America’s a wonderful place. It’s people are — for the most part — welcoming and willing to lend a hand at a moment’s notice. Nowhere is that more evident than in times of crisis, such as the one in the Carolinas in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
America’s perspective can puzzle me at times, though. Pop culture, social media and fandom often cloud our view of heroics, and those we should hold in high regard.
In recent days, I spent time with a group of friends — two from the valley and a third from Holland — who reconnected here after several years, and a trip through Europe’s most storied battle sites of World War II.
Dick Donald, a World War II veteran and survivor of some of the most brutal battles in the Pacific, was on that tour. Mr. Donald, thankfully, has never been reserved when it comes to telling his story. He readily admits he dealt with alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress disorder while adjusting to civilian life in the wake of witnessing the carnage of war.
Today, Donald, in his mid-90s, still runs circles around men half his age and he relishes the opportunity to share the history he was part of. He continues to advocate for veterans — of all conflicts.
Among other things, he witnessed the raising of the American flag by a battle-hardened group of young Marines at Iwo Jima. He tears up when discussing the sight of the bloody water that surrounded Okinawa and Iwo Jima as his destroyer escort pulled ashore, dodging floating bodies and scattered parts and limbs of young Marines.
Ton DeWild, Donald’s friend who escorted him through Europe on the tour, is from Holland and he lives in an area where parts of Allied bombers and unexploded ordnance from the war decades ago are still being unearthed to this day. Yes, remains of American crews are still being recovered.
DeWild told me how, when traveling through France and into Belgium and Germany, Donald — who often wears his “Iwo Jima Survivor” hat — was routinely stopped by Europeans and asked about his service in World War II. He was treated like a movie star, DeWild said, and people sought his autograph and posed for pictures.
How often do you see that here?
In the years since the Vietnam War, we, as Americans, have been better when it comes to how we treat our veterans.
It’s not entirely uncommon to see someone stop a veteran and shake their hand, offering a warm-hearted “Thank you for your service.” From time to time we hear stories about a veteran who pulls their wallet to pay for their meal only to find that an anonymous person stepped up and paid the bill for them.
It happened here in Central Pa. while DeWild visited Donald. They were eating out and a motorcycle club happened to be dining at the same restaurant when Donald rose to pay the tab. DeWild smiled when retelling the story, noting the club paid the bill for Donald and his visitor. The motorcyclists went out of their way to thank Mr. Donald for his war effort.
It would be nice to see more gestures of goodwill toward veterans who have endured combat overseas. When it comes to sacrifice, few have given more.
We Americans love our stars — rockstars, movie stars, standout athletes — and it’s not uncommon to see young and old rows deep seeking the autographs of the famous.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see people paying the same kind of attention to those who fought in World War II, Korea or Vietnam? Wouldn’t it be nice to see a young person asking questions and conversing with a current soldier in uniform? Preserving these stories, and these memories, ensures they live through this and future generations.
I can think of no stories more important than those of our combat veterans. Think of men like Dick Donald, and his fellow World War II veterans. Without their service, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of our Allies in the war, we’d be speaking Japanese, or German.
This history is so important. It can’t be overlooked that Hitler had plans for the United States. There were German sympathizers among us. The Japanese would have loved nothing more than to have occupied the western states.
Were it not for men like Donald, the course of history would not have led to where we are as a nation, and a world community, right now.
We ought not need reminders that these stories are vitally imporant, and should be retold through the generations of your family.
As Mr. Donald told me, “When an old man dies, a library of history dies with him.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.