Remembering my dad on Veterans Day

My father used to tell me every so often how many World War II veterans die per day in our country. A veteran of this war himself and climbing in age, I did not really want to be reminded because I knew one day that this would include him. He did succumb and join the ranks of the deceased nearly a year ago, just a few days after his 87th birthday last November.

This is my first Veterans Day without him. Tomorrow is not just a day off to make a three-day weekend, but rather the day set aside to give thanks for the veterans we know in our own families, as well as all those in our communities and nation.

Every two minutes we lose a WW II veteran. With them go their stories. Hopefully, some families have taken the time to listen to their accounts so memories are preserved.

The National WW II Museum says, “There’s no time to lose” and that “honoring the 20th century veterans’ sacrifice before they pass from the scene is at the forefront of everything we do at the museum from our exhibits, to oral histories, to the museum’s $300 million expansion; a lasting tribute to the Greatest Generation.”

The museum’s statistics say over 600 of World War II veterans die each day.

The museum information puts it this eloquent way, “Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now in their late 80s and 90s. With their deaths, a memory of World War II – its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs disappears.”

Dad did not share much of his war experiences while I was growing up. There were bits and pieces expressed now and then, more often than not, at times when he had had a bit to drink. The only vivid memory I have from that time was a comment he made to me at the passing of Roe v. Wade about its similarity to the wasted and unnecessary death that he saw at concentration camps near the end of the war; how both placed no value on human life. Dad seemed to open up more with his grandchildren and it is from them that specific memories were recorded.

Like most young men at the time, Dad received his draft notice the day after his 18th birthday. He said that there were many tears among the recruits the first night because this was the first time many of them had gone a distance from home farther than Buffalo. Their overseas transport was without naval escort, and when German submarines were sighted the men were told to put on their life jackets. He said this was little comfort since they knew they would not live long in the icy Atlantic waters. Sleeping was six bunks high and food consisted of hard-boiled eggs and mustard pickles. Fights sometimes broke out which included throwing eggs.

Dad had engagements in France, Belgium, Holland, Austria, and Germany. The men slept in pup tents, barns, and farmhouses on the floor or in beds with six men across. All they wanted was a place to put their sleeping bags. Everyone smoked like chimneys. Some things he saw were labor and concentration camps that were abandoned by the Germans as the American soldiers got close. Prisoners included French citizens who had been working in the salt mines for years and other emaciated people scheduled for extermination; most with a vacant look in their eyes. There were also bodies in massive holes not yet bulldozed over. The Americans gave medical care and food. Local citizens were marched through to see what had happened. On the way to Austria, Dad and the others marched through bombed out cities in Germany where tanks had to clear a path to get through, with an odor of decay that was always memorable, even as the years passed.

Dad was frequently startled by loud noises. I remember how he would complain even if it was the clanging of pots and pans while cooking in the kitchen. He later shared that during the war, shells constantly exploded both near and far, and one never knew when it might come to “your address.” During one interview he gave a few years back to some older elementary school students, Dad described his friends. He said that it didn’t matter what church you went to or who you wanted for President. You were there to protect your friend, and he was there to protect you.

When Dad came home from the war, the train stop was in Dunkirk. He walked up Washington Avenue past Saint Mary’s Academy, his school from grades one through 12. He continued right up to his front door on the same street. Like most of the “greatest generation,” Dad never wandered far from the place of his birth, raising his family in his hometown. At the time, there were nearly 16 million veterans. Today, there are only about a million. Before we know it, there will be none left, so get their stories now.

Tomorrow, remember the purpose of Veterans Day. Originally known as Armistice Day, this holiday’s purpose was to honor veterans and celebrate the end of World War I, the war to end all wars. It was at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that World War I officially ended 95 years ago. First celebrated in 1919, it continued through the years and was eventually renamed Veterans Day to honor World War II and other veterans of the military.

Dad is gone now. I think of him often, especially during this month of his birthday, the upcoming anniversary of his death, and Veterans Day. Near the end of his life when he was taken by an ambulance service for dialysis treatments, I would proudly tell the crew that Dad was a WW II veteran. I was grateful that they seemed to take note of that and treat him with the utmost respect because of his service so many years ago; a frail man who once took part in the liberation of Europe. Make it a good week and thank a veteran.

Mary Burns Dea’s column appears weekly on Sunday in the OBSERVER. Comments on this article may be directed to lifestyles@observertoday.com