Bluefield Daily Telegraph
West Virginia and neighboring Virginia are well-known for the number of residents who served their country. During my time at the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, I’ve interviewed both men and women who have served our country. Each one of them has had a fascinating — and often harrowing — story to tell.
I still remember sights like a former Army Ranger lifting his pants leg so a high school student and I could see the scars left by a German grenade when he helped attack Hitler’s Fortress Europe on D-Day. Years later, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge recalled how a German tank shell almost hit him while he was trying to hook up a radio.
Then there was a Tazewell County, Va., resident who was a radio operator aboard a dive bomber in the Pacific during World War II. The pilot was taking off from their aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Franklin, when a Japanese pilot dropped a bomb right on the deck. The blast literally threw the dive bomber off the deck, and somehow the pilot managed to get his plane airborne. They proceeded with their mission: dive bombing some of the few remaining Imperial Navy ships.
One story I especially remember is the day a U.S. Coast Guard veteran arrived at the newsroom and reminded us that the next day was the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Iwo Jima. He had helped land Marines on those beaches. He encountered a sergeant of one unit he had sailed with and learned more than half those Marines were gone. Later, he heard an announcement on his ship’s public address system: as long as there were hungry Marines, the galley was staying open.
Then I can’t help but wonder about the stories I will never hear. Once in a while when I’m scanning our obituaries page, I see we have lost another veteran. We are losing World War II veterans every day, and sooner than we think, we may learn the last confirmed veteran of World War II has passed away.
Who this person will be and what country they will call home, I don’t know. Germany and Japan were drafting very young boys when the war ended, so one of them could be the last veteran. However, I do know a lot of American boys got their parents’ permission to serve and even lied about their age so they could enlist. I remember one World War II vet who told me how he got the town drunk to sign his permission papers for him; he paid the lady with some whiskey.
We’re losing Korean War veterans fast, too, and the ones who served in Vietnam are getting gray. When we lose any of them, it’s a loss for America’s history. I felt that familiar pang of regret when I wrote stories recently about an effort to honor a McDowell County veteran of Vietnam.
Joe Alderman joined the Army in 1958 when his father, a coal miner, persuaded the local draft board to call up his son. He didn’t want another generation of his family to work in the mines. Despite lack of money, Alderman excelled in his Army career and later attended college. He joined the Special Forces in 1962 and served in Vietnam from 1963 to 1972 in Project Delta as a reconnaissance team leader and advisor. He received the Silver Star, six Bronze Stars, five Air Medals, three Purple Hearts and other awards.
Alderman’s record has been extensively documented, but I wonder what we would have learned with one or more interviews. What sort of missions did he undertake? What was it like to serve in the jungles and countryside of Vietnam? What lessons did he learn by serving there? He wrote some books to aid the training of his fellow soldiers, but what else did he have to say? He passed away from cancer in the 1990s.
Two of our area’s representatives, Sen. H. Truman Chafin, D-Mercer, and Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, plan to submit a proposal when the Legislature convenes in January 2014 to name a section of Route 83 in McDowell County after Alderman. The chances of its passage should be good, so we may see signs along Route 83 soon.
We need to remember our veterans while they still walk among us. The Always Free Honor Flight sponsored by the Denver Foundation has been taking World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C., so they can see the monuments erected in their honor. I had the privilege of traveling with the veterans on that first trip, and it was good to see so many people stop each veteran and thank them for their service.
Many of these veterans waited years to tell their stories. In some cases, the memories were too traumatic or they simply wanted to get on with their lives when they came home.
We can hope military personnel now serving in places in Iraq and Afghanistan will preserve their stories for future generations, even if the stories are recorded and stored for viewing or listening later. Veterans deserve to be honored and remembered one way or another.
Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.