It’s 1945 all over again

If anyone else were to tell this story, I’d call BS on them. But it’s all true, every single word of it.

Yesterday morning, I noted the formal end of World War II. And I must have tripped some Karmic trigger or something, because I came into contact with two veterans of that war.

I was driving along the highway in northern Massachusetts when I saw a plane in the air. No big deal; planes have been around for a century or so. But this one was bigger than I usually see so low, especially in the Lawrence/Methuen area.

I looked again. And a third time. And a fourth. By the tenth time, I remembered a sign I’d seen by the airport, and realized I was seeing history: an authentic Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was visiting Lawrence this weekend, and I was witness to her arrival.

Later in the day, I was in a supermarket. I saw this older gentleman — must’ve been in his 80’s or so — in there. He was a bit slow on his feet, so I quickly sidestepped him and went on my way.

But as I passed, I happened to glance at his cap. “USS YORKTOWN, CV-10” was emblazoned on the front, with the silhouette of an aircraft carrier. I had just snubbed one of the few remaining crewmen of the very same ship I had cited and honored yesterday.

Fate wasn’t done with me, though. In the parking lot, I looked up as I started up my car and saw the very same gentleman and his wife. They had parked nose-to-nose with me, and were also leaving. I got out and flagged them down.

I asked him if he had served on The Fighting Lady during World War II. His weathered face lit up.

“I was on her from the day for 26 years, from the day she was commissioned. I started out on tin cans (note: nickname for destroyers, which were the largest unarmored warships at the time) and we fought at the Coral Sea, when we lost the Lexington, and at Midway, when we lost the first Yorktown.”

I was in awe. “I was the deck captain, which meant I was in charge of moving all the planes around the flight deck.” (Note: the flight deck captain is one of the most important duties on an aircraft carrier. They are essentially traffic cops, but they make sure that planes can take off, land, and be moved to and from the hangar deck below to the flight deck. And when that flight deck is almost 900 feet long and over 100 feet wide, and has three big elevators, as the Yorktown’s was, that’s a lot of space to manage.)

I asked him if what I had researched was true — that the Yorktown was off Tokyo Harbor on the day the Japanese surrendered. “We sure were! We’d raised hell up and down the Jap coast. We won a Presidential Unit Citation, too.”

He praised the fighter and bomber pilots as the ones who really “made the difference.” And when I pointed out that if those pilots needed men like him to keep flying, he quickly changed the subject — to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Whoever christened his generation “The Greatest Generation” nailed it. Even at his age, with all he had seen, he still refused to accept the honor he was due and insisted that the “fuss” be given to others.

As time goes on, however, we’re losing these incredible men and women. And so many don’t even realize what we’re losing.

But that’s just the way the world works. I have a personal feeling that, in sixty years from today, America will look back at the generation that’s being forged by 9/11, the war on terror, Hurricane Katrina, and deem them worthy successors to The Greatest Generation.

But they’ll never replace them.

(The USS Yorktown, CV-10, served from 1943 until 1970, and is currently a museum in Charleston, South Carolina. If you have Google Earth, she is located at 32 degrees, 47 hours, 25 minutes North, 79 degrees, 54 hours, 29 minutes West. Her registry number is quite clear, and I can identify several of the planes on her deck as an F-4 Phantom 2, an F-14 Tomcat, and an E-2C Hawkeye, among others.)

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