Payback to the greatest generation

by Brian Clarey

Payback to the greatest generation

I used to wear my grandfather’s Army jacket when I was a teenager. I couldn’t have been much more than 14 — my grandfather at his tallest was maybe 5-foot-4, and he was in his twenties when he was fitted for that short, wooly, impossibly green garment. It had a sharp collar, heavy buttons, a fitted waist… it was like something out of an old movie. Which was why I liked to wear it. He was already a dentist by the time he enlisted, signified by the caduceus pin on the jacket’s tight lapel, but he got to Germany with the replacement troops after fighting there had ceased and never actually practiced any dentistry. He did a variety of odd jobs over there: At Nuremberg he was in charge of graves registration. He ran a bakery for a time. Once he slept in a school later discovered to have been booby-trapped. Just seven years ago he revealed to me that he had met Gen. George Patton while stationed in Germany. I was blown away. What did you think of Patton, I wanted to know. He shrugged his shoulders. “Eh,” he said. His identical twin brother Carmen went to the Pacific theater, serving as a mechanic with the Army Air Corps on the Burma Road, war all around him. Malaria was his ticket home. They all went overseas back then — at least in my family — and old picture albums are filled with black-and-white holiday portraits of men in uniform and the women who held down the home front. In one Christmas picture, they glued a cutout of my grandmother’s cousin onto a family shot because he was in Europe fighting the Germans. Everybody did their part. My Uncle Ralphie, born with macular degeneration in his eyes, lied and, eventually, begged to go overseas. Uncle Art saw heavy action in Europe as an Army private and, according to family legend, played up an incident wherein he awoke in a building surrounded by corpses in order to get discharged, still as a private. Upon his return to the New York Transit Police and his job in the Lincoln Tunnel, he would take every opportunity to hassle Army officers passing through, so great was his hatred of them, and would brag of these exploits at family celebrations. I miss my Uncle Art. Uncle Carmen is gone, too. As is Ralphie. My grandfather, now 89, suffers from lapses in his memory and consciousness. And they were the young guys back then. Sixteen million Americans fought in World War II, and today they are dying at the rate of about 1,200 a day, according to some estimates, a relentless dwindling of that Greatest Generation known chiefly for their relative silence about their war, the sacrifices they made, the way they saved the world. What the Axis failed to do, time accomplishes effortlessly. It seems wrong that the national World War II Memorial in Washington DC wasn’t built until 2004, when so many of the veterans it honors had already passed. And it feels right to help make sure that every veteran who wants to get a look at the memorial has a chance to go. In 2006, Henderson County native Jeff Miller created the Honor Air program, an effort to bring veterans to DC to view the memorial and receive a nation’s grateful thanks. And now the Triad works to honor its own with the Triad Flight of Honor. A movement initiated by all 51 of the Piedmont’s Rotary clubs seeks to send 100 local veterans to DC for the day to view the WWII Memorial, as well as memorials for the Korean War, Vietnam and FDR. The goal is for all 100 veterans to make the trip for free; the bill should be about $50,000. The chartered US Airways flight will be a small miracle of logistical prowess: For every three veterans, a volunteer guardian will chaperone. The crew will include team leaders, a medical doctor and two paramedics. Lunch will be provided, and the group should have a police escort as the buses move them between sites. Often family members meet the veterans at the monument. Usually local congressmen come out for pictures; Bob Dole, who as an Army lieutenant was injured fighting in the hills of northern Italy, is a regular. You can get involved with the Triad Flight of Honor by visiting or getting in touch with your local Rotarians. Organizers are still looking for volunteer guardians, who fly at their own expense, and the names of veterans who are interested and able to once more answer the call.

Sixteen million Americans fought in World War II, and today they are dying at the rate of about 1,200 a day.