America’s World War II veterans are slipping away nationwide at the rate of one every three minutes.
Don’t call me a hero, insists Don Hill, 92.
It’s true that the German radio signals he and his fellow radio men intercepted before and after the D-Day invasion played at least a small role in helping Allied forces retake much of Western Europe.
It’s also true that his landing craft drew enemy fire as it approached the French coast, including a blast that lifted one end of the vessel out of the water.
Wednesday events honoring veterans
Pinning ceremony, West Seattle: Military veterans at Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle will be honored at a “pinning ceremony” at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Veterans Day, in the center’s third-floor Pigott Chapel, 4831 35th Ave. S.W.
Veterans Day Service, Evergreen Washelli: 66th annual Veterans Day event; volunteers to place flags at markers in Veterans Memorial Cemetery, 7 a.m. Wednesday; music by the Eagles and Letter-Carriers band, 10:30 a.m.; service of remembrance, concluding with taps and rifle salute, 11 a.m. Wednesday, Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park, 11111 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle (206-362-5200 or washelli.com/).
Museum of Flight: Patriotic music by Boeing Employees Stage Band, free admission for all U.S. veterans and current military, 11 a.m.-noon Wednesday, Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle; regular admission $12-$20 (206-764-5720 or museumofflight.org)
Veterans Day Program, Shoreline: City of Shoreline and the Shoreline Veterans Association invite all veterans of any U.S. military service, their family, friends and all who want to honor veterans to a short program followed by refreshments, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Shoreline City Hall, 17500 Midvale Ave. N., Shoreline; free (206-801-2700 or shorelinewa.gov/Home).
Tahoma National Cemetery Veterans Day Ceremony: U.S. Naval Air Station flyover, speaker Vietnam veteran Jim Martinson, ceremony to thank veterans, 11 a.m. Wednesday, Tahoma National Cemetery, 18600 S.E. 240th St., Kent; disabled parking with shuttle available (425-413-9614).
But Hill, a resident of Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle, notes that he didn’t see close combat, and by the time he landed at Utah Beach in the third wave of the D-Day assault, “Things had cooled down some.”
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“We had a job to do and I think we were good at it,” he said. “But we weren’t on the front line.”
Men like Hill are a vanishing breed. Not just because he is self-effacing and minimizes his role in World War II. But because he was in it at all.
Nationwide, America’s World War II veterans are slipping away at the rate of one every three minutes.
According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, of the 16 million U.S. men and women who served during World War II, more than 5 million were still alive in 2000. But the number dropped below 1 million this year and continues to fall by more than 400 a day.
Hill and a dozen other World War II vets at “The Mount,” a senior-care community of Providence Health & Services, will be among veterans honored at a Veterans Day “pinning ceremony” in the center’s chapel at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, an event that will also honor those who served in Korea or Vietnam.
Some of the veterans are in hospice care and may be receiving this kind of attention for the last time.
Simple math explains the fading presence of World War II veterans: The war ended 70 years ago and when it did, the average U.S. soldier was about 25.
Pam Sipos, director of spiritual care at Mount St. Vincent, said veterans nearing the end of their lives will confide in her, as a chaplain, about the horrors they have never described to their own families.
But those details aren’t spoken when veterans get together and share an easy, warm togetherness. Among contemporaries, they tell the things they choose to share. And even if stories are often repeated, they still draw smiles and nods of recognition.
Among the center’s other residents with vivid memories of service in World War II is Pat Flaherty, 92, who was a nursing student in Minnesota when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war.
As part of the “cadet corps,” she and other nursing students were pressed into caring for the patients at St. Mary’s Hospital — affiliated with the Mayo Clinic — when many of the hospital’s regular nurses were sent to treat soldiers abroad.
“We didn’t know where they were going, and back then they wouldn’t have said,” she said.
What she remembers most are long days of keeping up with classes while also working full shifts at the hospital. “All I know was I was tired all the time and had no social life,” Flaherty said.
She later enlisted and rose to first lieutenant as an Army nurse, serving until 1953. She never married and traveled often in a 45-year nursing career that ended in 1990 after 22 years with Swedish Medical Center,
Although she stayed in touch with some of the friends she made in the war years, “most of them are gone, and I’m the survivor.” She gets one Christmastime letter from a colleague of those long-ago days.
For veterans, it’s important to appreciate the past, but not dwell it in it, Hill said.
He has had two wives die, but much of his joy comes from family. He has two sons, a daughter, five grandchildren and — a special joy — great grandsons who are 4 and 1.
“I love seeing them, even though they get in here and tear my place up,” he smiled.
Hill grew up in the Grayland area on the Washington coast. After his military service, he worked as a production supervisor at Boeing and later had a small farm south of Portland.
He traces his interest in radio communication to his high-school days, when a local radio enthusiast who had served in the Navy taught him some of the basics, including Morse Code.
Once he was drafted, those skills made him a natural to be sent to England’s Dover coast to eavesdrop on German radio traffic. Although he didn’t know German, he was able to turn radio beeps into letters and words, passing that along to others who analyzed it for hints at German troop strength, movement and plans.
After D-Day, he continued to work behind Allied lines, tracking messages from the retreating German forces. The work made for strong bonds.
“I got to know fellows in the service like brothers, but time passes and everybody vanishes eventually,” he said.
Hill chooses not to think of that as sad. “It’s something to accept,” he said. “It’s part of life.”