Next Monday, May 25, my mind will wander back to warm, humid mornings in my southern Minnesota hometown. I’ll be wearing a heavy, all-wool band uniform, getting ready for the annual march through town and then a short bus ride to the city cemetery for the traditional Memorial Day ceremony.
The parade through town would include Spanish-American War veterans riding in an open car, followed by marching veterans groups including World War I veterans and then World War II veterans, the heroes of my youth, still relatively young men in their early 30s, working hard to make up for time lost during their service to the nation.
Memorial Day is set aside to honor men and women who made the final sacrifice during wartime. It was established in the years following the Civil War, and expanded through the decades to honor the dead of succeeding wars.
In modern celebrations we’ll see people wearing an imitation poppy purchased from a veterans organization. The poppies are a memory from the First World War. Poppy seeds were the first to germinate in battle-disturbed ground, and fields of red poppies marked the locations of bloody battlefields. The poppies are a remembrance of wartime bloodshed, but also a symbol of rebirth and new life.
As we honor the fallen soldiers, we also remember the survivors of the wars, especially the aging veterans of World War II.
Of the over 16 million men and women who served during World War II, over 400,000 lost their lives while in service. Of the over 15 million survivors, the numbers keep dwindling. The Pew Research Center estimates the numbers of World War II veterans is now just under 300,000, and that number continues to drop at about 245 per day, and that was determined before coronavirus began accelerating death rates. Among the most recent deaths was actor/comedian Jerry Stiller.
In a twist of fate, one recent death was Phillip Kahn of Nassau County, New York, who served in the Army Air Corps during the war. He died on April 17 from coronavirus complications. He was one of twins born December 5, 1919, and his twin died from the Spanish Flu just a few weeks after he was born.
The oldest living WWII veteran is 110-year old Lawrence Brooks of New Orleans. An African-American, Brooks has complicated memories of his service in the highly segregated military services of the era, when black soldiers were treated as second-class citizens. He served in an engineering battalion in the Pacific.
There were 464 servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII. Two of those Medal of Honor recipients are still living. Charles H. Coolidge, age 98, served in the Army, and Hershel W. Williams, age 96, served in the Marine Corps.
Among notable living veterans of WWII are singer Harry Belafonte, songwriter Alan Bergman, actor Mel Brooks, former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1947 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack, former FCC chairman Newton Minow, actor and director Carl Reiner, trumpeter and bandleader Doc Severinsen, former Montana Governor Ted Schwinden, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former senator (and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband for a while) John Warner.
Long time TV journalist and author Tom Brokaw wrote about those remarkable men and women, “The Greatest Generation,” who grew up in the Great Depression and then went to war. After winning that war, they returned home to transform the country, flocking to colleges and universities under the G.I. Bill, then turning to business, sports, entertainment, and politics, not to mention catching up in a big way on making babies.
On Monday, I’ll feel a sense of relief that I won’t be sweating under a hot sun in a band uniform while listening to some local politician’s oratory. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the privilege of having been able to know, work with or for, and live next door to so many of that greatest generation.
While we treasure that small band of survivors still with us, we revere the memories of those gone to rest.