We are grateful to all our veterans
November 4, 2019
We celebrate and thank all veterans this weekend. Veterans Day is a special day and we recognize all who have served, and continue to serve our nation with honor and distinction.
The Army’s people (and those from all our military branches) are its greatest strength, and taking care of them and ensuring they are ready to fight and win our nation’s wars is our top priority. Thanking them and recognizing them is also something our country should always do.
For nearly a century, we have celebrated Veterans Day on the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting along the Western Front in World War I on November 11, 1918 (11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month).
In 1938, Congress made Veterans Day an official holiday. This year, as we commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day and the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe during World War II, so we also remember the contributions of Veterans from the “Greatest Generation.”
Many World War II Veterans fought on the front lines. But every person was important in winning that war, just like every person is important in today’s Army. Cooks, nurses, drivers, telephone operators and code breakers were all part of an enormous support system that helped us win.
I would like to highlight a few of these heroes from World War II.
One of those people was Elizabeth Bernice Barker Johnson. Born in North Carolina, Ms. Johnson joined the war effort in 1943 after she received a flyer in the mail with a picture of Uncle Sam saying, “I want you,” and she thought, well, maybe he does. She served with the Women’s Army Corps from March 1943 to November 1945.
She was one of eight hundred women assigned to the Six-Triple-Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion, the first and only all-female African American unit deployed overseas during World War II. The Six-Triple-Eight provided combat support operations. Their job was to clear a two year backlog of mail in six months. They did it in three. Ms. Johnson served in France and England. The days were long and tiring. She said, “We didn’t have a set number of hours. You just worked till you were too tired to do anything more.”
Another woman in the Six Triple Eight, Deloris Ruddock, said, “We worked three shifts a day, and we got the mail sorted and directed it to where it was supposed to go. Those Soldiers who were deceased, their mail went back to their families, and those who were on duty, we mailed it to them.” The women took their duties seriously; in fact, if you or your families have letters written during that time, you probably have women like these to thank. Ms. Johnson said, “With all the men who were overseas, and a lot of them were not receiving their mail, I’m proud of the fact that I played a part in getting mail that was three and four months old to those people who were overseas.
I am most proud of the fact that I was able to get mail and packages to the people who were on the battlefront.” If you have ever been stationed overseas, you know what a boost you get with a package from back home. Ms. Ruddick said, “It was a big morale builder, really and truly, for a Soldier to hear from a loved one. It was good when I got mail from home, and I wasn’t even on the battlefield!”
Ms. Ruddick valued her country, and she valued her service. She said she carried a photo of her discharge papers in her wallet for years, even after she came back to the United States, went to school and got a job in New York. Ms. Johnson said her wartime experience gave her a broader view of the world. She went back to school, got a degree, and taught school for the next 30 years.
Women supported the war communication efforts in other ways, too. The majority of the Army’s ten-thousand-five-hundred code-breakers were female. They made it possible for the United States to mobilize on D-Day, sink enemy ships and down enemy planes. Their tireless work — seen as tedious and boring by many — was essential to winning the war, but they were sworn to secrecy.
When their families asked what they did, these women said, “Nothing much.” Or, “Office work, mostly.” One of the largest group of support personnel, the Women’s Army Corps, performed many different functions during the war. More than one-hundred-fifty thousand women plotted aircraft paths or bomb courses, repaired machinery and weapons, operated telephones on the battlefront and worked as file clerks and stenographers. They learned to forecast weather and flew planes. They operated and repaired radios.
They sent fake radio signals that tricked Axis powers into thinking the D-Day landings would take place somewhere else. They were cryptographers, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers and aerial photograph analysts. More than a thousand of them ran statistical control tabulating machines — the precursors of computers. They computed the velocity of bullets, measured bomb fragments, mixed gunpowder and loaded shells. They were draftsmen, mechanics and electricians.
Harry Shaw, Jr., joined the Army and was promptly shipped out to fight in D-Day as part of the 283rd Field Artillery Battalion. His convoy, traveling at night, provided supplies, heavy weapons and equipment that troops desperately needed. They began liberating villages as they went, but it was a hard fight. Then the Germans rallied and Mr. Shaw was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. “That was the worst of all of the fighting,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Jefferson was one of those who spent time in a POW camp. He was a Tuskegee Airman with the Army Air Corps. He was a replacement pilot for the 301st squadron and the 332nd fighter group. He said, “My job was strafing.
Trains, trucks, tanks, whatever, buildings. I had 18 missions. Half of the missions were high level, where we escorted the bombers from Italy to Germany, flying top cover. Back and forth across the top, preventing German fighters from attacking. Our job was to knock out the radar.” During one of his missions, his plane was hit. The plane didn’t make it, but he did, and landed in a tree. He was in a German prisoner of war camp for a year. He eventually received a Purple Heart for his service and, along with the other Tuskegee Airmen, the Congressional Gold Medal. Once the war and his service was over, Mr. Jefferson became a teacher and an assistant principal in the Detroit Public School System.
He was proud to be a Veteran and proud his work had long-ranging effects for other African Americans. He said, “I realized that the efforts of the black men and women all performed the pressure that desegregated the military.”
Mary Tollefson, the WAC who served from Wisconsin, said her service showed society that women were an essential part of winning the war. “The war scared the bejeebers out of this country. It really did, we weren’t prepared for it. Suddenly, women were important and the country couldn’t get along without them.”
As war changed these veterans, these veterans changed our society for the better. They fought for peace and freedom, and served their nation proudly.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says that of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than half a million are still with us. Once their service was over, they came home, married and had families … some of whom are still with us locally today. Regardless of the military branch our Veterans have served – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard – this day belongs to them.
Generations of patriots who have dedicated themselves to the defense of our country make us stronger and more resilient as a nation. Soldiers live by the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. They do not leave behind their values and skills when they transition to civilian life.
Right now, all around the country, Veterans serve as teachers, doctors, engineers, social workers, community leaders, first responders and elected officials. They continue to serve our communities by making positive contributions, building stronger futures and inspiring future generations. Each year, we set this day aside all across the country to celebrate and pay tribute to America’s Veterans for their devotion, patriotism, selfless service and sacrifice on behalf of us all. Our nation’s Veterans throughout our history kept us free, returned home and continued to serve our nation in a multitude of ways.
Today, we say thanks to them all. Happy Veterans Day to all of you. We truly are grateful for your service to our country.
Dn. Mario A. Guerra is the former Mayor of Downey and current Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army. He can be reached at www.marioaguerra.com.