Veterans Day, 11/11/11
As a young kid, I was fascinated by history. For some reason, World War II in particular became a focus for me and I read everything about it that I could get my hands on. I studied the battles of Guadalcanal, Midway, Normandy, and Arnhem. I watched movies like “A Bridge Too Far” over and over again. All the time wondering deep within what it must have been like to be there. What it took to go through something like that. Probably leaning a little too far to the idyllic notion of acting with bravery and doing a good job when the chips were down. Only to be brought back to the grim reality when reading about lives lost numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Along with the personal accounts of those that were there, tasting the defeat or victory.
Most people have regrets centered around something they have done. I certainly have plenty of those. One of my biggest regrets, though, has to do with something I did not do. I passed up my chance to serve in the military. No doubt my life would have turned out very differently had I gone down that path – and that is something I do not wish for at all. But… If I had one thing I could change, while leaving everything else the same, it would be to have served my country in some capacity. I know it can be an ugly, dirty business. And when it is not, then it can be mundane, seemingly pointless, and frustrating to the core. I think I would have been good for it, and it would have been good for me.
I guess what I am trying to say, on this one day above all, is that I recognize and appreciate the service and sacrifice of all those that have answered that particular call. In whatever fashion. Whether it be on the front lines, or behind a desk, it all matters.
I was privileged to attend a Veterans Day ceremony recently and listened to the stories of five people that served in World War II.
They were gray on top, and little bit shaky, but all had sharp minds and recalled past events with crystal clarity. They were humble, yet deeply proud. You didn’t get any sense of entitlement from them. They did things that needed doing. Simple as that.
Ginny was a woman that left home to pick cherries in Ohio, substituting for the men that had been called overseas. She earned $7 a week, 5 of which went to room and board. The Woman’s Land Army needed to fill 240,000 positions in order to save all of the crops that were left behind in the fields and orchards.
Robert was a radio operator in a B-17 bomber. In training, they all had to fly to 20,000 feet and strip a 50 caliber gun down to the tiniest 1/2″ spring while wearing gloves, coats, masks, and goggles. Blindfolded. Once in Europe, you had to fly 50 missions to complete your tour of duty. Incredible.
Ron volunteered for the army at 18 years of age, leaving college behind to go to war. He and his twin brother were both part of anti-tank and mine clearing squads that were made up of other 18 year old’s with leaders that were in their 20s. Their squads both suffered casualties resulting in the loss of their leaders, and they were each promoted to Staff Sergeant and led their respective squads in the same company for the duration of the war. Ron was trapped with 41 others at one point 15 miles behind the German lines. They had radio contact with their superiors and were directed to lay low and see if the situation would change. They hunkered down in the snow and mud for 13 days before making a push for friendly territory. They started at 1pm and finished at dawn the next day. All of them were hospitalized for 2-4 weeks to get over the trenchfoot issues that had developed due to the cold and wet conditions. After the war, Ron went to school day and night to complete his degree in chemical engineering. Going on to work 45 years for Shell Oil Company. His brother worked 45 years for Exxon.
Paul was an artillery officer stationed in the Philippines. He had a fascinating story to tell about his role in the surrender of the island commonwealth. The Japanese held 11,000 troops prisoner, but were referring to them as hostages. The implication being that they would be killed if the remaining soldiers did not surrender. There were different generals in charge of each island stronghold, and even though orders for surrender had been transmitted via radio, Paul had to travel by Japanese plane and boat to obtain confirmation of their compliance. He passed up a chance to sail to Australia with others and stayed behind in order to complete his mission. It took so long for him to return, that his general thought him long since dead. Implying that he could have gone to Australia after all. Instead, he was sent to a concentration camp for three years until the war ended. He went on to work at the Pentagon and retired as a Brigadier General.
Al struck me as the Private Ryan of the bunch. Volunteered at 17, only to be turned down because of his age. Then got in anyway during February of 1941 due to the mobilization of all reserves and National Guard. He was part of the 34th Infantry which saw action in North Africa, Salermo, and Anzio. There were approximately 100,000 casualties in and around the beaches of Anzio. The shelling was so intense at one point, Al said the British artillery soldiers were pouring sea water down the barrels of their guns to keep them from melting. They took fire from the German’s Anzio Express, which was a 380mm railway-mounted artillery monster.
While I primarily write about running, I wanted to spend some time reflecting on how blessed and fortunate I am to have my freedom. I can’t turn back the clock and enlist. However, I can raise good kids that are productive contributors to society, and ensure that they grow up mindful of the sacrifices that have been made. Thankful to have what they have, and to live where they live.
Maintaining a free country, and a largely-free world, is a flawed and often messy business. Decisions can be driven by the rich and powerful, or swayed by greed and special interests. Lives are needlessly taken, and needlessly given. There is no easy answer to the challenges we are faced with. I hope at the very least, we can be grateful for those that have served and are now serving with honor and good intentions.
Thank you, Veterans.