“We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” That Will Rogers quip describes the situation in early May for my father, Joe Roybal, and 100 other World War II veterans, as cheering kids, adults, politicians and military personnel lined the route and the meeting rooms of their trip to Washington, D.C. See photos from the trip here.
The contingent of World War II veterans from South Dakota and Minnesota were part of a South Dakota Honor Flight ( www.honorflightsd.org ) to Washington, D.C. The itinerary included visits to all the branch memorials in Washington, the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery (see video here), and the Vietnam and Korean Memorials, but the biggest stop on the tour was the World War II Memorial.
The National WWII Memorial ( www.wwiimemorial.com) was completed and dedicated in 2004, at a time when most surviving veterans from the era were over 80 years old. In a bid to get as many WW II veterans to see “their” memorial, volunteers developed the Honor Flight Network ( www.honorflight.org ). The program is dedicated to giving a free trip to every WWII veteran who wants to visit the memorial. Thus far, more than 100,000 veterans have been transported from all over the U.S. as part of this program. Donations to the program are tax-deductable.
After considerable cajoling, my dad took part in a South Dakota Honor Flight in early May, the 11th such trip originating from South Dakota. Prior to this, he thought he was too busy, didn’t want to fly, wouldn’t know anyone, etc. In the end, I, my sister and brother were able to meet and follow the tour buses in Washington and spend the two days with him. He had a ball and made many new friends.
It’s estimated that 16,112,566 individuals were members of the U.S. armed forces during World War II; there were 291,557 battle deaths, 113,842 other deaths in service (non-theater), and 670,846 non-mortal woundings. It’s also estimated that in September 2010 there were 1,981,000 such American veterans still living and they were passing on at the rate of 850 veterans/day.
It’s a program worth considering for a donation. As of 2009, HFN had 71 hubs in 30 states, with the goal of expansion to all 50 states by the end of that year. World War II veterans are the priority at this time, but HFN will also be extending the tribute to servicemen and women during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Every day on my drive into work, I pass Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, MN, the resting place for more than 56,000 military veterans. As I wait for the light to change, I can scan precise rows of white headstones, perfectly spaced and standing like troops at attention. Often, I think about my dad, who has volunteered for years on a memorial rifle squad at the Black Hills National Cemetery outside Sturgis, SD. As part of this unit, he’s helped render the final salute for more than a thousand of his fellow veterans.
For a man who will turn 90 in a couple of months, I’ve often wondered how tough it is for someone his age to travel to the cemetery on a regular basis to help bury his fellow veterans, many of whom are his contemporaries. I asked him once why he did it, and he just said, “Because I owe it to them.”
As an infantryman in World War II, my dad saw a lot of combat in France, Luxembourg and Germany. He marched through Paris after its liberation, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was at Bastogne during that storied siege, and finished the war with Patton's Third Army. He loved the brusque and cocky Patton, by the way, who he encountered a few times. "He was the only general I ever saw at the front," he says.
As a young infantryman, my dad witnessed a lot of death and misery. He escaped those months of combat physically unscathed, something he chalked up to pure luck. On two occasions, for instance, German snipers zeroed in on the guy next to him; one of them was a sergeant who took a sniper's bullet to the head as he and my dad, a corporal at the time, chatted. In another, a shell that landed next to him as his unit waited out a barrage was a dud.
So, it would seem to my mind that my dad and the millions of other veterans are more than current on their dues. But if you talk to these vets, it's often not the price they paid that they think about, but the ultimate price paid by those who didn't return.
As a kid, I was in awe of my father; I still am but I now understand he’s not superman. He’s just one of millions of ordinary folks in a generation who answered the call of history and together did an extraordinary thing – they saved the world.
Luckily for this nation, those types of folks have walked among us from Valley Forge to Afghanistan; many of you reading these words are among them. Memorial Day is the time to remember them. Say thanks to the ones you still can, and pray for the ones you can’t.
And if you attend a Memorial Day parade in your hometown this weekend, be sure to clap loudly for all those heroes walking by.