E. Bruce Heilman will turn 89 in two months. He also rides a motorcycle. Some may find that surprising. However, the real surprise is the mission he's about to embark on: a 6,000-mile motorcycle ride to commemorate World War II - the war he fought in.
Heilman will leave Quantico, Va., today and embark on his cross-country trek to raise awareness about the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The longtime chancellor of Richmond University in Virginia, Heilman is a Marine Corp veteran who fought in the Battle of Okinawa.
Along his journey, Heilman will meet up with American Legion Riders at different stops, including heading to Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., over Memorial Day weekend to join with the Riders during their Run to the Thunder ride to Rolling Thunder in Washington, D.C. Heilman also will visit the Legion’s National Headquarters in Indianapolis in May. The Riders also will see him off today as he starts his ride.
Heilman, a new member of Maj. Charles A. Ransom American Legion Post 186 in Midlothian, Va., talked with The American Legion about his journey.
The American Legion: How long have you been riding a motorcycle?
E. Bruce Heilman: I was riding a motorcycle during my Marine Corps years right after World War II after I came back from overseas. I had one for about eight months to a year, and then I was discharged from the Marine Corps, married a wife, got rid of the motorcycle and never rode one until I was 71 years old. My wife said, “It’s about time you had a little freedom,” so she bought me a brand-new Harley Davidson Road King. I had to almost relearn it. By the time I got this new one, it was easy to ride, but I didn’t know how to ride it. I road it for 10 years, traded it in when I was 81 … and I’m looking to trading (my current bike) in when I’m 91.
Q: How did you come up with the idea that you were going to make this trek across the country?
A: It was kind of a joint (idea) with the head of the Spirit of 45, Warren Hegg. I’ve been working with that organization in anticipation of Aug. 14, the 70th anniversary of World War II. As far as we can determine, I’m the only World War II veteran that they could (find) that could ride the motorcycle 34 days across the country, maybe 6,000-8,000 miles. So I got the job. I’m riding the route that the convoy of World War II vehicles will be taking later this year. I’m kind of a modern rider – Paul Revere, I guess – carrying a message.
Q: What is that message?
A: My message is not “the British are coming,” but if they are coming, they’re coming to celebrate the victory of World War II.
Q: What do you want people to get from this when they see you pulling into town?
A: I want to carry with me … that the World War II veterans who are still living ought to recognize that the world gives them credit for saving the world for democracy. We want to be able to share (that) with them before they’re deceased. We’re going to celebrate the success of the red, white and blue. I am highlighting the fact of the celebration coming up Aug. 14 of the winning of World War II. That’s the whole story. That’s the whole reason for it.
Q: How did The American Legion Riders become involved with this ride?
A: The local chapter (Post 186) called me and asked if I’d have a meal with them. They’d heard that I was going to take this ride. They said “Why don’t you ride with us, and we want to invite you to join the Legion.” The local (Riders) said, “We’d like to do anything we can,” and it spread across the country. I’ve got The American Legion throughout the country joining me, taking me to some of the spots that I’m to go that I might not get to on my own quite as well: places that are strange to me but not strange to the local Riders. (The Legion has) been tremendously helpful already.
Q: What kind of reaction do you get from people when you tell them you’re doing this? Six thousand miles is a lot for a 25-year-old man to ride.
A: It is. (But) last June I rode from Richmond (Va.) to Fairbanks, Alaska – 5,100 miles. It was kind of a hazardous ride in many ways. But this one is kind of a piece of cake. But I do get a lot of publicity. Riding at age 88 and 89 … people just can’t quite comprehend that. But for me, it’s like a Texan with his horse. As long as he can get his leg over it, the horse takes care of the rest of it. The motorcycle does that for me. I’m healthy and well, and I just haven’t ever come to the point of saying I’m too old to ride a Harley.
To follow Heilman’s progress, click here.