Thursday, November 11, 2010
Veterans Day 2010
Veterans seemed omnipresent in my youth, in my teen years and well into my twenties and thirties. They are still among us but less in evidence, certainly less celebrated. As Rear Admiral Tarrant notably once said: “Where do we get such men?” The answer is as simple as it is complex: from our families, from those with whom we have worked and played, and from those with whom we may have served.
Veterans were my uncles: quiet men from Greenwich Village, Saugerties, and Catskill, who spent some time in the nineteen forties in North Africa, in Southern Italy and one of them -- just beyond the beach at Normandy in June 1944. (Gliders could land anywhere.)
Seven years after Al Stephenson, Fred Derry and Homer Parrish came home to Boone City after World War II, I went to work for a public utility in New York City as a messenger. After a year, I was moved to our IBM Tab Machine installation where I learned to operate the devices that preceded mainframe and personal computers (You often see Tab machines in forties movies showing FBI installations.)
I was trained by men some ten or more years older than I -- many were veterans of World War II. They had survived the war, some of them serving more than five years, where they helped save a nation at peril. (Arthur Hunt was a cook in the Ardennes when the Germans coveted Bastogne; Charlie Montag spent Easter Sunday 1945 off the coast of Okinawa.)
Most of these men came home unceremoniously, but at least, to a G.I. Bill that offered an education and the opportunity to buy modest homes on Long Island or other suburban areas. They were a good honest lot, with an occasional oddball. They were veterans.
Although I worked in Manhattan, I lived in the Bronx, the borough directly to the north. On evenings and weekends, I spent time at a lacklustre Bronx neighborhood bar – a poor American version of the Englishman’s local. A goodly number of its habitués were also veterans, who like those at work, had been similarly engaged during World War II. And they had formed a social group (The Mickey Jones Club) named after a neighborhood friend who had fallen in the Pacific. They were veterans.
In 1958 and 1959, because of the requirements of the Selective Service System, I found myself in Germany, a private in an Armor Group, a neophyte serving under men who had seen war in all its aspects.
Our Group Commander was Colonel Kane, a decorated hero of the Second World War. My section leader was Major Prichard -- who once whimsically reminisced that he had served under Patton in World War II and had, on occasion, told the General that he was going the wrong way.
Our officers were all armor men who had fought in World War II and in Korea and each had a subdued, fragmented tale to tell. S-3 was Operations. We had three captains: Leroy Lafayette Schaefer and two others. Sergeant First Class Campbell, my immediate superior, had been a prisoner of war in Germany. He told me of his experiences only once. These men, too, were veterans -- but still serving.
These warriors knew from reality and experience what we in the lower ranks knew only in the abstract, but could not truly comprehend. The situation is best summarized in the following, extracted from the American Cold War Veterans Internet site:
“No headlines, but just honest and faithful service — peacekeepers who stayed combat ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. NATO had 21 divisions facing 175 soviet and Warsaw Pact divisions in 1955. Our troops stayed on alert, with their basic load of ammunition ready for war. Those troops in the Fulda gap had no illusions about their role — they would buy time for a counterstrike if and when war began.”
Those at work, those in my family, those in that neighborhood bar, and those under whom I served in Germany are all gone now. But I will think about them for a while today on Veterans Day -- close to sixty nine years after Japanese squadrons flew from the west, the north and the east -- past Diamond Head -- on their way to Pearl Harbor.
Where did we get such men?
The tone of this reverie reflects days past and conflicts fading from modern sensibility. Yet each new generation produces its own veterans who move into that brotherhood.
Artwork at the top is Barse Miller’s Waving Goodbye and Good Luck. Small town artwork is a Saugerties street (Partition at Montrose) by Edward Lazansky. Okinawa LST photograph is from WW2incolor.com. The soldier in the Fulda Gap region is from the Blackhorse Trooper website. The famed return to Boone City still is etched in most of our memories.