Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Day For the Vets...

You could barely tell that Veteran's Day approached, looking at the Sunday newspaper. Just the usual pitches for big discounts at businesses who noticed the unfortunately timed Tuesday date for the day set aside to honor those who've stood for their country, their state, town, but mostly for their loved ones -- the families left behind.

It's always a little bit dyslexic, this holiday. As worthy and important as Memorial Day, as significant as any President's Birthday, Veteran's Day escaped the long-ago rush to align some holidays with weekends, thus creating a long-weekend opportunity to the benefit of families and businesses, alike. But partly because Veteran's Day continues to fall on its original date, it suffers a little from a disconnection that does not afflict Memorial and Labor day holidays -- the two that now perpetually fall on a Monday.

But from the list of low key commemorations around the nation, it's clear that Veteran's Day does not suffer from a disconnect with large numbers of people. They remember. We remember.

We always should.

Veterans, of course, whether personally subjected to a moment of recognition, still stop and think about their time, their friends alive and lost, and their good fortune at surviving their personal time in the military.

My military stint kept me far from direct conflict and largely out of harm's way. But not so for many of my childhood friends, neighborhood mates whose names now serve part of the collective memory of Vietnam commemorated on those sobering black-granite walls in Washington, D.C. They come to mind often. They remain forever my young buddies.

But the people who come to mind most often are the ones of my father's generation -- The Greatest Generation, as coined by author and journalist Tom Brokaw.

Growing up, my neighborhood friends and I were regularly glued to the tube to watch the show "Combat" or "12 O'Clock High" and we regularly filled front-row seats at the LeRose Theater in my hometown where, around Veteran's Day each year, we could count on a heavy dose of movies like "12 O'Clock High" or "The Longest Day" and "Sands of Iwo Jima, " or one of my favorites of the day, "The Flying Tigers."

Not until years later did we grow beyond our youthful fascination with global war as seen through the eyes of Hollywood and come to see the reality, either through our own eyes or the eyes of our fathers, uncles, grandparents -- the men and women who fought and survived with scars both visible and invisible to the human eye.

Thoughts of my father, wading shore from a Higgins Boat on beaches in Africa, then Sicily, Italy and, ultimately, Normandy, always flit through my mind when watching modern retellings of these horror. Whether through films like "Saving Private Ryan" or the masterpiece series "Band of Brothers," the inglorious horror and savagery that comes through those works gives me shivers of fear. And I can see bits of my father in the eyes of many of the actors portraying real soldiers in a real war.

The movie "Midnight Clear" and "The Battle of the Bulge," and the "Brothers" segment on Bastogne collectively helped me understand my father's long-time distaste for snowy days and chilling cold. But it was "Band of Brothers" that sealed it. While my buds and brothers reveled in the chilled powder sledding behind our house, my father involuntarily flashed back to December 1944 when he served under Gen. George Patton and helped the Airborne liberate themselves from Bastogne. The cold cut through the underclothed relief troops just as it did the Airborne soldiers.

Less than a month after entering Bastogne and finally into Germany, a Nazi mortar shell ended my father's war. By the time we was recovered enough to return to his unit, the war was over.

The segments in the 1949 movie "12 O'Clock High" that portray Gregory Peck's character, Gen. Savage, has come to represent my paternal uncle, Phil. He learned to fly before the war through the Civilian Pilot Training Corps and was called to fly to bombers in 1941. He arrived in England in 1942 and flew B-17s on long, dangerous, palm-sweating missions deep into Germany and back again to England. He lasted 17 missions -- better than many -- before the wicked toll of Germany 88s and Me109s forced him and only two other survivors of his crew to bail out over occupied France. Safe on French soil, he made contact with the Underground and was about to get smuggled out of the country when the Gestapo changed his plans.

He lived out the war in a Luftstalag-- better than many -- and served as the inspiration for my father's decision to transfer to a unit going ashore on D Day. The younger brother determined to find and liberate the older. Of course, that didn't happen; war has a way with dictating its own terms.

Unlike many vets of the air war, my Uncle Phil continued to fly as a civilian and, fortunately for me, gave me that first airplane ride that spurred me to fly.

Others also come to mind. My friend Chauncey, now in his 80s, was a 22-year-old Captain in the Army Air Corps, flying B-29s in the Pacific Theater; he survived to view Japan's surrender from the right seat of his bomber, "Goin' Jessie!" My uncle, who was the gunner in a Navy TBM, survived a shoot-down and a splash; later, he loved to fish but hated to swim. A couple of other friends who survived flying P-47s in Europe and Corsairs in the Pacific continued to fly -- but they wear their status unwillingly. My late neighbor, Emeline, who nursed the wounded with shells falling around her in the Phillipines.

Not "heroes" in their minds, like my father and uncles and other friends, they were called or volunteered to do what had to be done -- nothing more, nothing less.

Most of us can rest easy tonight because of people like these; most of us -- and our families -- can go through life with little worry about the need to face down a rifle-toting soldier or an aggressive fighter pilot.

Most of us -- even those of us who served in the far flung fields of fighting in Southeast Asia, in Korea, even in the Middle East theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq -- can feel fortunate that we''ll never have to fight in a war that engulfs an entire world.

Most of us are here because of those scared, scarred, stoic and step-up men and women who served and died and lived through World War I or II.

This day actually started as Armistice Day -- commemorating the day Germany surrendered in a rail car in France, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

But by whatever name we call it, it's still The Day to remember the sacrifices of ourselves and our forefathers.

The freedom we enjoy to fly unbound across this great nation exists only because of them.

Eleven passed shortly ago, but not without my own silent salute to all Veterans, past, present and future: Here here, to us, to them.

-- Dave


Anonymous Comanche Sue said...

Nice piece, Dave, and thank you for your service, too, whether in harms way or not.

9:32 PM  
Blogger jackhodgson said...

Wow Dave. Yet another great piece. Thanks.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Scofreyjet said...

Thanks Dave for another wonderful commentary. My Uncle Charlie (a former B-17 co-pilot) gave me books about the Flying Fortress, my first U-control model airplane, and took me on my first ride in a Cessna. Long gone now, I took his last B-17 log book with me on a ride in EAA's "Aluminum Overcast" a couple of years back to let him know "I get it". It's hard for us who served in peacetime to understand what it was like for those kids then, and for the current generation who sacrifice for us now...

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a really wonderful article, Dave. I sometimes get a lump in my throat when I see young people in uniform at the airports. You know that they are going to a dangerous place. They look SO young. It is incredible the unselfish sacrifices that these young adults are making now and that "the greatest generation" made when they were very young as well.

We can't say thank you enough.

This article was a great homage.

-- PilotBillFromTexas

8:11 PM  

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