They come in various shapes and sizes. Some walk tall and confidently, and have the grip of a python. Others come equally determined but frail and bent, clinking slowly forward with their walkers as they enter the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.
But they all come with one purpose in mind: to record their stories of World War II before it is too late. Rather than boast, most of the surviving veterans simply state that the real heroes were those who made the supreme sacrifice in the war, not themselves, despite their Purple Hearts, Presidential Citations and the like.
Their modesty is palpable, especially in this day and age when self-promotion is taken without a wince. These aging warriors unabashedly tear up when they talk about a friend who gave his life without hesitation to save his comrades some seven decades ago. It happened only yesterday, according to these wrinkled warriors.
Their stories are compelling, like the 18-year-old who found himself at the helm of the “Fighting Essex,” an 872-foot-long aircraft carrier sent against the very best that the Japanese had to offer. He narrowly escaped death a number of times, including rounds fired from an oncoming enemy plane that neatly laced a string of bullets across metal plates only 12 to 14 inches above his head.
Or the First Division infantryman who heard the distinctive sound of an oncoming German fighter plane and sought safety deep in an adjacent field, only to discover afterward that it had been heavily mined.
Not all their tales are of valor and narrow escapes. One now-rotund Navy veteran recalls a series of real-life, humorous incidents that would provide fodder for a new round of “McHale’s Navy.”
And there’s the 18-year-old black soldier who was suddenly drafted into a segregated and deeply divided U.S. Army. He and his comrades were trained and sent to Europe to dismantle and destroy Nazi land mines. Even though they worked to protect white troops, they were largely kept segregated and provided substandard rations. Despite that, and much more, he returned home, earned a college degree on the GI Bill and made a way for himself in the quickly changing world.
One Navy veteran recalls the clatter of rolling dice deep in the ship as young men gambled away their earnings, knowing that the next day they would again be gambling their very lives in battle against the Japanese.
One Seabee is taken aback when he encounters the name of a classmate nailed to a makeshift cross over a jungle grave on an island in the South Pacific. When asked for one takeaway from his wartime experiences, the Seabee says, “That’s easy. I can sum that up in one word. I would say respect. Respect for other people; respect for their ideas and desires is a key to lasting peace.”
A few weeks later, the black man who had been discriminated against tells an interviewer that respect is the key to peace and harmony. The soldier was able to accomplish his assigned tasks against great odds because he had been raised in an atmosphere of respect for himself and others.
As Memorial Day approaches, let all of us be thankful for those who served and reaffirm a determination to respect others we encounter throughout life. And, when the occasion presents itself, step forward and thank a veteran for his or her service to the country.