11 November 2011

Armistice Day

It used to be called Armistice Day when I was a kid.  It had been called Armistice Day for a long time,  but in 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into a law a change that renamed that day Veterans Day.  It was a good thing.  Every war has its veterans, and they need to be recognized.

This afternoon I went next door to the neighbor's house on an errand.  Their granddaughter was there.  The first thing she said to me was, "Happy Veterans Day."  Her grandmother, our neighbor, told me that they had learned about Veterans Day in school today.  They had only learned about the US Army because when I told her I had been in the Air Force she was completely puzzled.  She asked me what I did.  I told her that if flew airplanes, just like her grandfather had done.  I'm not sure what she made of that; maybe no one had ever told her that Grandpa flew airplanes once.

When I was growing up, the veterans were mainly from World War II.  My uncle was a sailor on a fleet oiler; he was based at Ulithi Atoll and survived the submarine attack that happened there by virtue of being someplace else when the attack occurred.  As it was, the oiler that was tied up at his normal berthing point was hit and sunk.  There were WWII veterans living on both sides of us.  One was a fireman and had been in the Battle of the Bulge, among other things.  The other was a mechanic and had been a Marine at the invasion of Okinawa.  In retrospect, the former Marine had seen some hard times, and his behavior said as much.  His wife said that every year around Indepence Day he literally trembled from the sound of the fireworks going off.  A number of my high school teachers were veterans of WWII.  One wore a hearing aid; another had been of an aircraft carrier that was sunk; one had been a B-25 pilot.  Most never commented much about their experiences.

Since I am a veteran myself, I see things in a different light than when I was a kid.  I go to some of the reunions that occur fairly regularly.  I pick and choose.  Some reunions are of little or no interest while others are a chance to meet people I haven't seen in a long, long time.  The last reunion I went to was in September 2010 in Savannah, Georgia; the next one on my list will be in Tuscon, Arizona, next October.

Sometimes it's someone else's reunion that catches my attention.  I has to have been over twenty years ago now.  The survivors of the 306th Bomb Group were having a reunion at Offutt Air Force Base.  My wife and I happened to be having dinner in the Officers Club the same night that the 306th veterans were having their farewell banquet.  The entertainment included a part of the Strategic Air Command Band called Nightwing.  On this special occasion they were doing songs from time of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in England.  One of their female vocalists sounded so much like Dame Vera Lynn that it was uncanny.  My wife and I knew about Vera Lynn because we had spent three years living in England on my next-to-last assignment in the Air Force.  The Brits were fond of reliving their finest hour; Vera Lynn and her songs were a part of that.  In any case, the Vera Lynn sound-alike must have created a time machine for all those old guys.  It was pretty emotional, we could tell that.  More than one of those old veterans got up and left the banquet hall; some would return, only to get up and leave again.  I can understand why.

On that assignment in England, we lived at RAF Lakenheath.  In WWII it had been occupied by RAF units, as had my base of assignment, RAF Mildenhall.  The US Air Force presence at those bases came much later.  Both bases were near Cambridge, and quite a few bases that hosted American fliers had been in the area.  We learned about one pub in Cambridge, The Eagle, that had been a hangout for American air crews during the war.  We learned that there was one room at The Eagle that had the names of countless American airmen written on the ceiling as graffiti.  On one of the many visit to Cambridge, I happened to meet an old English gentleman and told him that I wanted to see The Eagle because I had heard of the room with the graffiti.  "Ah," he said, "I used to hoist those lads up on my shoulders so they could write their names."  He had been in the RAF during the war.  He told me how to find The Eagle.

Another landmark for many surviving veterans of WWII is the Madingley American Cemetery.  The Madingley American Cemetery is on the road west of Cambridge.  It holds the remains of 3812 American military dead.  There is a wall that records the names of 5127 airmen and sailors who were missing in action.  The bases of RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall used to take turns doing a Memorial Day ceremony at Madingley.  I suppose they still do.

So many veterans.  So many experiences.