk away from that brutal battle responsible for 82,000 casualties of all kinds. His unit also evaded a planned invasion of Japan (the war ended), and Heilman even survived an airplane accident over Iwo Jima while transporting intelligence personnel months after the war.
The WWII veteran went on to become an esteemed leader in education – he has served as president of several American colleges and universities and is now Chancellor of the University of Richmond. In 2008, he published the book: An Interruption that Lasted a Lifetime: My First Eighty Years.
While he has been awarded many medals that are indeed a testament to his own courage (Asiatic Pacific Medal with Battle Star, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Good Conduct Medal, WWII Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Japanese Occupation Medal, Badge of Honor of the Republic), he has gone great lengths, literally, in his own unique way, to commemorate the courage of those who did not make it back. In a distinctive humility not uncommon among the dwindling population of the ‘Greatest Generation’ Heilman said: “We all expected to die there. Some gave all, they are the heroes.”
Now he rides to honor those heroes. In 2015, he logged over 6,000 miles riding his Harley across the United States to salute those brave souls he fought beside in Okinawa.
On April 30th, Dr. Heilman began another self-funded cross-country trip. This time, his mission is to raise public awareness about the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He is riding in honor of the 2,000 who died that day, and will travel through several states that had namesakes in the Harbor that were hit by bombs and torpedoes and lost crew members during the attack.
While he travels far and wide, it is clear what his heart truly holds close: his fallen brothers in arms. At the writing of this article, he has traveled through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He will wrap up his tour on Memorial Day in Washington, DC.
He has been self-funding this tour. To help him defray costs, you can donate to Spirit of ’45 – indicate “Heilman’s Harley Ride” in the designation box.
You can catch Heilman and his Harley at the following places between now and Memorial Day:
May 8 – San Pedro, CA (USS Iowa)
May 9 – Silicon Valley, CA
May 10 – Santa Clara, CA
May 11 – Oakland, CA (USS Potomac)
May 12 – Sacramento, CA (Floor of the California assembly)
May 13 – Elko, NV
May 14 – Salt Lake City, UT
May 15 – Rawlins, WY
May 16 – North Platte, NE
May 17 – Omaha, NE
May 18 – Des Moines, IA
May 19 – Rest day
May 20 – Des Moines, IA (Meeting with Governor Terry Branstad)
May 21 – Indianapolis, IN (American Legion National Headquarters)
May 22 – Cincinnati, OH
May 23 – Charleston, WV (Meeting with Woody Wilson)
May 25 – Richmond, VA (Virginia Veteran’s Memorial)
May 27 – Fairfax, VA (American Legion Gold Star Families BBQ)
May 28 – Washington, DC (Rolling Thunder)
May 29 – Washington, DC (Rolling Thunder)
May 30 – Washington, DC (Spirit of ’45 Memorial Day of Service and Parade)
(For more details on exact locations and photos from prior stops, visit Spirit of 45.)