If you’ve been reading my articles and columns for a while, you know that one topic I cover often is our veterans and you may have picked up on my affection for one group in particular, our country’s World War II veterans. They’ve been labeled “The Greatest Generation.” And while I appreciate all of our veterans, young and old, there’s just something so admirable about those young men of the 1940s that draws you to their stories.
When I was a little girl first learning to do math in the 1970s, I got so excited when I could use math in relation to time — to gauge a person’s age or calculate how long ago an event occurred. I remember thinking in my head that World War II had occurred about 30 years ago and 30 years ago didn’t seem that long. Today, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it was 71 years ago, rather than 31, that the U.S. entered World War II.
Back then, the World War II vets that I knew were in their 50s. They were grandparents, but young ones who were still working hard at their jobs. They were strong and confident and felt like leaders. One was my next-door neighbor, Art Aylmer. I never knew the details of where or when he served. I just knew he had been a World War II veteran and was a proud American and each day he’d tend to the flag in his front yard, which I’d look up at on the full-sized metal pole.
Another was my uncle, Roland Stevens. Again, I was little and only knew that he was a World War II veteran and nothing more. I’d later learn in adulthood that he had participated in the Battle of the Bulge, where about 19,000 American soldiers were killed, and another 47,000-plus were injured. There was never a hint of the brutality he must have endured as he always appeared to me to be a happy-go-lucky man with rugged good looks and a contagious laugh. Because he and my aunt (their seven children were grown by then) split their time between their home in Reno, Nev., and their farm in Missouri, we didn’t see much of them, but one summer my younger sisters and I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks on the farm with them. It was quite an experience for me at age 13. What I remember most about Uncle Roland during that visit was how much he seemed to enjoy the quiet, simple farm life, how patient he was with us and how dumbfounded I was when he’d head out in the early morning to shoot a squirrel to have for breakfast and skin it on the back porch without batting an eye. Dad told me the other day that Uncle Roland would have been 91 this past fall if he was still living.
In the past year, I’ve interviewed a number of World War II veterans and sadly in the past few weeks, two of them have died. One was Rudy Hartge, 93, a native of Germany who immigrated to Lansing with his family around age 8 and served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. I took an instant liking to him as did my 13-year-old son, who is very interested in military history and listened intently to his stories. He was with me when I first met Rudy and Rudy insisted I bring him along when I went to his house to interview him. He wanted the younger generations to hear the stories first hand.
Then when I invited him to come visit the fifth-grade class of another of my sons, Rudy was eager. He showed up with bags of artifacts that the kids were amazed to see up close and spent a full afternoon talking about his experiences and answering questions. That visit is something these 10- and 11-year-olds will always carry with him and I think that’s exactly what Rudy wanted.
This past week we also lost Quentin Smith, 94, of Gary, who served with the Tuskegee Airmen. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to sit in his living room and hear these stories come out of his mouth that most people will only ever read about in history books. He helped change history. As many vets of that generation, he was modest about the military service itself. It seemed he thought it nothing extraordinary that he served in World War II, however, he didn’t hesitate to emphasize the importance of the role of the Tuskegee Airmen in our country’s history. He knew the group together had done something extraordinary, paving the way for racial equality in the military. "That's all changed and we were part of that change," he told me.
Not only are these men of the greatest generation dying off in great numbers, but dying with them is a dignity and sense of sacrifice that will never quite be matched again. If you have a chance to meet a World War II vet, listen carefully to that bit of personal history that is so different than what any history book can provide.