“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”—Elmer Davis, (1890 –1958) American news reporter, author, and Peabody Award recipient.
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What comes to mind when someone says, “Veterans Day?”
I think about many things. Veterans Day parades as a kid. Spectators waving flags while uniformed National Guard members march by. Military vehicles pulling cannons. High school bands playing “The Marine Hymn,” “Anchors Away,” “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder,” and “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” Veterans waving to the cheering crowd, some walking, some riding in convertibles.
As a grade school kid, I drew pictures of military planes, tanks, and ships in class. Far more fun than listening to the teacher expounding on long division; subjects, verbs, and predicates; and the capital cities of every state.
Math, English, and geography were boring. Pictures of the nation’s tools of military strength in magazines were much more exciting.
The first library book that excited me enough to read it cover to cover was “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Capt. Ted Lawson’s account of the U.S. retaliation to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor was spellbinding to this third grader at Seymour Elementary School in 1956. Lawson piloted one of the 16 B-25 bombers led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle launched off the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet to bomb Tokyo. The 1943 book was hailed by the New York Times as “the most stirring story of individual heroism (the war) has produced so far.”
It stirred me enough at eight years old to plead with the principal, Mr. Johnson, to let me buy the book. His answer was a “no,” but he included a smile and an explanation about how the library needed to keep its copy so others could be inspired by it, too.
That same principal’s voice was heard every morning on the loudspeaker; the one on the wall behind the teacher’s desk, above the cursive writing chart and next to the portrait of George Washington: the one with the white “clouds” at the bottom that was said to be an “unfinished portrait.” I wondered why it was unfinished and why the school couldn’t locate a finished portrait of the first president.
“Good morning, students,” Mr. Johnson’s voice boomed. “Everyone stand for the pledge of allegiance to the flag.” Then, almost on cue, with hands over our hearts, we rose and turned toward the window to watch “Old Glory” going up the flagpole outside. After singing the National Anthem to accompany the recorded version on the loudspeaker, the principal recited a prayer. One filled with thanks for a strong and mighty nation and brave military forces that ensured we would always be free.
As I got a little older, Veteran’s Day became synonymous with a growing appreciation for my dad and his generation of World War II veterans. In the mid-80s, I remember his tears as we stood behind a buttress on the side of the massive cathedral in Cologne, Germany. He described it to me as the exact spot where one night 40 years earlier, as a 20-year-old soldier with the 276th Combat Engineers, he and others were pinned down by German gunfire. “We knew we were going to die,” he said.
Some did. Others made it out alive.
Veterans Day reminds me of stories about an entire nation shutting down production of automobiles and everything else mechanical to build wartime aircraft, tanks, ships, and more. Tools needed to defend against governments jealous and fearful of American democracy and freedom.
A great gathering of those warbirds is collected at the Mid-America Flight Museum in Mount Pleasant. Walking around the surviving examples of fighters, bombers, and support aircraft that were a large part of defeating the WW II Axis Powers is a reminder of those unique Americans dubbed “The Greatest Generation.”
Looking at the airplanes I idolized as a kid, I think about fighter pilots in aerial combat, knowing there would be only one victor when it was over. Bomber pilots and crews who flew countless missions over Nazi Germany, each knowing the odds of returning were against them.
With that, it’s startling to remember the average age of those pilots was 17 to 23. A 30-year-old pilot was considered to be an “old man.” Usually tagged with nicknames like “Pops” and “Pappy.”
When I think about Veterans Day, I think about a generation that rose to the occasion when our country was threatened by two evil aggressors on opposite sides of the world. And about the men and women who entered the U.S. military and did what had to be done, not knowing if they would return when the job was done.
I think about how they did it anyway. And because they, and veterans of generations before and since, have done so, we are—so far—still a free nation. That’s what I think about on Veterans Day.
PHOTO AT TOP OF THE PAGE: From a WW II era photo album my mother put together with snapshots my father sent her while he was serving in the U.S. Army 276th Combat Engineers. Notation with this photo was, “Battalion passing through Dixon, Tennessee headed for maneuvers in the Mt. Juliet area near Nashville.” The 276th had just completed three months of training in building roads and bridges at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, and left for the European Theater after the Tennessee maneuvers were completed.
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.
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