This May we will be observing another Memorial Day holiday. Reflecting on our WWII veterans, We often hear that each year we lose more and more of them. This idea affects me now on a personal level because this past April I lost my father, a WWII U.S. Marine. This veteran, truly a part of what has been called by many as “our greatest generation,” was a stellar example. My dad, “Ace” to some, “Pop” to me and my brother, fought in the Pacific from 1941-1945.
Orphaned at birth in January of 1921, he and his two brothers and sister grew up in an orphanage in Pittsburg, PA. After making his way to Florida in his late teens, he came west to California, arriving a few days after Pearl Harbor. Like many of that generation, he joined the Marines because of his sense of patriotic duty. He said he wanted to be a Marine because “they didn’t stay in one place.” He also told me later on that he never really expected to make it home. He saw action in four famous and legendary battles: Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan. He was nearly killed several times, but the one he talked about the most was when a mortar exploded close to him but he was saved by the sand on that particular each.
Other than contracting malaria he made it home unscathed, where he married my mother, raised my brother and I, worked for many years at Douglas (now Boeing) Aircraft, bought a house and lived out his American dream. He also took time to coach our little league team! He didn’t make millions of dollars but just went about the business of working and living, always carrying his war experiences with him.
I always knew his war experience was a part of him because occasionally he would talk about it although he wouldn’t tell us too much. With friends or family he didn’t talk about the war much, carrying it around with him, a metaphorical knapsack that many WWII vets carried. It wasn’t until his late eighties and throughout his nineties he began to open up with the help of one of my best friends, Shad, who is a Viet Nam vet and runs the National Veteran’s Foundation. Once that door opened my father would talk more and more about his war experiences.
Despite the fact that he, a Jewish American, suffered discrimination in the Marines, he never disparaged his time in service. (He did manage to set a few fellow Marines right when he’d had enough though.) We often had lunch together at Izzy’s Deli in Santa Monica, and he would wear his Marines hat with the battles stitched on the side, a gift from my cousins. Seeing his hat, people often came up to thank him for his service and occasionally pay for our lunch. Upon noticing his hat, many members of this special group of people, also WWII vets, would come and talk with him about their own experiences and the carnage they witnessed. People like Winn, who became a fast friend and WWII buff. Winn had been an Army medic in Germany and saw the horrors of the concentration camps. These vets would spend hours sharing their experiences.
One of his biggest lifetime thrills was meeting with President Obama during his term. After a chance meeting at Canter’s Deli, where he was photographed with the President, he drove over to my house to tell me. He would tell people that he spent four years in the Marines and never met a general but then in his nineties he “meets a Commander in Chief,” which always made him chuckle. That photo was posted on the White House website. I carried the picture on my phone so that I could show people with whom he shared that story.
These were the “guys” (and “gals”) who helped bring the country back from the disaster of WWII. Veterans who have come back from our current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Viet Nam, Korea, and those who have served in all capacities from “the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli ” are a special breed of men and women. But our WWII vets will be lost to us, and I can speak to this personally now. This Memorial Day, which will feel a little like Father’s Day this year, will hold more meaning than ever before. We can and should thank all veterans for their service, but our WWII vets deserve our very deepest love, appreciation and regard. Thanks, Pop!