Married to a U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr., I’ve always had a soft spot for military veterans (of any age,) but with the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor only weeks away, I was thinking about the diminishing opportunities we have, as writers, to talk one-on-one with members of the Greatest Generation.
|Source: PH survivor Vincent "Jim" Vlach.|
In Rhode Island, it was hard for me – no impossible – to understand what the men of Easy Company (“Band of Brothers” fame) went through during the Battle of the Bulge (and the coldest Belgian winter in fifty years.)
A hushed silence - you can feel the awe - covers the theatre as Ed “Babe” Heffron and two other Easy Company vets slowly make their way on stage and take their seats during a tour to raise money for a Normandy - based memorial.
Heffron is quite the character. He sits forward in an old, high-backed lounge chair, right index finger held up and gets ready to answer a question about the infamous winter battle. Babe silences the audience by saying "It wasn’t easy, and it was cold, it was so cold, but we had a job to do."
In San Diego, I spoke with Erik Bork, a screenwriter on Band of Brothers, and asked him how was it? His grin was instantaneous, followed by a more serious tone as he said the WWII vets he met were, to a man, unforgettable.
In Melbourne, Fla., I interviewed Shlomo Fleischmann, an eighty-eight-year old Jewish Holocaust Survivor. I asked how he forgave those who killed more than eighty members of his immediate family. He walked over to a closed cabinet door, one I haven’t noticed, and opens it wide.
“This is the only way I can explain.”
On either side of the large cabinet, family pictures cover most every square inch of two large picture frames. The pictures on the left are black and white. Families standing in formation, hats on, ties straight. Faces that show only somber looks and tight sobriety.
The ones on the right are in color. You can almost hear the giggles of children and the crying of seagulls as grandparents hug their little ones while sons and daughters prepare (or enjoy) a grilled meal at the beach.
“These, these are the ones I lost,” Fleischmann said, his fingers splayed over the black and whites, as if trying to touch each person.
He turns, and his face transforms like the clouds do when the sun finds a way though.
“These are the ones who survived. They are the ones raising the future generations.”
I ask a follow up question.
“Yes, it was hard to move on, but you must. I don’t hate today's young Germans – some of my friends are Germans and it is not their fault. They did nothing wrong – but I cannot forget or forgive those who did what they did.”
In my former life as a journalist, I once sat down with a “real” Private Ryan, aka U.S. Army CSM William “Bill” Ryan (Ret.) who landed on the beaches of Normandy and was later assigned to the 508th Airborne Infantry Regiment.
Ryan later combat-jumped into Nijmegen, Holland, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge (I wonder now... did he ever lay shivering next to Babe?) before liberating the last concentration camp in Czechoslovakia toward the end of the war.
Here in Honolulu, there’s Harry.
Harry Kitterman joined the U.S. Navy when he was seventeen. Though numerous tattoos on the upper arms of this eighty-six year old are losing the battle of the ages, the mischievous twinkle in the eyes of the former submariner remains bright and alert.
I met Harry only a few weeks ago at the Navy Exchange, and it only happened because he sat next to my wife and kids. Irked a little, I wondered why this old man was so rude. Why did he want to sit so close. (There were plenty of open tables in the large food court.)
Harry later told me I was in the seat once occupied by a fellow sailor. There are twelve seats in total. Harry’s is the third from the left as you look away from the main food area and he's nodding at my seat.)
“Every one of these seats was filled not too long ago,” said Harry. “But he’s gone, as is he, and this guy, too.”
My point is: In my humble opinion, whenever you see one of our veterans, give them a handshake and a warm round of thanks. However, should you meet a WWII vet, give them a bloody good hug, buy them a steak and ply them with a few good beverages of choice.
PS.: Harry’s said he’s going to walk me around the USS Bowfin… Christmas is coming early to Aloha Nation!
Mahalo and thanks for reading,
"We're gifted a life of freedom - thanks to the sacrifices of those who freely gave of themselves."