WWII veterans saluting

The Last Decade – Volunteering with Masonicare’s Veterans

By: Gil Litalien, Masonicare Hospice Volunteer

One by one, their flames are going out. World War II veterans and their spouses who are still alive now approach their final decade. Those who were 18 years of age in 1945 were born in 1927. Few if any will see the end of the decade, except perhaps for those who enlisted at a younger age with parental consent. Many did enlist, as young as 16 years of age. They did so without question, without hesitation, with a sense of duty that seems without parallel today.

For nearly twenty years, it has been my great honor to have known scores of them, serving as both a Hospice and General volunteer at Masonicare. They were, they are, close friends; my connection to them was born of hours spent visiting, reminiscing, sharing sorrows and joys, and sadly, tending solemn vigil in their final hours. I’ve gotten to know their spouses, children, friends. In a very personal way, I’ve come to share their lives, past and present.

Mr. Brokaw was correct; without doubt, they are the greatest, the strongest, the most noble generation, tempered by war as JFK stated, with a steady commitment to always do what was right. I have so many stories to tell. What possesses an infantryman to stay in the fight, from Normandy to the heart of Germany, despite losing so many brethren in the battles he fought to get there? How does a classical piano teacher, whose husband came home emotionally scarred from war, craft a rich and fulfilling life with him, with family, while maintaining the pursuit of her art? Or consider a young man, serving with the Army Corps of Engineers, who saw much violence, and who was often in harm’s way, who dedicated his post war career to designing department store displays, the kind that brings joy to children during the holidays. I spent two remarkable years with him throughout his care at Masonicare, as his friend, taking him to chapel services every Sunday, and outdoors in summer and spring. He was a kind and gentle soul, and his faith was unshakeable. I miss him still.

And there is humor; it seemed that there were a few too many who saw Patton slap those infantrymen as attended Woodstock from my generation. Curtis LeMay preferred non-commissioned officers as his adjuvants, especially those who could procure a good box of cigars. One Marine, who served in the Pacific helping to rebuild Pearl Harbor, met his future wife on Paris Island in 1942. It was an eight-day courtship. “I owned a ‘36 Pontiac convertible; I think it gave me an edge.”. They were married for 60 years until her passing. A staunch Republican, when I praised Mrs. Roosevelt for visiting hospitalized troops in the Pacific, said: “We had a saying: Eleanor or war, I’ll take war”.

There were many women who served. My very good friend was a Navy WAV with artistic skills that she used to draft aircraft engineering diagrams during the war. She later applied those same skills to help design missiles at a defense facility in the Mojave Desert. As one of few women, among many men, she served from 1943 to 1952. I honor her both as a pioneer and war hero, though she continues to dismiss my accolades. At 102, she remains fiercely independent, reminiscent of the strikingly beautiful and confident photo of her in full uniform.  That classical music pianist, ever the teacher, showed me a few chords to play just three days before her passing. I took a photo of her hands at the keyboard and shared it with her family, who were deeply moved.

I’ve learned that recollection can cut through the cognitive toll that age imposes. I recently shared photos of one friend’s escort ship, the USS Gantner, downloaded from the website. His smile of recognition and his thanks for sharing these made my day. Another more recent friend, a B-17 pilot who flew missions over Europe, was a bit confused by my detailed knowledge of his aircraft and asked me “Were you in my outfit?” I wish.  Another profound learning for me is that such nobility, such courage persists throughout life, even in the fragility that we all encounter at its end.

Their courageous sacrifice gave us our freedom, their rich and full lives serve as a shining example of right living. They were, they are, my close friends, and with much sadness I bid them farewell. While they are still with us, I choose to honor them by spending sacred time in their presence. One by one, their noble flames are going out, as they, the last few, move on to their well-deserved rest.