As a veteran, I feel an attachment to our veterans. I’ve especially enjoyed writing about World War II veterans. Journalist Tom Brokaw was right in saying World War II veterans are members of our “Greatest Generation.”
Interviewing veterans such as Derk Dornbos of Nunica and Bernie Schultz of Grand Haven was more than just gathering information for a story; they provided me with history lessons and great respect for their efforts in preserving our freedoms.
Schultz, who is no longer with us, fought bravely in the Battle of the Bulge against the Germans, suffering leg injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life. But Schultz was proud to have served his country.
Dornbos, 92, who I interviewed last month, was involved in five beach landings in North Africa, Italy and France, and fought for 190 consecutive days. He slept when he could on the ground with a tent. Dornbos, too, was proud of his service.
Schultz and Dornbos are just two of the members of the American Legion Charles Conklin Post 28 who have incredible stories to tell.
Each year, my wife, Marilyn, and I watch the Memorial Parade in Spring Lake. I choke up every time I see the veterans march by.
Ken Kelly of Spring Lake, who served as a Seabee during World War II, felt so strongly about his colleagues that he led an effort to have a monument placed in Central Park in Grand Haven, honoring those veterans who lost their lives during World War II and in wars that followed.
I also have a soft spot for those veterans who fought in Vietnam. I was in college during the height of the Vietnam War, and witnessed the rising tide of protests. I was among those who opposed the Vietnam War.
But that shouldn’t take away from the bravery exhibited by so many soldiers who fought in Vietnam. They, too, were fighting to protect our freedoms. Three of my high school buddies were drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Two of them returned alive. The other was killed during a battle.
My story isn’t nearly as compelling. My biggest claim to fame is that I once accidently threw our only basketball overboard, causing some of my shipmates to be a “little upset.”
As a teenager, my interest in the Navy was piqued by an article I read about the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. I remember the article making reference that living on an aircraft carrier was like “living in a hotel.” There were beds with reading lights, a gymnasium, library, barbershop, dentist office and other amenities.
Because I was unsure what I wanted to study in college, I decided to join the Navy following graduation from high school.
We were given “dream sheets” asking where we wanted to be stationed. I chose Japan and Hawaii.
I ended up in Norfolk, Va., aboard the USS Guadacanal, a helicopter carrier. I was assigned to the refueling crew.
As it turned out, the Guadacanal wasn’t quite like a luxury hotel. We slept in a small compartment with 100 men. Yes, we had some of the amenities I read about, but they were miniscule in size. The library was just a small room with a few books. The gymnasium was the hangar deck where helicopters were stored. There were 500 sailors packed in a 600-foot-long ship.
I spent two years on the Guadacanal. In those two years, I grew up. I became more responsible and more motivated.
I’m proud to have served my country – even though my story isn’t nearly as interesting as the stories our World War II veterans have to tell.