Fishing tournament honors wounded veterans

(Eric Sharp/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Jamie Gorm from Bay City, Michigan, is still recovering from a traumatic...
Story by Eric Sharp
Detroit Free Press
May 28, 2011
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MANISTEE, Mich. — They were tough, brave young men who during World War II flew long, dangerous missions in airplanes that seem incredibly primitive to us today.

On a bombing run over Germany in 1943 flight engineer Frank Lopetrone got shrapnel in his hand from anti-aircraft fire but didn’t know he was wounded until he got back on the ground and stripped his glove off.

The unpressurized B-24 bombers were so cold at 30,000 feet that the crew’s hands were always half-frozen, and he didn’t feel the pain until they thawed after the plane returned to its base in Italy.

Lopetrone, who could pass for a couple of decades younger than his 87 years, told that story quietly as we waited for a salmon to grab one of the lures trolling behind the boat True Blue during last weekend’s second annual Tight Lines for Troops event, during which 40 Lake Michigan charter skippers gave up a day’s pay and then some to honor wounded veterans from World War II to Afghanistan.

More than 150 veterans from all of America’s military branches fished during the event Sunday, and everyone lucked out when the predicted winds that would have made it impossible to carry wheelchairs aboard didn’t kick up until the fleet was headed home.

True Blue, a 31-foot Rampage run by Capt. Denny Blue of Onekama, hosted an all-Air Force crew that included Lopetrone, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Jamie Gorm from Bay City, Vietnam era veteran John Stocki from Brethren and retired Michigan National Guard Brig. Gen. Carol Ann Fausone, of Canton. Fausone helped organize the event.

I’ve fished in some odd places, but none could match Gorm’s experience of fishing for trout in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad, Iraq.

“We were (billeted) in the palace doing security patrols around Baghdad, and Saddam had ponds on the grounds that had a lot of fish in them,” Gorm said. “We tried a lot of lures, but we couldn’t get them to take anything.”

Gorm is recovering from a traumatic brain injury suffered on a second combat tour four years ago when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee patrol vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan, blowing him out of the machine gunner turret.

He admits he doesn’t know if he will recover all of his faculties.

“I still have to label all the cupboards in the house so I’ll know where to look for stuff,” Gorm said. “And a lot of times I have to text my wife to help me find where I left the car in a parking lot. It’s frustrating, but it’s better than it was.”

On True Blue, the biggest fish was a 13-pound, 4-ounce chinook landed by Lopetrone with a little help from Stocki. It turned out to be the No. 2 fish in the unofficial Commander’s Cup tournament, about 4 ounces smaller than a fish landed by the Army team.

“That fish wore me out. I’m just happy we got it,” said Lopetrone, who once had to bail out of a B-24 that was so badly shot up and unstable that the pilot didn’t want to try landing it. That made him a member of the Caterpillar Club, open only to people who have had to parachute from a disabled aircraft.

“We were hit over enemy territory, but we made it back to Italy and circled the airfield while everybody bailed out one by one,” Lopetrone said. “I didn’t like it much.”

Lake Michigan was unusually cold for late May. The surface temperature was about 44-45 degrees, at 100 feet if was 39, and Blue said this meant “the fish are going to be scattered all over the place. There’s no clear temperature break to concentrate them.”

His prediction proved true, and the three salmon landed in about five hours of fishing came from 10, 40 and 60 feet below the surface in water ranging from 60 to 250 feet deep.

Most of the other boats also were experiencing slow going, a far cry from the previous season when Fausone was on an all-female team on True Blue that never went more than a few minutes without someone fighting a fish.

Fausone said the organizing committee tried to assign her to another boat this year, “but I pulled rank on them. I said, ’I’m a general, and I’m fishing on True Blue,”’ and she landed a one of the three salmon caught.

Bob Guenthardt, who runs the charter boat Renegade out of Manistee, came up with the idea for the tournament last year and said he has been touched by the expressions of gratitude from veterans and their families.

“They really appreciate it,” he said. “The nicest letter we got after the event last year came from someone who never caught a fish.”

Mike Harris of Westland, a Vietnam era vet who is executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, took it in stride as a group of well-meaning volunteers manhandled him out of his wheelchair and into the cockpit of a boat.

“This is a great event,” he said. “I don’t think most people understand what a day like this means to some of these guys. A lot of them would never get a chance to go fishing if it wasn’t for the Tight Lines day.”

As the boats came back in between the pier heads they were greeted by hundreds of U.S. flags snapping in the breeze and hundreds of Manistee residents who came out to cheer.

“That’s an amazing sight,” Stocki said. “Makes you proud to be an American.”

He was right.

(c) 2011, Detroit Free Press.

Visit the Freep, the World Wide Web site of the Detroit Free Press, at http://www.freep.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Eric Sharp

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