An Honor To The Greatest Generation Was The Greatest Day Of My Career

Jul 17, 2020

A Facebook friend left a comment on one of my posts the other day saying that I have led a "fascinating" life, something I had never thought about.

But I suppose, in one sense, it is true. At least for some kid who grew up on the streets of the east side of Dayton, Ohio, who thought that Cincinnati was the Promised Land because it had Crosley Field, the zoo and Coney Island.

In the career I chose, I've traveled from one end of this country to the other; met and interviewed seven American presidents; strolled on the campus of Berea College on a sunny Sunday morning with the Dalai Lama; and was among a crowd of a million people in Chicago's Grant Park as Pope John Paul II celebrated mass on his first visit to the United States.

And, more importantly, I've been privileged to tell the stories of countless so-called "ordinary people" who have done extraordinary things in their lives, often in times of war.

There's nothing special about me. I am just a journeyman reporter who has had the good fortune to often be in the right place at the right time.

People have asked me what my most memorable experience as a writer has been.

That's easy.

Without question, it was the four days I spent in Washington, D.C. in May 2004 with about 150,000 rapidly aging men and women who were finally getting their due with the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall.  

I went to Washington with photographer Michael E. Keating to report on the event for the Enquirer, which drew about 2,000 veterans from the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region.

The old soldiers, sailors, Marines and flyboys came by bus, by plane and by automobile for what many believed at the time would be the last bivouac for a generation that, even then, was fading away.

They came for four days of entertainment, education, the telling of old stories, and reunions with old friends, all culminating in a massive gathering at the new memorial, just west of the Washington Monument, where they heard from President George W. Bush, who came with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, a veteran of World War II and former President Bill Clinton.

"They were the modest sons of a peaceful country,'' the younger Bush told the crowd, which stretched far beyond the Washington Monument in the direction of the Capitol. "They gave the best years of their lives to the greatest mission their country ever accepted."

Joe Wilmers, a Navy veteran from Mount Carmel, was among them that unseasonably hot and humid day on the National Mall. He and his wife Lois had come with a busload of veterans and their wives from American Legion Post 72 in Mount Carmel, a group I had written about in the past.

Wilmers, who passed away about two years ago, was as good a man as I have ever known. Kind, generous, fun to be around. A guy you always wanted to have a beer with.

That Saturday on the mall, Wilmers and the thousands of other veterans were thinking not only of their own service and sacrifice, but also the 407,316 Americans in uniform who lost their lives in the war, and the millions who had died since, waiting patiently for the nation to show its gratitude.

Saturday was the day they had waited for.

"The Silver Star boys, the Purple Heart boys, all the boys who have passed on in the last few years; I remember them today,'' Wilmers said, sipping from a water bottle as he stood in the broiling sun. "This should have been done long ago."

After a while, with the sun beating down on the crowd, Wilmers started getting weak and dizzy, clearly having problems with the sun. There were many medical tents scattered around the Mall, all of them staffed by Navy nurses and doctors.

I spotted one about the length of a football field away and told Joe's wife I was taking him over there.

I grabbed Joe around the waist, took his hand and started leading him through the throng to the medical tent, slowly. He came close to passing out a couple of times as we walked.

"I'm sorry I'm such a big pain in the butt,'' Joe told me, although he didn’t say butt.

"I've seen worse,'' I said. "Now, let's get your sorry butt into that tent."

We reached the tent; there were already a number of veterans inside being treated for dehydration or sun stroke. The Navy nurses – Wilmers was glad to see he was being worked on by the Navy – got him on a bed and immediately put an IV in him.

I ran back to tell his wife, and she made her way to the tent. As it turned out, he was transported to a local hospital where he was kept for observation overnight. He was doing fine the next day. Up and joking.

"I was OK,'' he told me, "I just wanted to see how far you could carry me."

Wilmers and the crew from Post 72 all had tickets to be inside the perimeter of the dedication ceremony. Some veterans were not so lucky, but they made the trip to Washington anyway.

George Allen of Lincoln Heights showed up without a ticket to the ceremony, but he did not go home disappointed.

Allen served in Europe with Platoon X, which was one of the first all-Black combat units to see action in World War II. For much of the war, Black soldiers were driving trucks and doing manual work. After the devastating casualties of the Battle of the Bulge, the American command decided to put the Black soldiers to work in combat.

He made his way to Washington and stayed with family members who live in the suburbs. On Saturday morning, Allen rode the subway to the National Mall hoping he could talk his way into the 90-minute ceremony.

Because of security concerns, however, police weren't letting anyone without a ticket into any of the three seating sections, which were filled with nearly 150,000 veterans and family members.

So Allen listened to the loudspeakers outside Section 1, right next to the seven-acre memorial, and waited until President Bush and most of the crowd had left the area. The memorial, which had been closed to the public most of the day, was then reopened. Allen took a long walk among the 56 granite columns of the memorial.

"It's a beautiful thing,'' said Allen. "I might have missed the ceremony but I got to see the memorial. And that's what I came for."

I met so many people on the Mall that week – people with amazing stories to tell, people who went to war, did the job and returned home to go to work and raise their families, not asking for praise or recognition. Truly the greatest generation.

That week, though, that praise and recognition finally came. It was touching to see – old men and women, some wearing their uniforms, taking their children and grandchildren through the history tents on the Mall, explaining to them what they did and saw so many years before. The young people looked at them with awe, with an awareness of their parents and grandparents' character they had not fully known before.

Even though decades had come and gone, the grit and determination of those veterans still shone through.

In Section 1, Bernadine Hein of West Chester tapped her husband on the shoulder and asked him if he was doing OK in the afternoon heat.

Bob Hein, who, 60 years before, had been a young soldier building airplane runways in the Pacific Theater, threw his head back and laughed.

"Back in the Philippines, I used to run a bulldozer all day long in the sun,'' Hein said. "I've seen way worse than this."

Nothing ordinary about the people in that crowd. Every one of them was extraordinary. 

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.