Monday, May 11, 2009

The Heroes We Grew Up With

I just returned from a four-day trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the 64th anniversary reunion of my father’s shipmates from WWII, all crew members on the USS Evans (DD552). I have been attending these every-other-year reunions for the past 12 years, ever since the offspring of shipmates began running them for their parents.

I have gotten to know and love these members of America’s “Greatest Generation.” So, while each reunion has been a joyous occasion for families of the shipmates to once again come together to honor these heroes, they are also bitter sweet since we all know that many will not return two years hence. World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day according to projections of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. When we hosted the reunion in Philadelphia six years ago, about 200 people attended, with slightly more than 30 who served as shipmates on the Evans. This past weekend, there were a mere 30 in the entire group, only six of whom were shipmates.

Typically a reunion consists of arriving on Thursday, scheduled site-seeing activities on Friday morning with the afternoon off for individuals to explore on their own. On Saturday morning we have the memorial service for the 33 crew members who were killed on May 11, 1945 and those shipmates – one of whom was my father – who have passed on since. On Saturday evening, we have a formal dinner.

The Evans was part of the famous Battle of Okinawa. Forty days into that campaign, on May 11, the Evans was attacked by approximately 100 Japanese aircraft. After 73 minutes of constant fighting, she was taken out of action as four kamikazes achieved direct hits on the ship. 

This reunion in Washington had its particularly heart warming moments. On Friday morning we visited the National WWII Memorial and the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. At both sites, young children on tours with their schools flocked around our shipmates (all of whom had Evans’ caps on, which probably identified them as veterans), asking to have their pictures taken with them. Several actually asked for autographs. The shipmates – who became known for the remainder of the reunion as “rock stars” – were thoroughly surprised but obviously pleased. These are people who rarely talked about their experiences in the war until they began getting together for these reunions. 

On Saturday afternoon, Chris and I were joined on a trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum by one of the Evans crew and his nephew, and a Marine fighter pilot and his wife. After the Evans was dead in the water from the four kamikaze hits, this Marine pilot took out a kamikaze just before it would have crashed into the Evans, most assuredly sinking her and leading to the deaths of many more sailors. He has since become the only honorary member of the Evans crew.

During our tour of the Air and Space Museum, two college students came up to us, apologized for interrupting, and said they just wanted to shake the hands of our two shipmates and thank them for their service. Nothing like this has happened on any other reunion I attended. Hopefully it is happening to other WWII vets all over America – their time is short and they deserve every tribute they receive.

Nancy Wilson, who hosted this reunion for her father, had a very appropriate toast to the shipmates attending – and all other crew members who departed: “To the heroes we grew up with.”

I wholeheartedly concur.

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