Some of the men who fought the Second World War from the air are there in the photo display that Jack Robinson takes down from his wall in Pierre — some taller, shorter, dark or fair, all of them tough, from a hodge-podge of different backgrounds and all parts of the country.
“There are various poses of various guys that were in my air crew. They’re all gone now. I’m the only one that’s still alive,” says Robinson, who followed up his military career with a career as a teacher at Riggs High School. “Two of them were killed and the rest have passed away. You must remember, I am 88 years old.”
And you must remember they were in their 20s then, flying a B-17 Flying Fortress as part of their generation’s Iliad – a war that took young soldiers away from home for years, some to fight and die in foreign lands, others to perform the tasks necessary to help others fight.
It’s the same demand America made of its soldiers in the years before World War II, and in the years since. It’s a demand we are still making of soldiers right now. That’s why the Capital Journal rolls out a set of interviews today in a special section to celebrate Veterans Day.
There are many to honor. South Dakota’s Department of Veterans Affairs says data from the Veterans Administration indicate there are 71,800 veterans in the state of South Dakota, of whom 6,000 are female, while the rest are male.
The largest number of that group – 23,400 – served during Vietnam. A total of 19,400 served in the Gulf War, including Desert Storm in the 1990s and the post-9/11 campaigns in the region. About 17,200 of the state’s veterans served during peacetime; 8,500 served during the Korean War; and 5,800 South Dakotans served in World War II.
We tried to interview one or more veterans from each of the major conflicts from World War II on in which we have had soldiers involved. But quite early we discovered what we already suspected — many of the stories about warfare and battle are locked in the memories of old soldiers who do not want to re-live those things. Soldiers who saw combat or were wounded in World War II, Korea and Vietnam were among those who chose not to be interviewed for this package.
We know they are heroes, but there are some things that are too painful to talk about, and we respect that.
What we discovered also among our veterans is some disagreement about whom we ought to be honoring.
“Anybody who paid the full price, they are the ones we should be honoring,” says Jack Robinson.
But Mark Venner, a younger veteran who retired as a lieutenant colonel after helping to win the Cold War, says it is veterans such as Jack Robinson whom we ought to honor.
“Those guys, they are the heroes,” Venner said.
The citizens of Fort Pierre clearly had veterans in mind when they first organized what is now known as Cedar Hill Cemetery, calling it Union Cemetery up until 1933 — apparently in reference to the Civil War veterans buried there.
Similarly, a statue erected in Pierre just after World War I seems to look back to the veterans of another era, depicting what appears to be a Civil War soldier on top a pedestal; but the message on the base of the statue speaks for all time: “Erected 1918 by the state of South Dakota in honor of the defenders of our nation.”
The cause, ultimately, hasn’t changed. It’s to defend and preserve the United States of America, a nation that from its very beginnings set out to be different than any other that had gone before in its celebration of individual liberties.
“I graduated from high school in the spring of 1942,” Jack Robinson told us. “The war started for us on Dec. 7 of 1941, of course. That was Pearl Harbor. If you were physically fit, physically and mentally fit, you could either enlist or you would be drafted. The sentiments of the people that I knew that were in the service of their country, it never crossed their minds as to why they were being drafted or why they were asked to fight for their country. Because if we lost this war, there would be no United States of America.”
That’s the cause worth fighting for, and that’s why we honor our veterans today.