Recently I read that the Department of Veterans Affairs numbers 19.3 million military veterans in the USA. These include:
- 8,051,000 who served during the Gulf War era;
- 6,259,000 who served in the Vietnam era;
- 1,096,000 from the Korean conflict;
- 326,000 who served in World War II.
The World War II count is really amazing, since even the youngest of them must be at least age 94. Our last World War I veteran, Frank Woodruff Buckles, was a U. S. Army corporal who enlisted in 1917 at the age of 16. He served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in Europe. Corporal Buckles died in 2011 at age 110.
Last week we observed the holiday we now call Veterans Day. In my youth we still called it Armistice Day because November 11, 1918, was the date when the Armistice that ended the Great War was signed in a railway car near Compiegne, France. In the years after World War I, as that war later came to be called, the Armistice was still mentioned and recalled as a noteworthy event. 35 years after the event, all activity in schools stopped for a minute of remembrance at exactly 11 AM on the anniversary day.
As a boy of 10, I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but I did know something about veterans because they were all around us. My pop served in World War II as a member of the Fourth Division – one of the outfits that hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, 1944. Pop was drafted into service soon after the invasion, and he saw some action. But he also caught pneumonia by camping out in the winter mud in Belgium. That illness took him off the line just before the Bulge, so it helped him to survive the war. His unit was shot up pretty badly when the Germans busted through the Ardennes in December 1944.
Pop was still in hospital when word came that President Roosevelt had died (April 1945). He recalled how shocked the guys in the ward were, as FDR had been president since most of them were children. Because of his overseas service, Pop missed the birth, short life and death of his daughter, Debbie (January-June 1945). He never saw her. I don’t think he ever really got over that.
After the war, Pop never expressed any interest in camping when I was in the Boy Scouts. He always said he had done enough camping-out during the war to last several lifetimes. “You don’t really know what ‘cold’ is,” he once told me, “until you’ve spent the night in a foxhole during a Belgium winter.”
Pop wasn’t really a gun-guy, but his army-training made him a crack shot. He amazed us by hitting the moving ducks at the amusement park’s shooting gallery. (Real guns and real bullets.) Pop taught me and my brothers a proper respect for weapons (“every gun is loaded, all the time”) and counseled prudence. “Don’t go about armed,” he said. “But if you are armed, and some situation arises, don’t pull out a gun unless you’re ready to shoot. Never just wave a gun around. You’ll get your butt shot off by some other armed fool.”
Pop was one of a kind. He survived the war, but died of a brain tumor in 1969. Much too soon. We miss him still.
Other members of my family were veterans, too. My pop’s half-brother Jim also served in WWII, and his half-brother Claude served in Korea. I was 9 when Claude enlisted, so I was aware of the Korean “Conflict.” We called it that because President Truman hadn’t asked Congress for a formal “declaration of war.” Some wise-acres called Korea a “police action,” but guys who served there knew it was a serious scrap. It cost us over 50,000 men.
Claude enlisted in the Air Force. He wasn’t a pilot, and I’m not sure if he actually went to Korea. But after the fighting stopped he was stationed in White Sands, New Mexico. There he met his future wife, Theresa. (She was definitely worth any inconveniences Claude might have suffered in the service.)
The recall of General MacArthur (1951) was the first news event that I was aware of at age 8. I didn’t really know who MacArthur was, or what all the fuss was about, but everybody was singing, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” By 1951, the great general who whupped the Japanese had not been back in the continental USA for 14 years. He had served his country’s flag since 1899. His father, General Arthur MacArthur, was a Civil War veteran.
Later I learned that President Truman relieved MacArthur from command of our forces in Korea because the general had publicly criticized the government’s no-win conduct of the “conflict.” General Mac wanted to wage total war and finish the thing quickly, but Mr. Truman feared that this would draw us into a land war against China and Russia. So the general was out, and the war staggered on to an ugly draw.
Two of my great-uncles were also military veterans. My grandma’s youngest brother, Sam Miller, was a veteran of World War I. And her oldest brother, Will, served in the Spanish-American War (1898-’99). I never knew Will, who died in the 1930s, but we all knew Sam. He was grandma’s favorite brother – a jovial character who lived into his 80s. He never spoke of his war-service except to say that it was “hell,” and he felt lucky to have lived through it.
Enoch Manbeck, the grandpop of my maternal grandma, and her uncle, Lucian Manbeck – both Pennsylvania farmers – served on the Union side during the Civil War. Another Pennsylvania ancestor, farther back, was a veteran of the Revolution. (Some of my grandchildren might have believed that I rode with Robert E. Lee, but they’ve probably grown out of that idea by now.)
During peacetime of the 1950s and early ‘60s, when I grew up, most young guys expected to be drafted into military service. By law, every man had to register for the Selective Service within 5 days after his 18th birthday. You could apply for a student-deferment that shielded you from the draft, as long as you maintained full-time enrollment and “good standing” – generally a “C” average, or better. If your GPA fell below that level you could expect a draft notice, as happened to a few of my classmates. My friend Dave, who was finishing his MS in physics in the early ‘50s, got called up because he was no longer a full-time student. He was something of a curiosity among the young guys in his unit.
I had always expected to serve somewhere in the forces, but that didn’t happen. As I approached graduation from Wheaton College in 1964, I visited the Army Recruiting Office to see if they might need a new math graduate. But we weren’t at war, and I was married with a young daughter. So the recruitment officer just smiled and said, “No thanks.”
After graduation I started work at the Navy’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. I was in the Lab’s training program for new engineers when the Bay of Tonkin incident set off the war-alarms. North Vietnamese gun-boats had reportedly fired on one of our vessels on August 2, 1964, and we returned fire. (There is some doubt that the incident ever happened. Some historians believe that President Lyndon Johnson felt that he needed a wartime Commander-in-Chief card in his deck to ensure election.)
Soon after that incident – whether real or invented – colleagues and I sat by the radio in our APL office, listening to the president call for 500,000 troops to help South Vietnam repel attempts by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong to bring the South under communist rule. Someone remarked how lucky we were that LBJ was elected, so Barry Goldwater wouldn’t get us into a “land war in Asia.” Lyndon Johnson really hammered that theme during the ’64 campaign. And the shocking “Daisy Girl” TV-ad2 – still talked about today – established a new benchmark for Democrat campaigning: i.e., every Republican presidential candidate is accused of wanting to drop the Bomb.
My brother, Fred, received a draft notice in late 1969, soon after his graduation from college. He opted for the Air Force, where he became a pilot of heavy transport planes. On at least one occasion his flight received ground fire in Nam. (He said it was as much of the “elephant” as he wanted to see.) After the war, Fred had a long career as a pilot for a major airline. The husband of my wife’s cousin was badly wounded in Nam (1968), but he recovered and was able to complete a 30-year career in the Army. One of my cousins was drafted and served a tour in Nam as a helicopter-gunner. It was dangerous duty, but he assured his mom: “Don’t worry, when they shoot at us, we just shoot back.” He survived the war and lived into his 70s.
Although I was the right age, I wasn’t called into service during the Vietnam War (1965-’73). My family situation made me 3-A, and my professional work in military projects – mostly computer-based simulation and modeling – made it even less likely that I would be called up. In the 1980s and ‘90s both of my sons went into the army and rose to the rank of captain during 4-year tours. Today one of my grandsons-in-law, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, is a reserve drill sergeant.
As noted earlier, veterans were all around us in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. In the ‘40s a neighbor was a World War I vet who had been gassed. This left him disabled and unable to work. I recall him sitting on their front porch as his children and I played together. My pop observed that the neighbor probably wasn’t “completely” disabled, as he had fathered six children after the war.
In earlier wars, pro athletes and actors didn’t get a pass from military service. Many were drafted. Ted Williams, one of our era’s greatest players, lost 5 years from his career by serving as marine aviator in both World War II (1943-’45) and Korea (1952-’53). Baseball historians wonder what he might have accomplished by playing for those years at the height of his career. Baseball’s “Christian Gentleman,” Christy Mathewson, served in World War I, but was seriously injured by being gassed in a training exercise. He died in 1925 at the age of 45.
Actor James Stewart joined the Army in 1940, became a pilot in the Army Air Force, served through World War II, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. After the war he resumed his successful acting career until his death in 1997 at the age of 89. Other actors served in World War II by making films for the military services.
While I was a student at Wheaton College, our president was V. Raymond Edman – a History Ph-doctor, former missionary, and a well-known Christian writer and speaker. But “prexy” (as he was called on campus) was also a veteran of World War I. He was extremely proud of his service, and he never tired of relating war-experiences during his chapel-talks. He gave us a fascinating glimpse into the war-service of one of the citizen-soldiers who made our country great. The Doc was Wheaton’s fourth president (1940- ‘65), and was very popular with students and faculty. He was quite a guy.
In 2007 my wife and I took a three-week trip to the Ukraine and Russia. We spent several days in Kiev and Moscow, plus a week-long cruise that took us across rivers and lakes from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The tour included a visit to the Russian War Museum in St. Pete, where we heard reminiscences from four veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad (1942 -’43). Three were men, and one was a still-lively woman. She was 80; the men were older. They were soldiers, but the lady had been a “runner” at age 16. She carried messages during the months-long occupation that defeated Germany’s Sixth Army.
After their presentation we were invited to speak with the veterans personally. I conversed briefly with the lady and one of the men. Very personable and friendly, with excellent English, the lady-vet said it was all just a great adventure. “We never thought of being killed,” she said (although many died).
When I spoke to the old Stalingrad vet, I mentioned that my pop had fought the Nazis in the European campaign. He gripped my hand and said they would never forget what America had done for them during that terrible time. He was very emotional, and there were tears in his eyes. I realized then how a comradeship of arms can span great distances of land and sea. It was an honor to meet those veterans from a time and place that we can scarcely imagine. I’ll never forget it.
In May 2020, on the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in World War II, President Trump joined a celebration in Britain that included the Royal Family. Television coverage of the proceedings informed Americans – including young people who know Queen Elizabeth only as an old lady – that she is actually a veteran of that war. At age 18 she joined the British Army as a driver, serving until the war ended in 1945. Her eventual husband, Prince Phillip, served in the British Navy during the war.
On the recent Veterans’ Day, last week, our community association hosted a gathering for veterans to meet, visit, and relate their service-experiences. I wasn’t a veteran, so I was there just to listen. As various old guys (and a few old gals) spoke up, I found it remarkable that several spoke approvingly of the selective service and of how much value the country realized by requiring young men to give two years of national service.
Some also described how advantageous the experience was for them, personally – particularly because it helped them meet people from all over the country. One said it prepared him to be a citizen of the “whole country” – not just of the little burg he came from. Another suggested that the divisions among our people today are directly traceable to the time when the draft was abandoned. One woman said the draft should be reinstated, and women should be included. There was a lot to think about in those comments.
Our nation is filled with people who value peace, good will and friendship among nations. But those positive attributes sometimes cause factions in other nations to misjudge us. Imagining that we can be pushed around without limit, they finally go too far, causing us to respond with a fierce resolve that always surprises the world. It’s one reason why we’ve been in so many wars, and produced so many veterans.
Some of our wars have been more controversial than others. But as I reflected on what I heard in that recent Veterans Day meeting, I realized that in all my years of rubbing shoulders with veterans of many eras, I never heard any speak disparagingly about his time in service. Even draftees regarded their military service as valuable and even formative. In many ways, those volunteers and draftees strengthened the country. God bless them. And God bless America.
- Camp Alger, near Falls Church, Virginia, was established on May 18, 1898, for the Spanish–American War effort.
- Daisy Girl ad – https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=1964+daisy+girl+ad&&view=detail&mid=1F5F383BEF30345E338E1F5F383BEF30345E338E&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3D1964%2Bdaisy%2Bgirl%2Bad%26qpvt%3D1964%2Bdaisy%2Bgirl%2Bad%26FORM%3DVDRE