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Memorial Day: Once Teenagers at War, now Elderly Veterans, on Honor Flight

This Memorial Day weekend is a time to reflect on those who have given their lives in times of war. I have been reflecting on how young the soldiers were who fought.

Joan, at age 14, reflects happily on the boys at her school, especially those who could be in R.O.T.C. [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps]

Tuesday, April 20, 1937

Hello! Do you realize it’s spring! Spring. And the weather’s lovely (only it rained) and the air is sweet (sometimes) and the grass is green (in patches) and there isn’t a handsome boy in [Horace] Greeley [Elementary School]!

Horace Greeley Elementary School
Horace Greeley Elementary School

It’s positively outrageous! And on top of that, there isn’t any R.O.T.C.[1] unit in Greeley (they do look so handsome in uniforms!). When we went to the main building for the music festival, they were there in their uniforms and looked so gorgeous! And to top that, they’re even discussing doing away with the R.O.T.C. on account of putting war into [the] open minds (?) of the boys! Phooey, what about the uniforms, we don’t think about war. (Or do we?) Which all goes to show that spring is wrong . . .

[1] Reserve Officers’ Training Corps

A few weeks later, Joan still has R.O.T.C. on her mind.  And those handsome uniforms (not to mention handsome boys!).

Friday, May 21, 1937

Oh, I went down and saw them today at Soldier’s Field.

Postcard of Soldiers Field

Postcard of Soldiers Field

Who? Why the R.O.T.C. boys in the annual review. Eight thousands troops there were—8,000—and probably 50,000 young folk in the audience. Mayor Kelly was there and oh—biggest news of all!—Lake View—Lake View—the school I’ll attend next year—won the first place along with St. Mel High School!! Isn’t that marvelous! About Lake View, I mean! My own school!

“Breathes there a girl with soul so dead,

Who never to herself has said,

‘This is my own, my darling school.’”[1]

Anyhow, Lake View won.

The review was at Soldier’s Field—a beautiful place, you know, open air—near the Lake—classical pillars on either side. It might have been a Roman forum or something.

Joan's doodle of Soldier's Field on May 21, 1937.

Joan’s doodle of Soldier’s Field on May 21, 1937.  She has drawn in the names:  “Me, Bonnie, Betty, Lois.”


If there only had been some gladiators to be eaten by lions, it would have been a perfect Roman arena.

The sky was threatening for a while and it even rained a few drops, but for the Grand Finale with all 8,000 troops in uniform the sun came up in glory to behold the sight of it.

R.O.T.C. Lindblom Technical High School, Chicago, IL 1937

R.O.T.C. Lindblom Technical High School, Chicago, IL 1937

They all looked so tall and young and proud. It must be the pagan in me but when I saw all those boys so much like soldiers in their khaki uniforms and guns—and swords and solemn, eager faces—why, my heart just thrilled for the pure glory of them in the breaking sunlight. They all looked so bright and strong and fair and brave besides—well, I might have been Caesar himself so gladsome was I at the sight.

And then Lake View was presented with her prized colors and the band burst into “The Star-Spangled Banner” and we stood up and shouted for our anthem, glad, and school.

“A hundred thousand voices.

Raised in proud salute.”

Isn’t that pretty—of course there were only 50,000, but what’s the difference? It’s pretty just the same . . .

[1] Parody of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.”

Joan has a sunny disposition in these passages.  ROTC seems to cheerful and fun. But  soon enough, once almost a year has passed and Joan has become 15, her attitude changes.

Sunday, February 13, 1938

. . . The United States (mine), England and France—the three great democracies as the paper glaringly puts it—sent a note to Japan last week demanding that she cut down on her navies—and yesterday the note came back with an answer—“Go to it—let’s have a naval race”—or to the point.

Destroyers Cushing and Drayton at sea, 8 Feb 1938

Destroyers Cushing and Drayton at sea, 8 Feb 1938

And then Thursday night they had a program on the radio discussing the next war in confident tones. Somehow everything seems to point to 1940 as the turning point—as the time when the climax is reached. Everyone seems sure that there will be a war soon. I was talking to a boy in school Friday about war and death. He seemed sure that there’d be another war (another, oh!) and he said he’d probably be killed in it. All the boys I know will be old enough to die in a war in 1940. When I said, “And afterwards—?”, he said, “Well, if there’s anything to see—afterwards—I’ll see it, and if not, well, I won’t know about it.” Which is, after all, the only thing to say. But think 1940—death—war—oh, why must it be?

Many of these boys Joan writes about have since passed away–either during WWII or due to natural causes after a long life.  The WWII generation is fading from us.

But those who are still alive can participate in a wonderful program called Honor Flight, which I first read about in the Austin-American Statesman in an article by Ken Herman.  He writes about an amazing man:  Richard Overton who is 107 years old.  Yes, you read that correctly!

Richard Overton, aged 107

Richard Overton, aged 107

Now he wasn’t a teenager when the war began; he was in his 30s.  But he had some amazing experiences as Ken Herman writes:

“Mr. Overton’s World War II stories are typical for the greatest generationers who did so much for us and asked so little for it. He was in the Army. He served in the South Pacific. He landed, under fire, on too many beaches on too many islands for him to recall. The records show he served from September 1942 until October 1945 and made stops in Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

‘We got in the foxholes, and bullets were coming over our heads,’ he said matter of factly of one landing, adding vivid memories of clearing dead bodies from the battlefield.”

Honor Flight is an non-profit organization that helps brings older veterans to Washington, D.C. to see and reflect on the memorials dedicated to them. The National World War II Memorial will be the sight Mr. Overton visited.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Be sure to check out this video of Bob Dole speaking about the Honor Flight project, dedicated for helping elderly vets come to Washington, D.C. to be honored!  Perhaps you will want to help support this wonderful organization!

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