[Ed. note: This story first ran last June, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. This Memorial Day, we revisit it in the midst of a pandemic taking the lives of senior citizens—many of them veterans—at a tragic clip.]
You see them much more rarely now. They walk haltingly among us, in their worn-out cardigans and Members-Only jackets; those that still drive may have a penchant for drifting between lanes and leaving their turn signals on. We’re losing them, those born between 1900 and 1930—members of the Greatest Generation—at a rate of 348 per day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 500,000 were still alive last year.
Last week, we lost another one. I didn’t know him, but reading the Inquirer obituary of 95-year-old Earl Guydon made me wish I did. He was one of the first African Americans to stare down discrimination and integrate the Marines in World War II. He and his Black squad mates were forced to live in primitive, swamp-infested quarters, and couldn’t set foot on Marine training grounds without a white chaperone. Yet, Guydon fought for a country that, in its treatment of him, fell short of its creed, and he ended up in Philly, raising a family, serving as a deacon at Bright Hope Baptist Church, and, finally—grudgingly—being honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.
There were countless Earl Guydons, men and women who felt called to join a war effort because they believed some ideals were worth fighting for, even in a country that didn’t always live up to them. I was the son of one, a Temple University dropout who enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, simply because it was the right thing to do. Bill Platt was self-deprecating about his non-combat service—“I kept the shores of Seattle safe from Japanese attack,” he’d say.—but in everything he and so many of his era did thereafter, he may as well have been a bomber pilot.
They were the good guys who saved the world from fascism and then turned around and rebuilt the countries they had defeated. They created the greatest economy known to man—one based on values of shared sacrifice and reward. They believed that progress stemmed from our collective efforts, not from narrow interest-group wrangling or the Ayn Rand go-it-alone playbook.
As a group, they weren’t perfect. It could be argued they tolerated McCarthyism too long and were slow to come around on a host of “isms”—race among them—though, truth be told, they also kicked off the civil rights movement. While they made successes of themselves, they didn’t then shut the door behind them; instead, they defined themselves in terms of their duty to others. “I don’t know when paying your taxes became a political issue,” Dad, then 87, said on his deathbed five years ago. “When I was growing up, it was just what you did because you were part of a community.”
It dawned on me last weekend that I only know one living member of the Greatest Generation, so I called him to catch up, and to thank him. Sandy Sandler is a spry 94 years old, living in Northeast Philly, caring for his beloved wife, who is in bad health. Over 70 years ago, he was a West Philly kid who enlisted in the Army’s 131st Anti-Aircraft Battalion, rising to the rank of sergeant. After the war, he became my Dad’s longtime wingman in business; Dad was 6’4,” and Sandy maybe 5’6”. They finished each other’s sentences. Today, he’s as vibrant and sassy as ever.
They were the good guys who saved the world from fascism and then turned around and rebuilt the countries they had defeated. They created the greatest economy known to man—one based on values of shared sacrifice and reward.
“Around a year ago, I tried to call a lot of the guys I served with, but they’re all dead,” Sandy said when I caught up with him at about 5 pm; he was just about to make himself his nightly martini, the key, he’s convinced, to his good health and longevity. “You know I still remember my serial number? 13175210. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I’ve never forgotten my serial number.”
Sandy wore quite a toupee, something of a (poorly-kept) secret until that time he and Dad, on a business trip, were relaxing at the hotel pool. Sandy dove in, and emerged from the water missing something. “You went into the water Sandy Sandler, and came up an old Jew!” Dad joked.
That must have been in the ‘70s. It was hard to think of wisecracking, toupee-wearing, slight of stature Sandy as some kind of wartime hero, but that’s what those guys did: They met their moment, time and again.
One time, after the beachhead at Normandy had been secured, Sandy led a small group of soldiers through a French village; some locals pointed the way to a chateau where three German soldiers were holed up. “I spoke half-assed German,” Sandy recalled. “I called out, ‘Komm mit erhobenen Händen raus oder ich schiesse!’ —‘Come out with your hands up or I’ll shoot!’ Well, two guys came out with their hands up. The third came out with his hand behind his back, hiding something. I kept yelling at him in German to put his hands up. Finally, I gave the order: ‘Shoot him in the leg.’ He went down, and guess what was in his hand? A loaf of bread. Poor guy was hungry. Another guy probably would have killed him.”
I asked Sandy what led him to enlist. “It was three 17-year-olds on a West Philly street corner, saying, ‘What the hell, let’s go fight for Democracy, that sounds fun,’” he laughed. “We weren’t heroic. And we weren’t scared, probably because we were so damn young.”
We don’t hear about values like freedom and liberty these days. But Sandy will tell you that nothing is free. Thanking Sandy Sandler made me feel small by comparison, but also inspired me to try to think bigger and do better.
Later, as they aged, Dad’s pool became a summer meeting ground in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s for all these unassuming, follically-challenged Jewish seniors. I’d go over to hear the stories, fascinated by the juxtaposition between what they did at 18 and 19—when I was that age, I could barely do a load of laundry—and what they’d become. And how they’d lived their values.
They were moralists, no matter the issue, seeing things in terms of black and white, right and wrong. Those of us in generations that followed have been cursed by the moral relativism bug. We settle, and we cut corners, and we tolerate mediocrity because everything is complicated and nothing is ever anyone’s fault.
As they aged, guys like my Dad and Sandy were quick to outrage over both big and small injustices. In our call, for example, Sandy went on and on about the shame that is our president; I can’t quote what he said because I don’t want the (rightfully) humorless Secret Service to pay him a visit. Dad was always given to moral outrage; he had one longtime friendship blow up because of a disagreement over capital punishment. Late in his life, when he’d get junk mail, he’d pop the return envelope back into the mail—sans postage—with the sender’s address in the space where his would normally go. “This way, they have to pay the postage,” he’d boast.
Another friend, whose father fought on Okinawa, tells a similar story: Toward the end of his life, his dad, who found success in the food business, went into an Acme and shoplifted a dog leash, pulling it out when he was safely back in his son’s car.
“Dad, what did you do?” the astonished son asked. “You stole a dog leash?”
“This is their biggest-markup item,” his father responded. “That’ll teach the SOBs.”
God bless that sense of hair-trigger moralism—it’s what built our world. And how tough were these guys? When my Dad was in the hospital, he told his nurse that, six years prior, his bladder had stopped working and he had self-catheterized ever since. “It’s no big deal,” he said when she recoiled. “When’s the last time you bought a product that lasted 80 years?”
It’s a pretty lopsided scorecard, fellow boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. The Greatest Generation beats us not only in toughness, but also in common sense, duty, and stoicism. But, hey, at least we make really cool gadgets.
Sandy scoffed at the idea that he was somehow heroic when he fought for his country at a time when the future of Democracy seemed very much in doubt. And, in one sense, he was right. He and his compatriots were, after all, just a bunch of kids. But they fought for one another, and, in that much-vaunted “Band of Brothers” ethos, they came to represent something transformative, something in short supply today: The idea, in these fractured times, that there is something in the human condition that finds purpose in common projects. We all took on the Nazis; we all decided to explore space, and then we all watched man walk on the moon; we all stared down the expansion of Communism. What is our common project? What have we been called to do?
That sense of the transformative power of shared national adventure is what Ronald Reagan was getting at when he addressed D-Day vets on that Normandy beach 35 years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the bloody invasion, and it’s appropriate to revisit his words today:
Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer…It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt. You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.
And then, as if trying to lecture a future orange-haired president who would betray the values Reagan and his party stood for, he said this:
We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation.
We don’t hear about values like freedom and liberty these days; it’s as if we think such notions are, if not corny, somehow inevitable. But Sandy will tell you that nothing is free. Thanking Sandy Sandler made me feel small by comparison, but also inspired me to try to think bigger and do better. And one of those thoughts is that we should do more than just thank guys like Sandy. You get into your eighties and nineties, after defending the flag overseas in your youth, and after being an engaged, law-abiding citizen in your middle years? Hell, we should make your old age tax-free. It’s the least we can do.
People are running for president now, which means the air is filled with talks of generational responsibility. That usually means doing right by upcoming generations: the “do it for the kids” motif.
But what do we owe those who came before us? Giving voice to our debt to them would be an acknowledgment that the universe doesn’t bend on its own toward freedom and justice. That takes the work of ordinary people like Earl Guydon and Sandy Sandler, doing extraordinary things.Photo via Good Free Photos