Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Between now and then, another 600 World War II veterans, most of them in their 80s or 90s, will die. We lose one every two minutes; an entire generation passing quickly into history. Of the 16,112,566 Americans who risked everything to serve this nation during that long, grinding war, only about 1.2 million remain today. Their median age is about 92.
My dad is 91. Veterans Day of late has taken on new meaning for my brothers and me.
A beanpole farm kid at 6-foot-3 and 135 pounds, dad joined the Army Air Corps in late 1940. Times were tough in rural, Depression-era Oklahoma. Even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he was far from home, flying in bombers on mapping and reconnaissance missions over Panama and North Africa.
He spent the war years folded into the cramped, windowless confines of metal compartments crammed with cameras in 5th Air Force B-24s and B-29s in the South Pacific, flying out of garden spots like New Guinea and Okinowa He laughs that he never saw anything on the interminable missions and served the entire war without a gun. He never talks about how many of his squadron died or came back shot up, and his voice strains when he talks about bombers ladened with fuel crashing in flames on takeoff or simply disappearing. There is much he does not say.
I have pried out of him only over the past few years the barest bones of his World War II years. Before that, before my mother - the love of his life for 63 years - passed away unexpectedly in 2007, he spoke little of that long-ago era.
Growing up, I knew he was in World War II, which was a big deal to a kid, but he would not talk about it, even when pressed. "It wasn't much," he'd say, or, "That was a long time ago." I knew he was in an Army Air Forces recon-photo unit and there was that Air Medal discovered in a box in the back of a closet during a futile search for Christmas presents. I had to look in an encyclopedia to see what it was. My brothers say they found others, including Purple Hearts, unearthed in much the same way only to vanish into another box someplace else. I have never seen them.
Those years are a mystery to me. Oh, there is the picture of a young, skinny flyboy looking bravely into the camera in a rakish canvas flying helmet complete with goggles. The picture, the family story goes, was taken while he and his crew were back in the states on a short-lived bond drive with the famous Memphis Belle, out of Europe. Another faded, slightly unfocused picture shows dad and a blonde Army nurse standing on what is left of a downed, shot-to-doll-rags Japanese bomber on New Guinea. And I remember a folded, black and white photo of a beat up aircrew -- standing in a line, complete with bandages and a wheelchair -- in front of a B-24 with nose art proclaiming it "4F," but it has disappeared. There were more but they are gone, swallowed up in spring cleanings and myriad military moves.
Dad talks occasionally, if I pick at him, about the long, exhausting flights, the smells, about eventually flying over Japan in a B-29 after the devastating fire bombings, about his jaundiced view of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who set up shop lavishly on New Guinea, and the lousy food during the war. Mutton, it turns out, is not a favorite. He will talk about the heat, the rain, the medical care. But he never seems comfortable. It startles me sometimes that I know so little about that time in my father's life.
My brothers tried to arrange a flight for him aboard a B-24 a few years ago. He smelled the familiar, haunting smells and could not do it. It sticks with you, he said.
While tomorrow we honor our veterans in all branches of the service for their sacrifice and service, I cannot help but fret that too many of them from World War II, the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw dubbed them, are slipping away. Neither my brothers nor I are ready for that reality of time.
Not ready at all.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet.com.