Last year for Veterans Day our writers group (TWIGS) published in the Village News a salute to the veterans who live in the Stuarts Draft Retirement Community. When we began that project, we thought that we had about fifteen veterans living here. We found out that we actually had thirty-four veterans living here at that time. We have about the same number of veterans living here at this time.
Last May, Harold Hadder, Janette (Mae) Hadder, Gene Strange, William E. (Bud) Ferrell, Jr., Russell Kensinger, Harding Lonas, and James Q. Salter published in the Village News some of their war experiences as a Memorial Day tribute to our comrades who went overseas and fought with us and did not return home.
Many veterans would not (or could not) talk about their war experiences for a long time after the war in which they fought was over. The memories were too painful. In my case, that period of time was slightly more than fifty-one years. World War II was over in August, 1945, and it was not until May of 1996 that something happened that caused me to do a complete “about face” in that respect.
I was watching a Memorial Day program on one of the local TV channels when the announcer, while waiting for the program to begin, walked out into the audience and asked people about the meaning of Memorial Day. One person said, “I really don’t know.” Another person said, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought anything about it.” One person just shrugged his shoulders and turned away from the reporter.
I was quite taken aback and almost angered by those responses. Then I watched on TV the most moving Memorial Day program that I’ve ever seen. It was televised from our National Cemetery in Arlington. The program featured World War II. On the program an actor read a letter from a young soldier who was killed in the European Theater. The soldier had written the letter to his mother and left it in the barracks, giving instructions that it was to be mailed if he got killed. As I listened to that letter being read, memories of specific individuals and specific events flooded my mind. I do not consider myself to be an overly emotional individual, but tears were streaming down my face.
On the following Sunday afternoon at a high school homecoming I told the graduates about those Memorial Day programs and then I told of one incident that happened to our crew in the war.(I was a radio operator on the crew of a B-29 Super fortress). On our twenty-first mission we saw one of our planes go down, carrying our beloved squadron commander down with them. We didn’t see one parachute come out of that plane.
After the program, while we were enjoying coffee and cookies in the commons area, the reaction of those graduates to my World War II comments was most positive. One graduate said, “Do you realize that our students are graduating from high school today without knowing what it is like for the country to be involved in a war?” Another said, “World War II is an important chapter in American history and there just is not a great deal about it in our history books.” One graduate said excitedly, “Man, you ought to go to every school in this parish (in Louisiana we don’t have counties — we have parishes) and tell the students about World War II and what it is like to get shot at.”
I resolved that day to dedicate everything that I would say about World War II to the memory of those who went overseas and fought with us and did not return home. I have kept that promise. I published my World War II memoirs in three installments entitled “Let Us Not Forget.” I spoke to various school groups about the war. In 2000 I wrote a book about my home town. In that book I titled chapter eight “Those Terrible War Years.” I named all of the ones from our town who lost their lives fighting for our country. I told their stories and dedicated that chapter to their memory.
In concluding this article I want to say something on behalf of all veterans. When we see images of the American flag being shredded, trampled, burned, and generally desecrated, that “tears us up on the inside” as we think about so many who gave their lives for the flag and all that it symbolizes. That makes us want to put that old uniform on and fight somebody. Furthermore, it makes us that much more determined that those who died fighting for this country WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN .
– James Salter