I received a phone call from a friend in our hometown of Clarksville, MO, about an hour north of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. She said that she was putting together a newspaper tribute for the Fourth of July to honor the local WW II veterans. She believes there are only three of them left, including my 89 yr. old daddy. Today is Memorial Day I found it moving to interview Dad about his experience in the Navy during the 1940s.
At church our pastor showed a promotional film of an elderly man taking his two young grandsons to the local Veteran’s history museum. The two boys were engrossed in their own handheld electronic games and weren’t even watching the WWII film. When one of them looked up and saw the real planes, the real bombers and the real men, he slowly began to remove his earphones, and the younger brother followed suit. For the first time they were seeing what their grandpa actually did, how he had served and paid the price for our freedom to sit and play games if we choose. The last voiceover simply said, “If we don’t tell them, who will?”
The VFW of our small hometown used to be overflowing with WWII veterans; and now there are three. Statistics don’t lie when they tell us the number of our WWII veterans we are losing every day is about 1,000, not to mention the millions who served and gave their lives in combat. I don’t know why I am brought to tears more now than when I was younger, but I have a new appreciation for our men and women who serve. Our family constantly thanks each one in uniform, every place we travel.
Do I love war? NO! I wish we never had to fight or claim land or rescue our neighbors. As a matter of fact, during my horrible teen years in college, I was one of those pseudo war protesters. We applauded and cheered when they set the ROTC building on fire; we were ordered to leave the Union building steps or be arrested. The protesters of the 1960s saw the U.S. Military as our enemy. They would even spit on the men and women returning from Vietnam. No wonder the rate of suicide was so high then, and so many psychiatric hospitals today are filled with our veterans. Shame on me, and shame on those who chose to not only hate the war, but to hate those who served. The two are not the same.
My husband drew a very low number during the days of the Vietnam protests, when “the dreaded lottery” dealt the future of those who would be drafted. We had already seen so many of our friends die in combat and we truly could not understand why America continued in this vein. Today many feel the same way about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other places our troops are sent. But the difference today is that we can still hate war, but love and respect our men and women who serve. And we must thank our veterans and thank God that we still have a beautiful, free country to serve or to protest if we desire. But we must remember that freedom isn’t free. Ours has been bought with a great price, and we must tell the future generations before it is too late.
As I was interviewing my dad for the newspaper article, he told me of his hopes and dreams as he had graduated from Clarksville High School in 1940. He attended college at both Westminster in Fulton, and Missouri University in Columbia. As a member of Kappa Alpha Fraternity, he and his classmates were living the great college years of the time. Their futures were being planned; Dad was going to be an attorney as his grandfather was. But December 7, 1941 changed everything. It truly was a day that has lived in infamy. War was declared and our young men were honored to drop out of college and fight for their country.
My dad had always been fascinated by airplanes, and because the bombs had been dropped on Pearl Harbor in such fashion, he was ready to fly. The Air Force would not be formed until several years later, so Dad chose to join the Navy, go to flight school and became a Navy pilot. From our small hometown on the river, he boarded a bus and kissed his parents goodbye. He said it was the only time he remembers ever seeing his father cry. From Clarksville, population 700, Dad went to basic training with thousands of young men in Maryland. From basic training he went to ground school in Murray, Kentucky and on to the Millington Naval Air Station in Martin, Tennessee.
Once again Dad’s future was to change drastically. This time it wasn’t Uncle Sam who got him, it was a cute little sophomore at the University of Tennessee at Martin. “Boots” Bowling was a cheerleader, athlete and supporter of the troops. And there was one troop in particular she would serve for the next seventy years. Decisions had to be made quickly back then, and after nine months of dating, Dad had his overseas assignment, even the APO postal address where Mom could write to him. Waiting for a specific assignment that fall, Mom and Dad were married in her little church in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, Dad in his Navy military suit, and Mom in a plain blue suit as was customary during the war.
Ironically, it would be someone from Missouri who would end the war, and keep my dad from having to be sent overseas. While Dad was in training, my grandfather was elected to the state egislature and proudly served under Harry Truman. Coincidently, it was our local Missouri hero who had served under FDR as vice president, and suddenly become President when Mr. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. It was President Truman who would end the War. It was an answer to prayer for our country and allies around the world; and it was an answer to prayer for my parents. My sister Donna was born only ten months after Japan surrendered.
As we celebrate Memorial Day, the Fourth of July is just around the corner. Take this opportunity to also celebrate all of our veterans. Visit some of the veterans hospitals, volunteer, give, write to our troops. Tell your children and grandchildren about “The Greatest Generation” as coined by news commentator Tom Brokaw. Take your children and grandchildren to the museums, dedications, even cemeteries.
When we wheel my dad, wearing his WWII Veterans cap, through airports or into churches, or even in grocery stores, someone invariably stops and says, “Thank you, Sir, for serving our country.” And Dad says the same when he sees a young man or woman in uniform. Whether you like the politics or not, or support the war or not, you can still honor, bless and pray for our young men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to pay for our freedom. I am so proud of my dad, proud of all of those who have served, and yes, as corny as it seems…proud to be an American.
Dr. Debra Peppers, a professional speaker for 25 years, is one of only five inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, which followed her retirement from Lindbergh High School. A member of the National Speakers Association, she has traveled to all 50 states and 60 countries teaching others that if she can go from being a 250-pound high school dropout, to Teacher of the Year there is hope for every child and adult. Her web site is www.pepperseed.org.