I thought about this question while looking through hundreds of photos of military veterans as our staff prepared the BCR’s Salute to Veterans special section that appears in today’s paper.
Looking at the faces of veterans who are still with us, and others who no longer are, I’m struck by how young they were, and how brave they were to put themselves on the line for our country.
I was surprised at how many names I recognized just under one alphabetical letter: Les Saal, Wayne Sapp, Bill Sisler, Danny Sissel, Jim Spratt, Glenn Stamerjohn, Roger Swan, Dick Swanson.
With pride, I also think of my grandfather, Harold J. Tucker, who spent one year in the U.S. Army during World War I. He enlisted in February 1918, became part of the 56th Coast Artillery Corps, shipped out to France, did more training “over there,” and then participated in the biggest battle of the war.
On the Western Front, Grandpa helped his heavy-artillery battery aim and fire hundreds of shells at entrenched German positions up to 10 miles away during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. This 47-day campaign ended on Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice took effect, after more than 26,000 Americans had been killed.
Grandpa, who didn’t like to talk about the war, went on to become a good husband, father, grandfather, businessman and community leader. I’m proud of him for being as fine a civilian as he was a soldier. The same sentiment goes out to other veterans.
My family is small, but has several veterans. My uncle was in the Navy, my son served in the Air Force, I'm a Marine, and my grandfather was in the Army.
None of us were career military, and only my grandfather served in combat. He was awarded a Purple Heart, among many other medals, and he didn't talk much about it. If he did, it usually left me not knowing what to say afterwards. Even as an adult, I'd probably still struggle with that.
Earlier in the war, he was a machine-gunner and later he was a reconnaissance scout during the Battle of the Bulge. He told me how he was watching a small bridge when he heard the infamous squeaking of a large number of advancing Panzer tanks during the initial surprise attack.
When I asked what he did when he saw them, he said "What do you think I did? I got the hell out of there, that's not something you can fight by yourself."
He spent the next two weeks alone in the freezing French countryside, behind enemy lines. He often hid in barns, seeking help where he could and avoiding Germans. The only other thing he'd ever say about it is, "I did what I had to do to stay alive."
As one of the BCR employees who assists with putting together our huge annual Salute to Veterans section, I am reminded on a daily basis during this time of the year of the impact our local veterans have had both on their families and on their country.
When people call in about the veterans in their lives, I hear sadness for those who have passed and pride for what they have accomplished, in the voices of their loved ones. It reminds me of my own grandfather, a veteran who passed away more than 20 years ago while I was in college.
He never spoke of his service to me, and I never asked about it. My grandpa, Ken McCracken of Amboy, went on to have three children and served as mayor of Amboy for many years. I knew him as a funny, hard-working family man, but I always wondered about the other side of his life that I knew nothing about.