Paul Kengor: Our vanishing World War II veterans
On Tuesday I picked up my kids from church youth group.
“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 lived through World War II!”
It was a nice experience for them. Of course, those of us over age 30 or so have met countless people who lived through World War II, many of them veterans. Our kids, however, have not. Sadly, World War II veterans are a literal dying breed.
A word of advice to young people: Meet these veterans. Talk to them. And they’re not all in nursing homes. Some still live right down the street.
That reminds me of Veterans Day five years ago, November 2014.
A friend told me about an old-timer who lived on our street, in a house I regularly passed. His name was Russ Post.
“You need to meet this guy,” he told me. “He has quite a story.”
So, on a Saturday afternoon, I dropped in on Russ, who took my teenage son and me on a roller-coaster ride from his youth in Western Pennsylvania to the Pacific theater in World War II to the Korean War.
To adequately capture what Russ shared is impossible, but most searing was what he witnessed at Saipan.
Saipan became infamous. There, in the summer of 1944, countless Japanese killed themselves in mass suicides. As Russ and crew approached the shore, they watched in horror as Japanese mothers hurled themselves and their babies into the sea at Saipan’s Marpi Point.
“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.”
Russ estimates that the Japanese women holding their babies leapt 150-200 feet onto jagged rocks and pounding water: “Not a word from them, they’d just go. Jump. We had an interpreter shouting at them through a bullhorn, telling them to just give up, that we weren’t going to hurt them. But they had been told it wouldn’t be honorable to surrender.”
Surviving that trauma, Russ was later called to war again, this time in Korea. He received serious shrapnel injuries in one incident and nearly died in another. His buddies rescued him and “put me on top of the hood of a jeep like a damned deer and drove me away.”
John Russell Post was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Korea. He showed us that and other medals crammed inside a nondescript box containing a few papers and memorabilia.
After an unforgettable three hours with Russ, my son and I had to go. We said goodbye.
This Veterans Day 2019, Russ is no longer the veteran down the street. He passed away in April at age 94. 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.
Here’s an idea for this Veterans Day: Find the Russ Post on your street, at the nearby nursing home, wherever. Meet him. Talk to him. Thank him. Do it now. Time is running out.
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College.