By John Long
Did you get to meet the Vice President?
I’ve been asked that question repeatedly over the past week. As you likely know, Mike Pence was the keynote speaker last Thursday at the National D-Day Memorial for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
The quick answer is, yes, we shook hands. But the question misses the point of the day. As much as I respect the man and his office, meeting the VP was far from the highlight of the event for me. Let me tell you about some other men and women I encountered.
Chuck was there on Omaha Beach, on that day three-quarters of a century ago, with the 29th. So was Hilman, but with the Big Red One. John landed at Utah. Linc, unusually for an American, was at Sword Beach with the British. Alan jumped into France with the 101st. John flew bomber missions above the landing beaches. Lewis was on the battleship Arkansas in the Channel. Richard was also in the Navy on D-Day, and later witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
Samuel, Edwin and Victor served as medics that day, for my money some of the most under-recognized heroes of any battle. Don’s unit was a rarity — it somehow lost no men on D-Day. But later Don was nearly killed by a landmine.
Bill landed on Utah Beach, and later was part of the liberation of Flossenburg concentration camp, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had died. He can tell you exactly why we must never forget what it meant that our side won the war.
Hayden landed after June 6, but saw plenty of action later. Ash also came in a few days after. Seeing the temporary cemetery atop the bluff gave him a lifelong respect for those whose sacrifices had paved his way.
There weren’t just Normandy vets. The rest of the war was well represented. Carlos was at Okinawa. Russ was a pilot for the Army; Carl for the Navy. Olivia was in the WACs; Evelyn in the WAVES. Carroll served his nation in a segregated army, driving for the celebrated (and crucial) Red Ball Express. Joe and Don served on LSMs in the Pacific. Dan, still every bit the Marine he was decades ago, was part of clearing Axis holdouts in the Mediterranean.
Bobbie spent most of the war on the home front. One day, leading men in pre-dawn calisthenics out west, he saw a strange flash on the distant horizon. He later found out it was the morning of an A-Bomb test. He literally saw the birth of the atomic age.
Al and John both proudly told me they had passed the century mark. Both are looking forward to 101 later this year. Louis will be 100 this fall, but he can still tell you stories that will leave you in stitches. Ernest is a bit younger — he enlisted in the Navy when he was only fifteen. He struggled with the aftermath of the war, before a call to preach gave him his life back. He still preaches — a message of peace.
Once upon the time there were sixteen million WWII vets. The last estimate I saw reckoned that there are fewer than half a million left. About 100 were in Bedford last week. They, not the political figures, were treated like the stars of the show, because they were.
I didn’t meet a single vet who would call himself a hero. Nor did I meet one upon whom I would hesitate to pin that title. And I wasn’t alone. Each WWII vet was announced by name and presented a token of esteem by the Commonwealth of Virginia. As they returned to their seats, they were mobbed by admirers. They signed autographs and posed for photos like rock stars.
I’m not a very emotional person. It must have been the sun that made my eyes water. Maybe allergies accounted for the lump in my throat.
Or maybe I stood humbled and grateful and awed by these representatives of the Greatest Generation, knowing I will probably never be in the presence of so many WWII vets again. These men and women not only saw history, they made it. Each in his or her own small way saved their world, and created the one I have been blessed to know, the world of peace and freedom in which my children are growing up.
Thank you, my friends, my heroes. It hardly seems adequate for what you gave us. But I’ll offer it anyway. Thank you.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.