Nearly 50 years since John, Paul, George and Ringo — AKA the Beatles — went their separate ways, men named Anthony, Herman, Louis and thousands of surviving World War II GI Joes have stayed together and weathered the trials, tribulations and in some cases, the nightmares of time.
Today’s World War II veterans are the country’s new rock stars.
Close to 75 years after the Allies defeated the Axis Powers, an excitement builds when World War II veterans assemble for an event. The rock star status was in full view June 6 at the Operation Overlord 75th anniversary commemoration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Adults, volunteers, tourists and students swarmed second world war veterans near the World War II visitors center June 6 prior to the ceremony as the young and middle-aged offered grateful handshakes and kind words to former service members who are now well over 90 years of age.
As their numbers dwindle, public respect swells for the fighting boys of the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation. According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, less than 495,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today.
Nearly 40 World War II vets assembled for the commemoration on the mall and some — but not all — re-told their stories. Their words and sentences are brief, to the point and peppered with dry humor and quick wit.
Connecticut native Louis Perrone was in Europe 75 years ago. In 1944, he was a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 2019, he can still rattle off his service number from memory. His banter among admirers is very matter of fact.
“I’ve been in a lot of places; I’m old,” Perrone said as he waited for the commemoration to begin.
Herman Zeitchik was on Utah Beach June 6, 1944. His drive into the heart of Europe and Axis-controlled territory included the liberation of Paris, survival at the Battle of the Bulge and freeing prisoners at a concentration camp. The 95-year-old answered questions carefully — and with a bit of humor.
“How old do you want me to be?” Zeitchik answered when asked his age. When told he could be 29 again, he quickly replied, “I’ll take it.”
Retired Soldier Anthony Grant will be 100 years old in January. He currently lives in Hampton, Virginia, and two United States Army Band (Pershing’s Own) members, Command Sgt. Maj. Dan Smith and Sgt. 1st Class Larry Ferguson, drummed up a conversation with the former quartermaster.
“The percussionists get here early, and I saw him walking around,” Ferguson said. “I was shocked when he told us he’s 99 because he looks like he’s 80. He was telling me he got drafted in 1942 and was a private, did 21 years and retired as a major. He rose through the ranks. He’s a hero.”
Grant’s conversation with the Pershing’s Own musicians revolved around selfless service and gratitude.
“I let them know that once one becomes military and you get military training, it remains with you,” Grant said of his talk with Smith and Ferguson.
Pentagram Staff Writer Jim Dresbach can be reached at email@example.com.