Tomorrow is a special day, Veterans Day. Unlike Memorial Day which honors the departed, Veteran’s Day honors those who live, having served with honor and love of our great country.
The last verified veteran of World War I passed away in August, 2011. Her name was Florence Green and she served in the Royal Women’s Air Force from 1918-1919. The last combat veteran of World War I, Charles “Chuckles” Choeles, died at age 110 in July 2011.
During World War II, over 16 Million men and women served in the United States Armed Forces. Among their ranks were 291,557 battle deaths and 113,842 other deaths in service to our country. In total, more than 405,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. While doing their duty, an additional 670,846 suffered wounds.
In today’s column I honor all those who have served, living and dead. I want to focus, however, on the living veterans of World War II whose ranks are shrinking by approximately 680 per day. Reality is that out of the 16 million who served, there are only 1.2 million who remain. Sadly, most of these will depart within the next five or six years.
I feel fortunate and blessed to have family members who served in World War I and World War II. I also have good friends whose parents and relatives served during these trying times. Some of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Having been born during World War II, I have a keen interest in this period of history. Two of my uncles served in the U.S. Army, one in North Africa and Italy and the other in France, Austria and Germany. One of them, thankfully, survives today.
A soldier’s job is never an easy one but was especially tough during World War II.
Imagine sleeping in a wet, muddy hole with the temperature below zero. At best you have a light weight sleeping bag or maybe a wool blanket. You haven’t had a hot meal or a bath in months. Your clothes are filthy, torn, damp, and infested with lice. The boots on your feet are not insulated or waterproof and your socks are damp and cold. In the darkness of night you dare not light a cigarette or start a fire to heat food or drink. The last guy who tried that was shot by a sniper from 100 yards away.
The foxhole in which you temporarily reside isn’t much of a home. The previous occupant used it for his bathroom before he moved out or was killed. Nobody remembers his name, where he was from, or where he is now. You are his replacement.
Due to lack of good food, sleep and basic creature comforts, you are always tired. When your group finally receives orders to advance you walk and on your back you haul everything you need to survive. Veterans of World War II frequently carried as more than one weapon plus extra ammo, hand grenades and a bayonet. You wear a steel helmet, under which is a wool stocking cap and helmet liner.
In your pack, you might have a small Bible, flashlight, trenching tool, notebook, toilet paper, K-rations or C-rations. Water in your canteen has a metallic, chemical taste but it is wet and usually doesn’t make you sick. It is a struggle to survive and to make matters worse, there are people on the other side of the hedgerow who want to kill you whenever an opportunity presents itself.
Because of the determination, bravery and sacrifices of the men and women of our Armed Forces during World War II, we enjoy our freedom.
They truly are part of what has been referred to as, The Greatest Generation and we owe them our deepest gratitude. If you know a veteran and have the opportunity to contact one tomorrow, thank them for their service to our country and honor them before they too fade away.
God bless America and all of the brave men and women who, seventy years ago, put their lives on the line for us.
Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed’s retirement. He can be reached at email@example.com or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633.