On the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, the Armistice was signed, signaling the end of the World War I. Since then, this anniversary has come to be called Veteran’s Day — a day when Americans honor and remember those who have served their country.
However, some veterans feel that Americans may be starting to lose touch with what they and millions of their brethren have brought to this country.
Captivity teachesfreedom’s value
Perception of Veteran’s Day is getting worse all the time, said Howard Melson, who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was a prisoner of war during World War II.
“The respect is definitely changing. People today won’t even salute the flag,” he said.
The meaning of Veteran’s Day does not hold the same value it once did, he noted. “It seems as if some people in their 30s and 40s don’t remember [the significance] just right,” he said.
Drafted on Jan. 6 1941, Melson was first stationed in Norwich, England, with the 8th Air Force Headquarters at a Royal Air Force (RAF) camp. “There,” Melson said, “I was an instructor pilot, teaching the field-active pilots to fly.” Soon afterward, Melson was relocated to Shipton, North Yorkshire, England, serving as a combat pilot.
“March 18, of ’44, I was shot down in Frederichshafen, Germany,” said Melson. He was captured as a POW, but never assigned to a specific camp. Within four days, Melson escaped to Italy. But he was caught a month later and returned to Germany. He spent time in solitary confinement before attempting another escape, only to be caught again the following day.
In November of 1944, Melson fled from a transport train.
“I walked for 30 days, and finally knew I was in France,” he said. “By then, I was in pretty bad shape.” His abscond continued, as he traveled by foot, bike, bus and train before reaching Lyons, France. There, he, along with nearly 40 other soldiers on the run, were picked up by a C-47, a small aircraft designed to carry only 28, and brought to England.
Two weeks later, and nearly six months after the war had ended, Melson was returned to the United States.
His experiences have taught him a lot, Melson said, and he has much to be thankful for. “To me,” he said, “Veteran’s Day means freedom.”
As a former member of the Veteran’s Commission Affairs, Melson clearly recalls Veteran’s Day ceremonies held at the Delaware Memorial Bridge and St. George’s United Methodist Church. “Now, you can see people don’t even put their hand over their heart. They don’t even know about it.”
‘Soldiers were treated like kings’
Serving as an infantryman in the Korean War, Dagsboro resident Ruley Banks experienced his share of combat and postwar confrontation. In 1950, at a ripe 20 years of age, Banks was drafted in as an infantryman.
“I was too young to know what it was all about,” he said, “but it didn’t take too much to realize what it was all about.”
Boarding a train that took him from Baltimore to California, Banks quickly departed for Japan on the armed troop transport, the USS Breckenridge. “There were many complaints,” said Banks, “because a lot of us hadn’t even got any training at all.”
“I quickly found out that it wasn’t anything easy,” Banks admitted. “It was either too cold, too hot, too wet.”
With temperatures dropping to 20 degrees below zero in the winter season, and humid, scorching temperatures in the summer, Banks had experienced all he wanted to after 18 months. Despite requests from the platoon commander and medal commander for another three months of service, and a guarantee of promotion to warrant officer, Banks said he had had enough. “By that time, I was ready to come home.”
To Banks, Veteran’s Day has been a day of deliberation. “I think a lot of my old friends, a lot of them that I knew, have since passed away. They were getting up in years.” Many of those whom he fought alongside were from California. “I’ve made trips out there to see them, and some of them have visited me here.”
The respect he receives, Banks claims, has definitely changed since his first years back from war.
“A lot of people don’t even know what [Veteran’s Day] is all about,” said Banks. “They don’t have many celebrations anymore, like they used to.” He plans to attend a celebration to commemorate Korean Veterans at the Dover First Korean Baptist Church, on Sunday, Nov. 12. “The only celebrations you see are the ones [put on] at this church or the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] VFW.”
In reference to current conflicts in today’s world, Banks said, “I don’t understand why they put their selves in jeopardy. We never did that.” Banks said that, while he has no regrets for the time he served overseas, there is definitely a noticeable change in the way troops are treated.
“It disappoints me,” he added, “that a lot of the politicians and political parties don’t support our troops [in Iraq]. I think that started back in Vietnam. It’s not like World War II, where soldiers were treated like kings, like celebrities.”
Harry Dukes, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, described his time at war as “mixed experiences.”
“Honestly, it was one of the most stressful times of my life. It’s hard to put it into words,” said Dukes. “The camaraderie and dependence on each other is something I never expected.”
He enlisted in March 1969 and went into service on July 1969, and during his time of service flew a UH-1H helicopter, referred to as the “Huey.”
“I don’t really even talk to my family about [my time at war],” Dukes said.
“Veteran’s Day gives me the opportunity to reflect on the country we live in and how lucky I was to be born and raised here, and the sacrifices we’ve given up,” he said. “We take this lifestyle for granted.”
“Korea was a graduation from World War II. Vietnam was a graduation from Korea. [Vietnam] was a political war,” he added.
For Dukes, Veteran’s Day comes with a different sentiment. “I think the respect gets deeper as you age.”
Upon his return, Dukes remembers a distinct response from the general public. “It wasn’t a very popular situation. There weren’t any bands. There weren’t any parades,” he said. “There wasn’t really any appreciation.”
The years have changed that, Dukes stated.
“People realize that we were serving our country, not necessarily serving the cause, similar to the situation we’re in now.”
Despite some opposition toward the war in Iraq, Dukes said he believes that many troops are again representing their nation rather than a cause.
“I believe soldiers in Iraq are getting more respect than we did in Vietnam, and they deserve it. Maybe we learned a lesson [from Vietnam].”