A 99-year-old World War II veteran paid a visit to Hastings Wednesday as part of an extended impromptu tour of the state of Nebraska and more extensive 50-state tour aimed at giving American citizens a chance to meet a veteran from another era — an opportunity he missed as a younger man more than half a century ago.
Sidney Walton is a native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side who grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx before enlisting in the Army in 1941.
Prior to his five-year stint of service in the Third Theater known as CBI (China Burma India), he passed on a golden opportunity to meet a few surviving Civil War veterans in New York City’s Central Park, a decision that has haunted him the better part of his life.
Thanks to his firstborn son, Paul Walton, he is giving others the opportunity to meet one of the last of a disappearing lot of living WWII veterans on what is being called the “No Regrets Tour.”
Launched in March at the World War II Museum in New Orleans, the tour has included meetings with seven governors and former presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
During his stop in Nebraska on Monday to meet Gov. Pete Ricketts, the visit went so well that his time in the state was extended four days to include stops in several cities, including nearby stops Thursday in Grand Island at Texas T-Bone restaurant at noon and 7 p.m. at The Alley Rose restaurant in Kearney.
The tour is slated to end on Walton’s 100th birthday on Feb. 11, 2019, with a stop at the White House in Washington, D.C.
For his entrance into Hastings, Walton was escorted from Lincoln by some 100 motorcyclists from the Nebraska Riders motorcycle club.
He arrived at the Odyssey restaurant and promptly greeted area residents from his wheelchair as they dined outdoors at a sidewalk table on Second Street.
Glenn Shriner, who founded Nebraska Riders more than one year ago, said he and the group were honored to be part of a procession honoring someone whom they consider a hero for his willingness to give all for his country.
At Odyssey, Walton was somewhat subdued but entirely coherent as he fielded questions posed by Paul Walton and this reporter. Paul reminded him of their itinerary, which included a stop in North Platte for dinner and a rodeo later that evening.
“You’re in Hastings, Dad, and I understand it’s the headquarters of Kool-Aid,” Paul said.
“I hate Kool-Aid!” Walton said.
Caught off guard by the remark, Paul still managed a quick and amicable attempt at damage control.
“I know you’re joking,” he said. “It’s not politically correct, but when you’re 99 you can say what’s on your mind. You know what, maybe it’s not too late. We’ll serve you some Kool-Aid and you might learn to like it.
“Aren’t you excited to be in Nebraska, Dad?”
“Oh yeah, it’s a beautiful state!”
The father-son duo reminisced about their earlier visit with Ricketts at the state Capitol. Ricketts shared his personal cellphone number with Sidney, encouraging him to call if ever he needed anything.
“That’s a real honor, Dad,” Paul said.
And while Ricketts’ hospitality was duly noted, he wasn’t the favorite among the eight governors Walton has met so far, Paul said.
That designation was claimed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of Paul’s home state of New York, who spent an hour visiting with him during what Paul described as an emotional exchange.
“He hugged you and we all cried, remember?” Paul asked Walton, who acknowledged the memory. “He looked at you as though he was looking at his father, Mario, who died a few years back. It was a very, very touching moment.”
That Walton wasn’t sent to fight in the Battle of the Bulge — and ultimately die with the majority of his regimen — was due to a broken ankle sustained by falling into a fox hole the night before he was to be deployed. He eventually healed and was sent to India to complete his tour of duty. It is believed many, if not all, of his regimen was killed in the famous battle.
“Thank God you stayed alive,” Paul said. “I like to call that the lucky break, because then I was able to be born.”
Walton and his wife, Rena, had two more children, daughters Judy and Ellie, before moving to San Diego in 1960. Following Rena’s death at age 56 from cancer, Walton has never remarried.
The “No Regrets Tour” follows a father-son “tour” that began in 2013 and included stops in several countries, including Sydney, Australia, Sidney’s namesake by a different spelling.
Paul, a San Diego, California, resident who previously worked in the hotel industry, sold his business prior to that tour to dedicate himself to his father for however many years he had left.
That Walton is seemingly in even better shape than when he first embarked on their initial travel odyssey suggests to Paul the decision to tackle his father’s bucket list was precisely what the doctor ordered.
Traveling with his girlfriend, Amy Cowden of Florida and her teenage son, Paul said he hopes his father will get to meet as many people as possible during the tour, something he feels is important not only to Walton but to all who may never get an opportunity to meet someone who actually served in a bygone war some half-century earlier. The emotional impact these encounters evoke is something Cowden said has made the experience so rewarding to her.
“It touches people on a level of days gone by — the grandpa who served in World War II, who may or may not still be with them,” she said. “The fact that it touches people on a personal level is why I appreciate it.
“My son is 17 and has ambitions to go into the military, so for him to witness this whole tour and appreciation for the military is something that is very special to me. And the young generation who come up to him (Walton) unsolicited and say, ‘Thanks for what you did’ is ultimately what it is all about.”
Follow the tour online at goSIDgo.com.