Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) presents John R. Pedevillano with the Presidential Unit Citation. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

On April 24, 1944, 2nd Lt. John R. Pedevillano was flying in a B-17 over Nazi territory when the fighters escorting his formation were drawn away in combat, leaving the bombers defenseless against air and ground fire for an hour.

Sixteen U.S. planes went down, and Pedevillano — the youngest B-17 bombardier in the 306th Bomb Group — was hit. But he and his crew managed to keep flying, going down behind enemy lines only after dropping their payload on Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.

Pedevillano remained a Nazi prisoner of war for a year before he was liberated by Gen. George S. Patton’s forces, and the U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier went on to a quiet career with Westinghouse, eventually retiring in College Park.

His heroics might have gone unheralded like those of thousands of others of his generation had they not come to the attention of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. In a ceremony Tuesday, McCain presented Pedevillano, now 93, with a Presidential Unit Citation to honor, 71 years later, his unsung valor.

Pedevillano, now walking with a cane for the blind, wept as he listened to the citation. As is typical of heroes of his generation, he found the attention on him entirely misplaced.

“There were 16 million other people in the service,” he told me through his tears after the Air Force string quintet closed the ceremony with the service’s “Wild Blue Yonder” song. “They’d done just as much as I did and deserved everything I’ve gotten.”

Pedevillano, receiving the gratitude of the nation, returned the thanks. “I just can’t thank this country enough for what they’ve done for me and for all of us,” he said. “I just can’t — I just break down when I think of all the blessings I have been given.”

It’s heartwarming that, as the Greatest Generation departs, heroes such as Pedevillano are getting recognition they didn’t get earlier, when such sacrifice was common. It’s also good for those of us who haven’t been called, because their sense of humble service and of national unity seems to elude us in public affairs.

This is the first Congress in more than 60 years without a World War II vet. It’s no accident that the rise of the Greatest Generation in politics was also a time of American greatness and that their declining numbers have come with decline and dysfunction in Washington. They knew a cause greater than self and an enemy greater than a political opponent.

McCain, though a bit younger, knows something of that, and he recalled that Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) — from opposite parties but the closest of friends — recuperated in the same hospital from their war wounds.

Their decades-long quest for common purpose, and Pedevillano’s quiet heroism, stands in jarring contrast to the all-too-typical squabbling that occurred before McCain’s committee Tuesday morning.

McCain berated Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey over Middle East policy, accusing the administration of “self-delusion” and calling the nation’s top uniformed officer “intellectually dishonest.”

It was a different McCain, serene and nostalgic, at Pedevillano’s ceremony a few minutes later. “This is a generation which, let’s be very frank, is now leaving us,” McCain said, as the honoree clutched a rosary in one hand and dabbed his eyes with the other. “The inspiration that they provided to us, whether we served in the military or not, is something that is of transcendent importance.”

Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff, recalled the triumph and tragedy of the “Mighty Eighth ,” in which Pedevillano served under the command of Jimmy Doolittle. Pedevillano’s 306th Bomb Group was later celebrated in the Gregory Peck film “Twelve O’Clock High.” The Eighth Air Force suffered 47,000 casualties, including 26,000 deaths. “Thank you doesn’t seem like enough,” Spencer told Pedevillano.

Yet it almost seemed too much to the diminutive World War II bombardier, who tried often to escape his captors at the Nazi prison Stalag Luft 7, and who was forced to march 300 miles as his jailers tried to evade invading allied troops. In a barely audible voice, he voiced only one regret as he modestly accepted his commendation. “Unfortunately my wife, after 64 years, is not here with me,” he said. “She’s now interred at Arlington National Cemetery, and in the very near future I hope to be with her.”

Pedevillano has earned that rest with her and with the brothers he lost more than 70 years ago. We do well to remember them. We would do better to emulate their quiet and selfless sense of country.

Twitter: @Milbank

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