I was 4-years old when my Great, Great Uncle took me to my first patriotic parade. When I asked him who those old men with long white beards riding in Cadillacs and Pierce Arrows were, he explained that they were veterans of the American Civil War. That uncle’s older brother – after whom I was awarded my own first name – was a decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War of 1898, where he had served with Colonel Teddy Roosevelt. I already knew about the Great War - World War One - because my own father was a badly-wounded veteran of the trenches of France and his constellation of facial scars was a daily reminder to his four sons of his courage and bravery in defense of our country.
I was 8-years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and living as we did overlooking New York Harbor surrounded by military establishments of every kind in the midst of a transportation hub filled with the sights and sounds of war, men and women in uniform were a part of everyday life. My brothers, along with everyone of age I knew, were soon in uniform, one of them landing on Guadalcanal within months. Hardly a week would pass without our spare bedrooms playing host to some soldier, sailor or marine passing through en route to or from some battleground of that far-flung human conflict. Jackie Mueller came home from Anzio where he lost a leg and Teddy Raven from New Guinea, his lungs scarred by malaria and jungle fever. I watched as red stars and blue stars were replaced by stars of gold in the windows of many of our neighbors.
V.E. day and later V.J. day were celebrated by parades in big cities and small towns as our veterans returned to us, changing their uniforms for civvies with the “ruptured duck” worn proudly on shirt and coat collars. Soon that returning generation would help to turn the machinery of Allied victory into the powerhouse of recovery across the world, set in motion a race to the moon, and swell the ranks of college students seeking an education never dreamed of a decade earlier. They would spawn a harvest of mayors, governors, senators, congressmen and a stream of inventors, innovators and business leaders.
Once again uniforms would be packed away with memories and mothballs and hung in closets next to those of fathers and uncles, and organizations like the American Legion, Eagles and VFW would become reenergized with members whose sense of patriotism and hunger for associations which had deeply infused their sense of identity refused to slumber entirely.
On June 25th, 1950 Communist North Korean troops and tanks invaded the South, and Americans found themselves once again engaged in bitter fighting on foreign soil with the highest level of monthly casualties we had ever encountered since our own Civil War. Many of the senior officers and non-coms serving there in “The Land of the Morning Calm” when a million Chinese fighters swarmed south out of Manchuria, pushing us almost into the sea were experienced veterans of Europe and the Pacific. At the end of three costly years, 43 million people had their freedom back and a largely uncaring America had a new galaxy of returning veterans.
By the end of another decade, those numbers would be joined by yet another wave of weary and battle-seared warriors returning from Viet Nam, this time without the sound of welcoming trumpets and “thank you’s” ringing in their ears.
World War II veterans are mostly in their 90s today, their Korean comrades in our 80s, together evident mostly by white hair and baseball caps reflecting a deep pride and a near-mystical sense of comradeship the world can little comprehend. It has been said that “no war is over until the last of its veterans have died.” This combined group is passing from the stage now at about 400 every day, and soon veterans of the Persian Gulf and the War on Terrorism will take their place in that long line of graying kindred who have known a kinship stretching across years and generations.
Considering how I process all this in my life-view, I think often of the book title used by Joe Galloway and Gen. Harold Moore in their Viet Nam memoir: We Were Soldiers Once . . and Young.
: South Korean high school students who were not yet even born when the freedom they enjoy today was bought and paid for welcome a contingent of Utah veterans who once fought there. Al Cooper Photo