For Veteran’s Day: Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

As we think of our veterans today, let’s remember one of the 20th century’s amazing stories: the Tuskeegee Airmen.

Documented in the film “Red Tails,” the Tuskeegee Airmen became the first African-American aviators in the U. S. military and despite unremitting discrimination, they flew missions with great heroism, shot down German planes, and garnered a slew of medals. The also struck a massive blow to the forces of segregation and racial prejudice in the Armed Forces. Continue reading

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

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 88, 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.

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!