The need to talk to veterans

On this Veterans Day, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, we have no living veterans of that conflict to tell us what it was like. The last doughboy, Frank Buckles, died in 2011.

I’m reasonably certain that were he alive today, Buckles would be urging us to talk to every World War II veteran we know. It’s too late for us, Buckles might say — and it’s going to be too late for them soon, too.

More than 16 million Americans served in uniform during World War II. Fewer than 497,000 remain among us today.

They have been called “the greatest generation” and, in many ways, that’s true, in my opinion. These men and women pulled us out of the Great Depression, fought and won the most terrible war in history, then came home and built a prosperity that endures today.

Yet we know so little about them and individual human beings.

A few weeks ago, we reported on a breakfast hosted by the American Legion post in St. Clairsville, for World War II veterans. Nine attended and shared some of their wartime experiences.

To me, the most heart-rending account was from John Budinscak, who was a Navy medical specialist in California during the war. “I was in California. I worked at the Naval hospital there, taking care of the guys coming back that didn’t have arms, legs … eyes,” Budinscak recalled.

“I had four guys die in my arms,” he remembered.

He was 17 years old.

I’ve heard many other accounts from and about World War II veterans. One was handed some rifle cartridges as he boarded a ship bound for France in June 1944. Don’t worry about a rifle, he was told. There would be plenty of them he could pick up from dead men.

Another spent several years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, not knowing from day to day whether he would die from disease, malnutrition — or a vicious guard.

A third was the navigator on a B-24 bomber. He released the bombs, knowing he sometimes was killing innocent civilian men, women and children, but steeling himself to the task by realizing that in the long run, he was saving lives.

All three of those men are gone, now.

Books cannot really explain history to us. Only the people who lived it can do that.

They will only if we ask. Time is running out — for us.

— Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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