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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

Defending America: They heeded the call

By Dennis Romboy, Deseret News

Published: Fri, July 4 8:59 a.m. MDT

 Veterans are welcomed back to Salt Lake City after their trip to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Veterans are welcomed back to Salt Lake City after their trip to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Barrus Jenkins ripped the stripes from his Eisenhower jacket when he returned home from World War II so he could wear it to work.

His days as an Army battalion motor pool sergeant were over. He wanted to put the battles in North Africa and Italy behind him along with atrocities he saw while stationed in Germany seven miles from the Dachau concentration camp.

The 94-year-old Nephi man didn't see the need to share his experiences with anyone.

"I never talked about the war, and the people didn't want to know about the war. They was in the war. The Second World War, everybody was in it," he said.

Journalist Tom Brokaw aptly called those who fought in World War II the "Greatest Generation." But they also could be described as the "Stoic Generation."

Men and women like Jenkins were reticent about the sights and sounds, the tragedies and triumphs of the deadliest military conflict in history. They came home, found jobs, got married and reared children. They didn't seek praise or recognition.

"When I left the service, I kind of forgot it. There's a lot of it I can't even remember because I don't want to. I done my time, done it with pride. I just want to forget it and live my life," said 89-year-old Navy veteran Ray Hartung, of Centerfield.

But the stories they could tell are rapidly being lost. World War II vets are dying at a rate of 555 a day, according to the Veterans Administration. Of the 16 million American men and women who served, slightly more than 1 million survive, including about 8,000 in Utah.

Getting blown up saved Barrus Jenkins' life.

On the island of Sicily, a plane dropped a bomb on the beach near Jenkins. The blast knocked him out and "just scared the hell out of me."

Later in Italy, Jenkins and a buddy he knew only as Rimby were in a tent when a German plane dubbed "Bed Check Charlie" dropped a bomb that ejected smaller explosives designed to kill people and destroy vehicles.

"Jenkins, let's go see what happened," he recalls Rimby saying to him. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going.'"

Jenkins crawled into foxhole next to the tent. His buddy went to investigate.

"He went out and he didn't come back."

Ed Williams

Ed Williams said he had no trouble talking about his time on a Navy destroyer in Guadalcanal and Okinawa, but he doesn't know if anyone cares about what he has to say.

"Mainly, you wonder whether people are really, really interested or whether you're just an old guy talking about something that nobody else can relate to. I think that's a lot of the reluctance. You went through it, so what's the big deal," the 89-year-old St. George resident said.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Doherty, director of Air Force Services in Washington, D.C., described World War II veterans as having a "warrior ethos" — where they answered the call, didn't pat themselves on the back and returned to their normal lives.

"I understand why," he told 24 vets at a Utah Honor Flight banquet last week in Baltimore, adding that he hasn't told his family about his own combat experiences in the Middle East.

But Doherty challenged the veterans to share their stories, particularly with the younger generation.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, was among members of the state's congressional delegation to greet the veterans during that recent trip to the World War II Memorial.

"It's important for the rest of us to realize what it actually took. If they don’t (tell their stories), we have a cavalier attitude of what it was about, what it took to defend these rights that we have. It's important for us to remember what it takes to defend our way of life," the one-time high school history teacher said.

Casey De Jong

Casey De Jong helped deliver Marines, Seabees and supplies in small boats from the USS Barrow during the assault on Iwo Jima. He watched men bleed to death from mortar fire. His ship went out to sea every night to bury the dead.

While circling near the beach for a place to land, De Jong said he saw the American flag being raised atop Mount Suribachi, a now iconic image captured in a photograph and in a bronze memorial in Washington, D.C.

"We just hollered and yelled. We all cried and was yelling because we knew what happened. They had secured the island," he said.

Even though many veterans were content to leave the war in the past, they admit that their experiences influenced the course of their lives.

"It made my come to attention and find out what's going on because I wasn't living like I should when I went in the service. I wasn't afraid of anything or anybody. When I got blowed up, that changed my attitude," Jenkins said.

Manley Abbot

Manley Abbott flew 24 missions over Europe as an Army Air Corps gunner in a B-17. He was wounded in a ground accident shortly after his flight in February 1945 and spent 35 days in the hospital. When he got out, the war was basically over.

Jobs were scarce when he returned home, but handling .50-caliber machine guns got him hired at Hill Air Force Base, and that's where he spent the rest of his career. He worked in the armament shop repairing guns and turrets on aircraft and later was assigned to adapt regulations from Air Force headquarters for work at Hill.

"I had a top secret clearance, so I was able work on some highly sensitive equipment, among that was B-36 aircraft, the only bomber we ever built that never dropped a bomb or fired a shot in wartime," he said. "The Peacemaker, they called it. Apparently, it was."

Mel Owen

Mel Owen flew 16 bombing missions over Germany and one over Czechoslovakia as a B-17 navigator. His squadron came under attack from the ground and the air and nearly collided with other American aircraft. One time the crew had to land with a partially armed bomb hanging from the plane's bomb bay.

Owen escaped the war without injury.

"When I got back and that ship came into that harbor and I saw the Statue of Liberty and got off the plank and on that American land, I bent over and kissed the land. I was so happy to be back to the United States of America," he said.

"A Red Cross lady gave me a quart of milk and a doughnut. I hadn't had milk hardly ever all that time. I was so thankful."

On the Utah Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., Casey De Jong looked at the wall of stars at the World War II Memorial. Each of the 4,048 stars represent 100 service men and women who died.

"It makes you really feel humble and thankful that we're still here. I'm sure the Lord blessed me in my endeavors in the war. I'm happy to do anything I can to help anybody else," De Jong said.

"There isn't one of us, if we was physically able, that wouldn't go again if they wanted us and needed us. That was our attitude, and I think that's why we were successful."

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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1. southmtnman
Provo, UT,
July 3, 2014

Those of us who are part of "the Greatest Generation" recognize that we were just doing our jobs. We would never be so presumptuous as to label ourselves "the Greatest Generation".

2. cs85
Orem, UT,
July 3, 2014

southmtnman, that's one of the reasons you were the greatest generation. Thank you for your sacrifice.

3. DN Subscriber
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
July 3, 2014

You know, the real heroes say stuff like:

"Those of us who are part of "the Greatest Generation" recognize that we were just doing our jobs. We would never be so presumptuous as to label ourselves "the Greatest Generation". "

THAT is what makes these fine men (and women) truly the Greatest Generation.

Thank you all for the freedoms enjoy today. Us younger folks salute you for a job well done.

4. booyakashaw
Murray, UT,
July 3, 2014

Don't worry southmtnman you'll never need to label yourselves the "Greatest Generation", because we'll do it for you.

What is kind of tragic was the comment by one of the veterans in the story who said something to the effect that "The reason I don't talk about it is because I'm not sure anyone really wants to hear about it, and that maybe it's just an old man talking about things that don't matter."

I could spend a lifetime talking to these veterans and never get enough. It's simply amazing what they endured.

5. truth_avenger
Lehi, UT,
July 3, 2014

It is so sad that the "greatest Generation" is leaving the world in the hands of the self-centered generation who will leave it in the hands of the entitled generation. The world was saved because people could work together against a real enemy not just a member of a differing political party. The self-centered generation prefers destroying the country to prove a point rather than compromise to accomplish results. Could the adults today wake up to the aftermath of an attack and stand shoulder to shoulder with other Americans or would they wait to hear what Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh wanted them to do? Would the generation unaccustomed to sacrifice be capable of rationing gas for a war effort? Could love of country be demonstrated rather than just professed? I look around and see a lot of people who want to take their country back from their fellow Americans but no many who would storm Trenton with nothing but the wind to support them. And the rising generation? They're too busy taking selfies in front of their soccer trophies.