Honesty and Trust: A WW II Veteran’s Lesson for Living

Like many others, we at the Legacy Project have been following the D-Day commemorations. In my book 30 Lessons for Living, I was privileged to interview many members of the War and Crisis Generation, capturing their wisdom before they left us (only a few WW II veterans are still alive).

If there is one lesson for a good life that nearly all of  the Legacy Project elders agree on, it’s  honesty. This may be worded in different ways: being truthful, being a person of trust, or having integrity. But it shines above all others in the advice elders give about core values.

And this isn’t just some hollow platitude. The elders believe that honesty is not a lofty ideal; rather, it’s a daily practice that is highly beneficial for every individual.

Max, age 95, passionately summed up this lesson and how he learned it:

 My father died when I was 12, and my mother appointed me head of the household. After my freshman year in college (1942-43), I was drafted into the Army. In World War II, I was a combat medic attached to infantry in the 95th Infantry Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. In December of 1944, I was wounded by a German machine gunner while I was trying to rescue a fallen comrade. Gas gangrene cost me my left arm for which I have worn a prosthesis ever since. After honorable discharge, rank of PFC, I completed my undergraduate education in biology and then got a Master’s Degree. My career, influenced by the War, was as a high school teacher of biology and English.

As a fatherless boy I soon learned to be skeptical of authority, institutional and religious. However, I realized intensely – and still do – that trust is the most valuable bond that keeps us civil and loving. Cheating and lying, of every kind—in school work, business, friendships, sex, marriage, parenthood, social contracts, just as examples—weaken that bond.

Just think of what a dissolving marriage does to the sense of trust children have in their parents! Just think of what a dreadful toll the failure of trust in our current federal administration is taking on us as a people and on our international relations! Just think of what casual sex has done to the bonds of trust and love! Trust keeps us together in marriage, as families, as social groups, in business negotiations, as a nation. Betray that for personal gain or pleasure and you lose more than your integrity; you weaken the fabric of society.

For MLK Day: Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’d like to share the story of one of the true heroes we encountered in the Legacy Project. TUSKEGEE-AIRMENWe heard many stories of overcoming adversity and discrimination, but no interviewee was more inspiring to me than Hiram Mann (pictured here in World War II). Hiram had to fight to find the work he loved, overcoming prejudice along the way. The struggle and the rewards of his 90 years were encapsulated in his first words in our interview: “I was one of the original legendary Tuskeegee Airmen.”

In the early 1940s the military was almost completely segregated and the Air Force did not even allow Blacks to enlist. But what if, as a young Black man, this was your chosen career, indeed your dream?

Hiram’s experiences as part of this unique group allowed him to achieve his childhood dream, and so shaped his lessons for work and career.

Back when I wanted to get into the military, before America got into the fighting in WWII, I wanted to fly an airplane. I had never been in an airplane in my life, though we’d seen them fly over. Well, I was a Depression-era child and pennies were very, very, tight to come by, but I would save my pennies in my box of wood and go to the hobby shop and try to make model airplanes and things when I wanted to fly.

Sometime in early 1941, I wanted to know about getting flying instructions to fight for my country. The letter of rejection that I received said point-blank, no easy words to smooth it over, that there were no facilities to train Negroes to fly in any branch of the American military service. That ticked me off. I balled the letter up and threw it away. There were Negroes that wanted to fly. But, all over the United States there were others in similar situations. I went back to my job being a bellhop in Cleveland, Ohio.

I applied again and I was very lucky. I passed and I continued to pass all of the examinations that I was given and I was in the 27th class that graduated.

Hiram thus refused to give up despite setbacks and his own self-doubt that emerged from being raised in a segregated society. Hiram needed a mix of courage, drive, patience, and forbearance to succeed in the 1940s military, where Blacks were unusual and Black officers an exotic curiosity. Nevertheless, he achieved his dream of fighting for his country, putting his life at risk in the war in Europe:

I was in combat. I’m a combat survivor. One of the questions a youth asked me was, “Were you afraid?” And I said, “Yes, I was afraid! When you let somebody get behind you who’s shooting at you and they’re trying to kill you and you know they are trying to kill you, you’d be afraid too if you had any sense.” So I will not lie. I told him, “Yes I was afraid.” I could see the bullets coming.

Where others might have given up, Hiram refused to become discouraged by the racial environment in the Air Force. Instead, he used the military experience, despite its difficulties, to create a career path that would have been almost unimaginable to him as a child. Hiram might be looking back on a lifetime as a hotel bellhop rather than as one of the pioneers of desegregation in the military, sought after in his ninth decade as a speaker, and a living symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity.

In the Legacy Project, Hiram shared some of his lessons for living – all good advice for young people today:

On tolerance:

I accept my fellow man as an individual. I try not to prejudge. I try to enter, whatever the situation may be, to get going to it with an open mind. I don’t look down at my skin or anyone else’s and say, “Oh, I’m colored.” That’s the way I approach most areas that I get into. I don’t let being colored keep me from doing something. Tolerate the other person.Tolerance – that goes a long way

On perserverence:

My mother had her basic teachings, she would not let me look down. She would tell me: “Hold your head up. No matter what, hold your head up.” And, my mother could not stand when I would say that I don’t have the background to do so and so and so. “What do you mean you don’t have the background?” She couldn’t stand that word background

On creating a legacy:

My legacy—I don’t know just what it’s going to be. I haven’t written it yet. But I do hope that I’ve contributed something to mankind, individually as well as connectively. I know that the Black pilots were instrumental in doing away with segregation in the United States. We broke the ice. We were a cause for eliminating segregation because of our combat record. We, the 332nd fighter group which later was re-designated as the Tuskegee Airmen, became the most requested unit to fly escort duty for the bombers because of the protection we gave them. There’s a part for that. Nothing I did individually, but my contribution to that will be part of my legacy. I’m very proud of the life I’ve lived. I’m proud of having been a black pilot and my contribution to society.

To learn more, here’s a video of Hiram sharing his life lessons to young people.

Learning from World War II Veterans

Many older people who served in World War II came from small, homogeneous communities. They were then suddenly thrown together with  people all over the country. Once in the service, they experienced danger and hardship that is difficult to imagine. Although these experiences are shared by service men and women today, in the elders’ generation, millions of men experienced combat, shaping their worldviews. They were some of the most inspiring interviewees in 30 Lessons for Living.

We have come to a point in time, however, where those who participated in World War II generation will soon be gone. Take a look at this chart:

In five years, only a few hundred thousand of those who risked their lives so bravely will be left with us. For this reason, I believe we need to actively engage the WWII veterans now, asking them for the lessons they learned from their experiences.

Here’s an example from the Legacy Project. Larry, 89, describes his lessons for getting along with others, gained from his service in WW II:

When I went into the service, I was a young boy from Vermont.  A little hick town. And I lived on the right side of the tracks, okay?  My whole family was well-known throughout town, well-respected and everything.  I got into the Navy and I was just another punk.  And I learned how to get along with people.  And when I got out of the service, people would say to me, “Oh, boy am I glad I’m out of the service.” And I said, “I’ll tell you something:  I learned how to get along with people for one thing.”  That was the biggest lesson that has helped me all through life. Because you’re cramped in and everything like that.  Living aboard ship.  And you’ve got to get along with people, because you have no choice.  And these are people that you never saw before. 

I learned to accept mankind until they prove me wrong.  I don’t care who you are, what you are, how you are, you’re fine with me until you prove the opposite.  I get along with everybody, and that – I think the service had something to do with that. That’s what you need at work: to be sociable and to get along with the people you are working with.

Zach Danko, 87, also pointed to WW II as broadening his understanding of others:

I served in World War II. You traveled the world and you bumped into people that were quite different. I was in the Pacific, so I was talking to natives in New Guinea. When I was younger, I would have shied away from them. You couldn’t speak the language, number one. Everything was sort of hand movement – you try to describe what you’re trying to say. But they were the most beautiful people in the world, what they did for us. So you look back at that, and it teaches you things. It’s a big world.

So let’s make sure we learn all we can from our WW II veterans – before we lose the chance!

Lessons from Our Veterans

I received this message from June Hussey:

Please view the life lessons learned in service to our country posted by veterans living at Watermark communities coast to coast. One of the greatest joys of working with older Americans every day is hearing their amazing stories and learning important lessons about life and history through their personal experiences. Most older Americans eagerly share their wisdom. All you have to do is ask, as the Legacy Project is doing here. The essay posted by Carleton Jones, Jr. is especially poignant and should be required reading of every American. Find it at http://www.watermarkcommunities/veteransday. . Thanks for spearheading the Legacy Project.

Take a look at this page, with pictures and life lessons from people who have served their country. They are remarkable and inspiring!