Heroes? How loosely we have come to use this word, casually applying it to million-dollar athletes and tough-talking movie stars. Yet, we tend to ignore a genuine brand of hero all around us: our World War II veterans.
They no longer look the part, camouflaged in the inevitable trappings of age. Yet, there was a time when their valor lit up a war-weary, terrified world like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. Do you remember?
Heroes? Joe Stachewicz, 76, of East Buffalo remembers a night when the genuine article was all around him. He could have bathed in their blood as he landed on Normandy Beach as a teenage paratrooper on D-Day.
"As I landed, I could see that the water was red from all the Americans who had been shot out of the skies," he recalls. "In fact, I tried to catch some of them as they were coming down."
The son of Polish immigrants, Stachewicz had lied about his age to join the legendary Screaming Eagles when he was only 16. During D-Day and its aftermath, he saw hundreds of friends and comrades killed. In fact, he got used to stuffing the men's dog tags into their mouths as he'd been trained to do so they could be identified later.
While still in France, Stachewicz was seriously wounded in the back and evacuated to a hospital in England. He could have gone home once his injuries healed. But he insisted on rejoining his unit as it cut a perilous swath through France into the heart of Nazi Germany. He fought on despite frostbitten legs suffered during the Battle of the Bulge.
In the end, Stachewicz found himself in Marseille, scheduled to join the expected invasion of Japan when Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war.
Stachewicz, who worked as a foreman in a local chemical plant in the years after VJ Day, says he rarely talks about his wartime experiences. n fact, most would have probably never known that a man who had fought valiantly to stop the outrages of history's greatest tyrants was in their midst.
"Hero? No I don't consider myself a hero," Stachewicz says, breaking into tears as he recalls his fallen comrades. "The guys who died. They are the real heroes. I did what I did because I love this country and I would do it again.
"I just love this country. That's why I fought. And, I just hope the younger generations today will come to realize that and appreciate how wonderful this country truly is."
After 55 years, the United States is finally building a monument to these men in Washington, D.C., men who in their youth crossed an ocean to face a bloodbath. Now in their 70s and 80s -- their comrades leaving us at the rate of 1,000 per day -- we may have only one last chance to hear the stories our World War II vets have to tell. One last chance to realize that these mild-mannered seniors we might encounter playing cards or talking to their grandchildren were the truest of heros more than a half-century ago.
Remember what it was like to see the most powerful nation on earth mobilized and united in the fight against a common foe?
Joe Hoover, 76, of Cheektowaga does. Today, Hoover is an activist with the Combat Veterans Association, helping lead the campaign to declare Pearl Harbor Day a national holiday.
"It was just a wonderful thing to see the entire nation all united in a common effort to win the war," Hoover says. "Everyone was doing their part, and so was I, whether it was the women working overtime in the defense plants or the young boys collecting scrap metal to be used in the war effort. It was just a very inspirational thing that we will probably never see again."
Inspirational as it was, Hoover didn't have much time to enjoy this sight. When he was 19, he found himself defending the island of Leyte in the western Pacific. He and his comrades lived in trenches surrounded by rice paddies. The Japanese would wait until after midnight. Then they'd launch fierce attacks blowing bugles and screaming like men possessed. When the din finally ceased, many of his friends were dead or dismembered. Hoover and the others fought on.
"You never knew when they were going to come, so you couldn't really sleep," Hoover says. "We didn't have any food or sanitation, and disease was spreading rapidly. I was sick with malaria. Plus you were watching your friends get badly wounded or killed on a daily basis."
Hoover was seriously wounded on Leyte and then wounded again on Saipan. He spent more than 17 months in Army hospitals undergoing eight operations, including the partial reconstruction of his left hand. Not once, he says, did he doubt his sufferingwas worthwhile.
"We didn't do a lot of griping or complaining in those days because we knew we were all in this thing together," Hoover says. "If we hadn't won that war, it would have been the end for all of us, and we knew it. We did it because we loved our country and we wanted to defend it. Period."
Young men and women these days join the armed forces to earn money for college and "be all that (they) can be." Fifty-six years ago, when Don Schillig was young, his goal was more basic: staying alive and keeping the 76 men he was responsible for alive as they unloaded jeeps and trucks on the beaches of Normandy while the firefight of history blazed overhead.
"It was my job to get landing vehicles ashore that were filled with trucks, jeeps and ambulances used by the First Army," says Schillig, 88, who now lives in South Buffalo. "Above our heads, the skies were filled with German planes trying to shoot us. The skies were literally lit up with fire. The only thing that was stopping them was what they used to call 'barrage balloons' that were floating above us filled with explosives. If it wasn't for those, they would have picked us off easily."
After managing to get all his vehicles on shore, Schillig's next mission was using a secret map to find an orchard a mile away identified as a rallying point for First Army personnel. From there, Schillig and his comrades fought their way through France and into Germany. On the way, they witnessed horrors no war movie or documentary could ever fully capture.
"Day after day you were seeing and experiencing horrible things," says Schillig. "Men with their heads blown off, both American and German. Corpses everywhere. Mines going off. People being shot all around you."
Things got even worse when he and his men arrived at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp where Captain Schillig was ordered to lead Germans living nearby on guided tours.
"If anything, that was even more horrible," says Schillig. "Bodies all around of men, women and children who had been slaughtered by the Nazis; emaciated, barely alive inmates who had been tortured and starved nearly to death. The crematorium where human beings had been sent down a chute, gotten their teeth plucked out and then been gassed.
"You get to the point where you feel so much horror that you just can't be shocked by anything anymore. You get to the point where you feel so terrified that you simply can't feel fear."
Yet, despite everything, countless men and women such as these fought on through unspeakable terrors and ever-present danger. They brought home a victory and peace, the benefits of which our country still enjoys today. Some came home; others did not. All deserve the title "hero" and will as long as others live in the society their sacrifices made possible.
"You know, we've gotten used to calling multimillion-dollar athletes heroes, but really, these veterans are the real heroes for all time," says Louis R. Palma, director of the Erie County Office of Veterans Services and a World War II veteran. "Some of these athletes go out and play for $5 million, $10 million per year. I saw guys go out and risk their lives or even get killed for $40 a month.
"These veterans are the real heroes, and we should do everything we can to see to it that they get everything they need in terms of medical care. Without them, we simply wouldn't have the free America we have today."
Glenn Gramigna is a frequent contributor to FIRST SUNDAY's Seniors pages.