There’s something so incredibly moving about seeing elderly WW2 veterans on Veterans Day, bowed and bent but not broken, as they salute the flag.
They stand as straight as time and sore backs allow, proud and once more transformed to their younger fighting selves, full of spirit and patriotism and bravado.
My father wasn’t in the U.S. Armed Services for World War 2. Coming to America was still a few years away for him. He was in England, attending the University of London. He’d already been separated from his parents for five or six years, as they were still in China, where he had been born, and where they were waiting out the war. In all, he’d go from the time he was 11 until he was 22 without seeing his parents. It’s a notion that we can’t fathom because we haven’t grown up with wars fought on our shores that separate families from each other.
When my dad was 18, and in his first year at university, he was drafted into the Royal Air Force. It was 1944.
One of his main duties was driving an ambulance to the British coast where he would pick up injured soldiers coming in from occupied France. “The ambulance was made by Ford, so it had the steering wheel on the wrong side,” he told me. “I’d go to Dover, to Folkstone, all over the coast, and would bring them back to the hospital in Croydon. They could handle the wounded.”
But Dad’s service wasn’t confined to the ground. The Germans were particularly fond of something called V1 Bombs, or “buzz bombs,” as they were nicknamed. They were bombs with motors attached to them launched from trees and elsewhere. It was when you couldn’t hear the “putt-putt” of the motor that you knew you had better hide because it meant the bomb was about to drop. They were indiscriminate, not meant for specific targets. They were just meant to do damage wherever they landed. “We had spotters on the roofs of the university buildings,” Dad says. “And they’d tell us when the motors shut off and we’d hide under our desks.” In the boarding house where he lived, they even had a steel cage underneath their dining table that they would hide in to stay safe in case a bomb hit their home. Dad remembers 30-to-40 buzz bombs coming over at a time. They’d hit the barrage balloons that the British had put up to keep out low-flying aircraft.
After he was drafted, Dad would go up with three other RAF soldiers in a 4-seater, single engine plane. They would fly to Calais, France and look for the ramps the Germans used to launch the buzz bombs. They would radio in the coordinates of the ramp location to a controller, who would dispatch a Hurricane or a P51 to bomb the ramp and take it out of commission.
While a member of the RAF, my father made his one and only parachute jump. “One day, we were patrolling and the engine caught on fire. The pilot said, ‘Everyone out!’ The plane had no doors, so I was in the doorway with my feet dangling out and out I went. Someone pushed me,” he says. “There were no static lines, just a D-ring on the parachute. I dropped enough to pull it so I wouldn’t get caught up in the plane.”
Dad landed —hard— on the Cliffs of Dover. None of his fellow soldiers were with him. The pilot had been able to put out the fire and land the plane. Dad was the only one who jumped--or was pushed, if truth be told. He laughed when he told me the story. “I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” he said. Like the wounded soldiers he’d picked up by ambulance and driven back to London, he was ferried back to London in an ambulance—with someone else driving. But, luckily, he was unhurt. Just a little shocked and scared.
After the war ended, he went back to finish his college education on the British equivalent of the G.I. Bill. Then, in 1947, he emigrated to the U.S. and reunited with his parents and his younger brother.
Today, I met Dad for lunch. He’d just come from a Veterans Day service at the retirement community where he lives. He showed me the program. It was beside a small American flag he’d taken with him to the service. Dad felt so strongly about giving back to America after he came here that he joined the National Guard and was in the U.S. Army for 25 years before he retired as a Major.
It could be my imagination, but I swear my dad was sitting up a little taller and straighter today.
Thank you to my dad and to all veterans for their service today and for all who still serve. I asked Dad to pick today’s charity and he chose Paralyzed Veterans of America, an organization started in 1946 to help our injured heroes.
And if you give TODAY, all donations will be matched, so your gift will be doubled.
Nov. 11: Paralyzed Veterans of America
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