Every year I attend the annual Memorial Day parade in Mercer, Pennsylvania. It’s pure Americana: rotary club, high-school bands, snow-cone stands, church groups, multiple veterans of wars, flags everywhere. I’ve been attending since I moved to this area in 1997.
And yet, not this year. For the Mercer Parade this year, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one will be marching. The parade is cancelled. And not just in little Mercer, Pennsylvania, but in many small towns nationwide.
What a shame. It’s especially a loss because, well, we’re losing so many World War II veterans. We lose more and more year by year, and many we’re losing even more rapidly right now due to coronavirus in nursing homes. The vast majority of fatalities at the hands of this nasty virus are people in their 90s, quite a few of them men who served in World War II.
I was particularly struck by the loss of World War II veterans during a moment last fall.
I had picked up two of my daughters from church after youth group. I wasn’t sure what had been on the agenda.
“Dad, we had an amazing experience,” said my oldest daughter. “We went to a nursing home. We met two people who were almost 100 years old. They remembered World War II!”
It was a nice experience for them. Of course, I’ve met countless people who remembered World War II—who served in World War II. Pretty much any of us over the age of 30-40 have. Nonetheless, our kids, current-day teens or younger, are not meeting World War II veterans. Those veterans are a literal dying breed.
A word of advice to our young people: Meet these people when you can. They’re not all in nursing homes. Some still live right down the street.
That reminds me of a moment a few years ago.
A friend of mine told me about an old-timer who lived on our street, whose house I drove by countless times. His name was Russ Post.
“You need to meet this guy,” my friend told me. “He has quite a story.”
So, I decided to drop in on Russ, who was 89 years old. What followed was a memorable Saturday afternoon, as Russ took my teenage son and I on a roller-coaster ride from his youth in Western Pennsylvania to the Pacific theater in World War II to the Korea War.
To adequately capture the highlights of what Russ shared is impossible here, but perhaps most searing was what he witnessed at Saipan. Saipan became infamous. There, in the summer of 1944, countless Japanese killed themselves in mass suicides. Russ and crew approached the shore in horror. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Russ remembered. “Horrible. People were jumping off the cliffs, women holding their children. I don’t care how damned tough you are, that makes your head scream.… That’s about as close to hell you can get.”
So many of our veterans lived through things like that. They lived to tell. And they’re not living much longer.
This Memorial Day 2020, Russ is no longer with us. He passed away last April at age 94, just before Memorial Day. Ironically, he died at the nursing home my daughters just visited. I wish they had met him.
Unfortunately, the time for kids today to meet guys like Russ is fading quick. And there will not be many more Memorial Days with World War II veterans. It’s a shame to miss one this year. Time is running out.
For American Radio Journal, I’m Paul Kengor.