The WW II Veterans are Leaving Us

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

My mother was in the hospital, so I decided to go back to the Chicago area to visit. At first I was going to fly. I live in Colorado Springs and it was a 1200 mile trip. On the other hand, I am from Iowa and if I drove I could stop by and visit some relatives. I have a couple of surviving uncles who are WW II combat veterans. They are both in very poor health and I wanted to see them. I always call them on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, but I thought this trip would provide me a chance to see, perhaps for the last time, these family members who left Iowa to go to war as young men, not to return until the surrender of Japan.

At one time there was a large group of uncles and great uncles in my family who had served in WW II, but except for two men they are all gone now. Remember, WW II ended 62 years ago. The WW II veterans you can still visit were the very youngest of the “boys” who fought. The senior military leadership of WW II was already middle-age when they lead the United States in that war.

My one uncle was in an Army field artillery unit that was being rushed across France to join the fight to stop the Germans in their last desperate attack on the Allies, at the Battle of the Bulge. The winter of 1944 was the coldest in over 40 years and it slowed the re-enforcement of the surrounded troops at Bastogne, Belgian. My uncle’s unit did not get there until the middle of January 1945, as that battle was finishing up.

Because his unit was “fresh” troops they were immediately thrown into the fighting as the Americans crossed into Germany. Once on German soil, the intensity of the combat increased. The Allies paid dearly for every inch of Nazi real estate.

The other surviving uncle I visited in Iowa had been an armorer on Army Air Force bombers in the Pacific Theatre. He maintained the machine guns, repairing and reloading them before each mission. He also loaded the bombs into the belly of the aircraft. They had a hoist that was used to lift the 500 pound bombs into the bomb-bay, but that took too long. So my uncle and his partner would manually lift the bombs into place. As I sat there talking to my 87 year old, extremely frail uncle it was hard to imagine him and just one other G.I. lifting 500 pound bombs. He got out his old WW II pictures and there was my 20 year old uncle with his shirt off, muscles bulging, loading bombs.

His aircrew would take off for a bombing mission and before they could return my uncle was flown to the next island, which had just been taken from the Japanese. They would set up to reload the US bombers on this newly captured enemy runway so that a second bombing run could be flown in the same day.

The only problem was there were still enemy soldiers in the area shooting at the air groundsmens as they prepared planes for the next sortie. Both of my uncles were lucky to have gotten home from their war. What always surprises me is when I start talking to family members and I mention the fact that a certain uncle is a WW II combat veteran and they did not even know he was ever in the military. I have many first cousins who are very lucky to have been born. Their fathers had fought in WW II and seen some extremely harsh combat and were fortunate enough to not be killed, or even seriously injured.

One of my uncles by marriage survived WW II, but his brother was lost when the USS Vincennes was sunk by the Japanese. A generation was stopped forever by a torpedo.

I was able to visit a couple of other WW II veteran friends while I was in Chicago. One had fought in the Pacific and the other in Europe. As I visited all of those combat veterans the one word that kept coming to mind was “frail.” These men who had once pitted their physical strength and military training against our nation’s enemies are in declining health. However, they all remembered what they had done for their nation. We need to remember, we need to record this history, but most importantly we need to visit these senior veterans now, before they are gone.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.