Seventy-five years ago, the world’s most calamitous war mercifully ended. One of my earliest memories was standing hand-in-hand with my mother on West Main St. in Little Falls watching the Veterans Day parade pass by. It was 1947 or 48. I remember the marching bands, floats, firetrucks, mounted policemen and most of all, the soldiers.
The World War II veterans dressed in uniforms that still fit, proud in bearing and sporting rows of colorful ribbons pinned to their chests. After the parade, we walked to beautiful Western Park where a ceremony was held honoring these heroes whose courage and conviction helped defeat Hitler and Hirohito. Mom and I walked home by Monroe Street Cemetery, and I’ll always remember passing an older woman kneeling by a gravestone fronted by an American flag. She was sobbing softly. I asked mom why. Whispering, she responded that her son had been killed in the war.
Today, I’d like to give a shout out to those World War II veterans still with us. Men like Joe Vespasiano from the Falls who did their duty, returned home, married, raised a family, went to work and in so many different ways, quietly served their communities. They were the ultimate role models for their children who, thanks to their nurturing, grew up to lead successful lives, taking what they learned from their fathers to nurture and develop the next generation.
Thinking about Joe V., Rudy Scialdo, Sr., Big Jim Regan and all the other World War II vets I knew somehow reminded me of three groups of veterans whose invaluable contributions to the war effort have too often been forgotten. First, the Navajo (Dine) Code Talkers. These Marines used their own unique language to develop a military code which was NEVER deciphered by the enemy. The “Dine bizard” (people’s language) drove the Japanese to utter distraction. Hundreds of other Navajos also saw combat earning scores of medals including numerous Purple Hearts. Only five Code Talkers remain alive today-Peter MacDonald, Joe Vandever, Sr., San Sandoval, Tom Begay and John Kinsel, Sr. Their contributions to the war effort are epitomized by the words of 5th Marine Division signal officer Major Howard Cooper. “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” Sadly, following the war, they returned home to face the twin evils of systemic racism and prejudice.
Secondly, a shout out to the Tuskegee Airmen. While nearly a million African Americans served in the armed forces during WWII, the vast majority functioned in non-combat units. Despite the fact that an entire Black regiment received the Croix de Guerre from the French in WWI for conspicuous courage under fire, African-Americans were thought to perform poorly in battle. Hello Jim Crow. Following pressure from several civil rights groups, the War Department relented and the training of Blacks to become pilots, navigators, bombardiers, etc. began at Tuskegee Army Field, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Among the 13 members of the first class of aviation cadets was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a graduate of West Point who would later become the first Black general in the U.S. Air Force
In February 1944, squadrons of Black pilots formed the new 332nd fighter group which by war’s end had flown over 15,000 individual sorties destroying over 300 German planes, nearly a 1000 rail cars and transport vehicles along with a German destroyer. Sixty-five Black aviators were KIA and another 32 captured after being shot down. Their heroism was rewarded with over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Their performances helped lead to the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces in 1948 (Executive Order 9981). Sadly, following their heroic efforts, they returned home to face systemic racism and prejudice. Eleven Tuskegee airmen remain alive today.
Thirdly, a shout out to the Nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants who, despite the fact that their parents and siblings were rounded up, dispossessed of their homes and other property and shipped off to internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and featuring rotted barracks, for no apparent reason other than their ethnicity, volunteered some 33,000 strong to fight. Why? Maybe distinguishing themselves in battle would secure their families’ release. Or abiding by age-old customs demanding loyalty to one’s country was expected.
Nisei formed the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team and fought with legendary bravery in Italy and France in 1944, earning more honors and suffering higher casualty rates than any combat unit its size. In the words of iconic General George Marshall – “They were superb. They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them.” Japanese Americans served with distinction in the Pacific Theater as interpreters and translators as part of Military Intelligence Services. Twenty men from the 442nd ultimately received the Medal of Honor. Following the war, the Nisei returned home to join their parents and together face systemic racism and prejudice. The latter never did get their homes back.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to my Uncles Roy, Bernie (WWII and Korea), Francis (froze feet at the Bulge), Fred and Clarence for making my world safe for democracy and guaranteeing opportunities which enabled me to become who I am. They were role models for my cousins Cholly, Donny and me. As was my Uncle Bobby Van Slyke. A great student and basketball star at Little Falls High, he and some buddies left school after their Junior year to join the Army Air Corps. Bob went on to become a bombardier-navigator. He left the service at 20 as a First Lieutenant having flown 42 missions while earning a DFC and Air Medal with 7 clusters, among other awards. They’re all gone now, and I regret not having thanked them to the extent I should have. Someday, soon, beyond that blue horizon, I’ll make it up to them.
So, this Veterans Day, in their memories, a shout out to our World War II veterans still living in the Valley and throughout the country. You were and always will be the Greatest Generation.
Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.
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