Everything I need to know about patriotism and self sacrifice, I learned from four World War II veterans at my local Starbucks. I joined these men for coffee nearly every morning for three years, listening to their war stories daily. Some stories made me cry; others made me cringe; all of them made me bow my head in deep awe and respect.
I met retired Marine Corps Colonel Vern Sylvester – the commandant of the coffee klatch – on a Valentine’s Day. As I came in for my morning jolt, Vern gave me a rose. Vern had an established Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day tradition of offering a long stem rose to every woman who entered the store. He did this, he said, because he liked to make people smile and, I suspect, because he had a fondness for the ladies. I joined the gathering of veterans that first morning while I waited for my drink. And before long, this history buff was a fixture at the table.
Vern also initiated a Marine Corps birthday party at Starbucks. Each year on the November 10, Vern arrived with a full sheet cake emblazoned with the Marine Corps’ insignia. He would read the Commandant’s letter, then we’d all sing the Marine Corps Hymn (each and every verse), and finally Vern would cut the cake with a WW I government issued sword and pass out slices to any and all passersby.
During one of those birthday celebrations, I remember Vern sharing the story of the 5th Marine Regiment’s bloody offensive of November 10, 1918, just hours before the WWI armistice was signed. Vern knew the story well; his father was one of the lucky ones to have survived the battle.
Sam Miller a retired US Navy Commander, was also a klatch regular. Sam flew spy missions in airships, and rescue missions in sea planes during his 40-year military career, and was one of the first pilots to land on an aircraft carrier.
Jim Durant was a proud Marine aviator who earned his nickname “the whale killer” for mistaking two blue whales for Japanese subs during the Pacific campaign. One Veteran’s Day, a few years back, two elementary teachers came in early and decorated the Starbucks with patriotic center pieces, streamers, student-made dioramas, and letters of gratitude. Durant was moved to tears and commented that the occasion made all his years of service worthwhile.
Bill Fournier, a retired Marine Corps Captain, was an aviator in the same squadron as Ted Williams and John Glenn during the Korean War.
Other regular members of the klatch included Larry Kropf, USA, Sgt., Ret.; Barry Madison, USN, Petty Officer 1st Class, Ret.; and Christy-Anna Pohlmann, USN, Corpsman 3rd Class, and a host of other civies like myself.
I am profoundly grateful to have learned an important era of this nation’s history from those who like Vern, Sam, Jim and Bill made it out alive. These men parachuted behind enemy lines, charged onto sandy beaches as bullets whizzed by, liberated countries from a totalitarian grip.
Sadly, we lost Jim, Sam, and Vern recently. Once 16 million strong, U.S. veterans of World War II are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day. If you know one, visit him or her and, like I did, hang out for a cup of coffee. You’ll most likely be treated to an oral history lesson that will not only change your perspective on what’s of value in this life, but also your understanding of the word hero.
Happy Memorial Day.