For wes worsham, a two-beer salute webmin roanoke.com pain in the chest and back

It’s an annual tribute he makes to his late friend Arthur Fleet, a Blacksburg native who fought with Worsham during the Korean War. Fleet is the reason Worsham discovered Virginia Tech. They were both born Aug. 10. Worsham just turned 80. Fleet would have been 91.

The two met as the war began in 1950, promising to share a beer once the U.S. forces advanced to the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. They didn’t get that far, but Worsham honors his friend every year at his grave on their birthday with the beers they never got to drink.

Fleet, a veteran of World War II who had been enlisted for more than a decade, noticed Worsham, a Powhatan native, because of the Virginia Kid he had scrawled on the back of his jacket. They became fast friends, watching out for each other.


That was more than 500 miles to the north, with treacherous fighting ahead. Worsham’s company was overrun on the Pusan Perimeter in early September, with only 11 of more than 240 surviving. As a result, Worsham earned a battlefield commission to lieutenant only three weeks after his 18th birthday.

But one of the tanks fired as Worsham stood near it, a large blast of dust flying up around him. Worsham thought it had been hit and was going to blow up, so he ran to the next one, not covering as Fleet came up behind him. He saw Fleet get shot in the chest. Worsham circled back to put his wounded friend up on a tank before running ahead as the retreat continued.

For Worsham, the war continued, but April 23, 1951, he was taken as a prisoner by the North Koreans for three months and 23 days. His parents were told he was dead, but he eventually was liberated by the Turkish army and an American tank column.

Worsham’s injuries necessitated a nine-month stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He healed and eventually entered life as a civilian, getting into the fire protection business and founding his first business, Worsham Sprinklers, in 1964.

Arthur Fleet, it turned out, had survived Korea. He returned to the U.S. in 1953, 14 years after he first enlisted in the Army. He settled in Blacksburg, married his wife, Bessie, and started a family, welcoming his son Bob to the world in 1956.

Fleet had seen it all in war. He fought at multiple locations throughout World War II, serving in North Africa before joining the 101st Airborne and parachuting behind enemy lines during the Normandy Invasion. He endured the freezing siege of Bastogne in Belgium, losing parts of two toes in the battle, before continuing to fight into Germany.

A great soldier on the battlefield, he never brought it up once he returned to Virginia, although the rigors of war would manifest themselves on occasion. He was in constant pain. His back was littered with shrapnel that couldn’t be removed, the occasional piece coming to the surface. He couldn’t sleep, bothered by bad dreams.

Arthur Fleet hated to kill things, even chickens, which can be problematic when you own a farm. His only firearm was a shotgun, and he was a crack shot. Bob remembers being amazed as his father and uncle fooled around with a .22 rifle, effortlessly picking off bottle caps from a fence post a hundred yards away.

Arthur Fleet worked long hours at Electro-Tec Corp., which was making parts for the Gemini space program, when he collapsed from a heart attack in 1964. After 13 days in the hospital, he suffered a second heart attack and died. He was only 43.

Worsham had, by this point, become a successful businessman and a huge Virginia Tech fan. After visiting Fleet’s family in Blacksburg for the first time about 1970, he gradually became a bigger backer of Hokies football, giving donations when Jimmy Sharpe and Bill Dooley coached Tech.

A ubiquitous figure on the sidelines — Worsham has missed only five games in the past 27 years — he got in contact with Bob, who worked as an investigator in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years, through Beamer’s former football police escort.

They’ve since remained close, bound by the memory of Arthur Fleet and their mutual love of the Hokies. They’ve watched games together, Bob’s family sitting in Worsham’s box on occasion. When Bob’s son Ben was young, Worsham invited him to come to the Virginia Tech locker room before the game and run out of the tunnel with the team.