My grandfathers were two very different men, from different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions, but they both made the same sacrifice to volunteer to serve their country.
My father’s father, John F. Perkins Jr., was known about town by many of Bedford’s older generation. He was a mountain of a man at nearly 6-feet 5-inches, from French-Acadian, highland-Scott and old Yankee stock, all of which had come to North America around the time of the Pilgrims. He was a practicing Catholic, somber, soft spoken, emotionally reserved and quiet.
My mother’s father, Milton “Mitty” Mitler, was a Jewish kid from New York City whose parents were fresh off the boat from somewhere in the hodgepodge of Russia, Poland, Lithuania and points in between. His family kept kosher and didn’t speak English at home. He would probably need to stand on a phone book or two to see his professed height of 5-foot-6. A typical “ethnic” New Yorker, he has the gift of gab, talks with his hands and has a great sense of humor.
When World War II broke out, both went to extreme lengths to enlist.
John had a glass eye from a childhood accident and was repeatedly turned down during persistent attempts to enlist. He trekked up to Canada, only to once again be turned down. Eventually, as the war took its toll on the country, he was accepted into the U.S. Army and sent to the Pacific.
Mitty graduated early from high school and went to the University of Richmond to play baseball. When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Navy, where he became the youngest Naval commissioned officer of World War II, earning the rank of lieutenant at age 19. He, too, was shipped to the Pacific.
I don’t know much about either of my grandfathers’ experiences. Neither one of them boasted or bragged about it – frankly, they each downplayed it quite a bit, toeing the “I just did what anyone else would have done” company line of modesty. I know that a sniper took some pot-shots at John while he was trying to set up radio communication on some nameless island in the South Pacific, and that Mitty had a Japanese rifle along with his officer’s hat on display in his den.
But what I do know is that both of them, along with hundreds of thousands of young men who were barely more than boys, played a role in turning the tide of the biggest and bloodiest war in human history – a war that could not be lost and a war that, not to sound overly cliché, saved the free world as we know it.
By the time I came to understand just what their sacrifices meant, John had succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Mitty lives in New York and I don’t get to see nearly enough of him. He’s one of the last of the generation that experienced World War II first hand, who knew just what was at stake. When he and those who stood beside him are gone, I fear the world will have lost a generation that can never be replaced.
Follow One-Bid Wonders Editor-in-Chief Sam Perkins on Twitter at @onebidwonders.