By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006
The Greatest Generation is tired. In their day, with hearts clanging in their skinny, young chests, they flew bomb runs, manned the machine guns on 7,000 cargo ships or survived 124 days in a foxhole on an Italian beach surrounded on three sides by German troops.
Now, it takes all that a citizen soldier such as Eugene Lafferty has to climb the stairs at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. One by one, the 81-year-old widower labors up the steps with his cane. "I'm about out of steam," he said this weekend at his unit's reunion. They are old, their faces marked with wrinkles and age spots, and the once-easy gait of young men who didn't know any better has become the stiff, cautious step of old men who have seen too much.
Lafferty climbs the stairs and joins other men who served with him in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. They come together at reunions such as this, the ones who are left and those who can, because they must. You had to have been there to understand.
During World War II, there were 16.4 million of them, men and women in uniform, ready, as the saying goes, to do nothing less than save the world. Now, 3.5 million are left.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1,000 die every day. And some, such as C.A. Lloyd, are beginning to realize they aren't going to go on forever.
For 25 years, Lloyd, of Rolesville, N.C., has organized the annual reunion of the veterans of the Navy Armed Guard, the guys who guarded the ships that carried 373 million tons of cargo to and from U.S. ports during the war. But this year's reunion, he said, is going to be their last.
"It's age," he said. "It's catching up on us. I'm 80, and I'm the youngest one here."
Their counterparts in England have held their last reunion. The ones in Australia, too. "They're all closing up," he said.
Ten years ago, 1,100 veterans went to their reunion in Las Vegas to find their war buddies and relive old times. This weekend, in and around Washington, there are fewer than 200. And instead of a full day of sightseeing as in the old days, the bus trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center was the only thing on the agenda Friday.
Yesterday, on their trip to the U.S. Navy Memorial, where they laid a wreath and searched computers there for their stories, and to the World War II Memorial, Lloyd made sure that the five buses would pull up as close as possible to make it easier for those with walkers, canes and wheelchairs.
Why do they go, year after year, to nondescript hotel convention centers and don matching baseball caps and windbreakers and pin on oversize nametags? Go up to the Navy Armed Guard's hospitality suite, above the sweating bodies in the gym at the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport Hotel, and listen.
This is why.
These are men who, for years, never talked about what they saw, what they did in the war. Some couldn't. Some didn't think they could ever make anyone understand. And there, they can walk into the room, and they don't have to say a thing. Everyone knows. They know what it's like to be at general quarters, aiming at enemy dive bombers overhead or submarines surfacing from below. They've watched ships sink and friends die.
They all know to look away when the eyes water or the voice gets hoarse when one of them sees someone from their gunner's crew for the first time since the war ended, 61 years ago. That's what happened to Lloyd on Thursday night.
There's the "Wild Bunch," the dozen or so members of the Jordan family who come from Indiana every year with or without their father. It was in such hotel rooms that, among his shipmates, their father finally told them his story. "He never talked about it when we was growin' up," said his son Keith.
And then there's Robert "Tommy" Thompson of San Diego. His 80-year-old blue eyes are clouded with cataracts, and a stubbly white beard covers his face. At one of the round linoleum tables, he sits down, and with machine-like precision can tell you how he enlisted in the Navy at 16 the day after Pearl Harbor, where he trained, which ships he was assigned to and the routes they took. And how, on July 5, 1942, at 8:10 a.m., the SS Carlton was torpedoed by a German sub and sank, and how, adrift on a lifeboat, he was captured as a prisoner of war.
He spells the names of the German cities and POW camps where he was taken and paraded through the streets. He talks about burying the dead Russian POWs of Stalag 11 in a trench and the nightmares he still has about them, as well as the story of his double pneumonia, pleurisy, body lice and malnutrition that left his 5-foot-8 frame weighing 97 pounds.
It's only when he gets to the part about the British 3rd Army coming to liberate the camp that he stops. His eyes fill, and he holds his hand up. "This'll take a minute," he says.
It is in a room such as this that these men can look at one another and appreciate how close they came to never making it out of their twenties.
It's the same for any vet, any unit, however diminished, at any reunion.
That's why Ed Molloy, 81, of Melbourne, Fla., is spending so much time defying fate and organizing next month's Atlantic City reunion of his own unit, the 82nd Engineer Combat Battalion. Of 650 men at the start of the war, about 170 are alive. Only 25 still show up at reunions -- one blind, two deaf, two on oxygen and several others with walkers, canes or wheelchairs.
"I would not have reached 19 years old without them," Molloy said. "Whoever in life we owe things to, we owe each other more than anybody else."
Joe Boller of Amityville, N.Y., who organizes the Anzio Beachhead Veterans of World War II Inc. reunion, spent his 19th birthday in a foxhole on the beach in Italy. It would be four months and 34,000 casualties later that Allied troops finally broke out and moved beyond the beach. He knows that vets are dying and that those remaining soon may decide to have their last reunion. But he can't bring himself to do that quite yet.
"Anybody that survived on that beachhead," Boller said, "there's a closeness that only those who were there can understand."
And so it is that 81-year-old Eugene Lafferty, all the way from Ramona, Calif., taking 3 1/2 minutes and breathing heavily, makes it up two flights of stairs Friday at the Air and Space Museum.
Just below him, as a docent rambles on about the P-38 Lightning, using a penlight to point out the engines on the World War II plane, Jeff Haselden, 82, of Lugoff, S.C., looks off into the distance. Children and school groups noisily scamper around the planes, swirling past what can only seem like an ancient man, hands in his jeans pockets, funny baseball cap on his head.
How could they know that Haselden, standing near the friends he still calls "boys," is back on a beach in New Caledonia? The war in the Pacific is going badly. And the old Army transport he has been assigned to guard has run out of oil. All that the despondent Marines headed for Iwo Jima and the Navy Armed Guard crew members like himself can do is walk the beach until a supply ship arrives.
And then one morning on the beach, a P-38 flies low, just over their heads. It pulls away straight up into the air and flips into a joyous barrel roll. Returning to the museum, Haselden's eyes fill behind his bifocals. "Oh, man, it was something to see," he said hoarsely. "That's when I knew, we was gonna win."
Haselden never talked to his wife, who died four years ago, about the war. Nor his children. "They know I have stuff around the house they can read." He knows this is the last time he'll be with the people he can talk to. "This is one of the few things I do to get out," he said as his group follows the docent to the shiny aluminum Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Without the reunion, he said, shrugging, "I'll stay at home."
And with that, Haselden walked away, gently, into the dying of the light.