I met a 97-year-old hero!

During the camping “off-season” we stay plenty busy where I work (Lake Ann Camp, northern Michigan), by hosting different guest groups who use our facility, but generally run their own programs. We see an amazing variety of groups including students from local schools, women’s quilting clubs, sports teams, church boards, youth groups, men’s and women’s groups, couples’ retreats, pastors conferences and more. We don’t have very many quiet moments around camp until the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Last week we hosted one of the most unique groups we’ve every hosted, and truly, one we felt very honored to have on our property. It was a special group of men that are, literally, a dying breed. In fact, if statisticians are correct, there will be very few of them left when this decade is complete. Yet, among Americans, they are known as some of the bravest and strongest individuals in our nation’s rich history and they have been dubbed, “The Greatest Generation” by historians.

We hosted 46 World War Two vets.

WW2 vets

About a dozen vets sit around a table swapping stories and sharing memories about the battles they fought in World War 2.

There’s a national organization called, “Honor Flight,” that helps fly these men (and women!) to Washington DC for a day of special ceremonies that includes visits to their war memorials, meetings with dignitaries and an opportunity to rekindle old friendships and make new ones from people who understand their past. I couldn’t believe the stories they told over the two meals I had opportunity to share with them.

I visited with a 97-year-old gentleman who was so incredibly sharp and spry, over a wonderful spaghetti dinner. I hope I get around as well as he does when I’m 77, let alone 97!! His mind was quick and his memory vivid as he described the details of his service. Where did he fight? In one of the key battles that defined the war — the Battle of the Bulge that raged from early December 1944, until late January 1945.

In June of 1944 allied forces executed the largest amphibious military operation in history, when 155,000 troops (mostly American, British and Canadian) crossed the channel from England to France. Known as “D-Day,” the initiative cost allied forces thousands of lives, but gave Europe hope as help had arrived, and now owned a corner of land from where troops could pour in safely.

Soon after, the push from the western front grew stronger and the Russians began their assault on Germany from East. As the winter of 1944 was beginning, many in Germany began to realize that the war was unraveling. Hitler, however, remained steadfast and with great secrecy, planned one last campaign that he believed could change the outcome of the war.

His daring maneuver began on December 16th and German forces moved quickly in order to catch allied forces off-guard in the west. Initially, Germany’s plan was working, and soon Hitler hoped to encircle the allied troops to force a surrender so that he could then direct all of his attention to the Russians on the eastern front. He was convinced that if he could take them on, one front at a time, he could still bring about victory for the Third Reich.

Not long after the initial invasion, allied forces rallied and the troops, like the 97-year-old gentleman I spoke with, held their ground despite heavy casualties. Estimates for losses during the Battle of the Bulge range from 60,000 – 90,000 allied soldiers, but the strength of the military held and Germany was essentially finished when the Battle of Bulge ended on January 25th, 1945. Germany would surrender in May of that same year.

My dinner companion lost many friends in that battle and he remembers in crisp detail the sleepless nights under heavy gunfire, the feeling of fear as German forces appeared relentless and then the thrill of victory when key cities and borders were reclaimed and German forces were pushed back. He didn’t see it in a movie or read about it in a book, he lived every moment of it and the memories are etched into his mind permanently: the loss of a buddy just a few feet from him; the 3am air-raid alarms; the bombs exploding randomly all around him; the never-ending sound of gun fire.

I wondered if I could ever be so courageous?

For breakfast I had the privilege of sitting with private Ortega. He came up with the cavalry (yes, he was in a horse division!) but ended up being deployed with the infantry. While he only served for three months of the war, he was there the day Allied forces finally destroyed the Japanese supply lines that ran along the amazingly evasive Burma Road. The ancient trail of Burma had supplied Japanese troops for years during the war, even after multiple attempts to blow it up and force its redirection by American air strikes, the trail kept Japan in the war.

Ortega told me the tales of his unit’s combat in the jungle. I learned about how awful the mosquitos and leeches were, and that the humidity was constantly touching 100%! But you should have seen him light up when he said, “But the day we found the heart of the trail, the day we cut off their supplies, that was a pretty good day!” Indeed, maybe one of the key reasons the Japanese were pushed back off the mainland in WW2.

On our property that day we had a “young man” of 88 — in fact, he was the youngest of the batch — the older man of 97 (the one who fought at the Battle of the Bulge), and everyone else fell between those ages. Each of the men who came were heroes in every sense of the word. When the world needed them to step up and face evil, to charge forward with courage in the face of uncertainty and to stand toe-to-toe with a ruthless and vicious enemy — they responded to the call. Some voluntarily, others after being drafted, but all of them performed their duties to the fullest. The Navy “swabber” who worked on a ship that supplied the troops all over Europe and Africa. The air force pilot who received a standing ovation for his high-flying heroics. The many army infantrymen who charged beaches, held cities, marched through countless sleepless nights and fought the iron fist of Germany on the ground. The marines that stormed key strong holds when victory was uncertain. All of them are heroes in my book, and the hundreds of thousands like them, many of whom died in battle or have passed since those dark days, served at great personal risk. They all sacrificed much, to protect the freedoms you and I enjoy.

After spending time with these WW2 vets, I was reminded of another set of heroes that I admire. These ones are found, not in American history, but in biblical history, in Hebrews 11. I especially love the stories about those at the end of the chapter — nameless men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to proclaim the greatest faith. There were no ceremonies to honor their bravery (at least not here on earth!) and no monuments have been set up in their honor. Yet their sacrifices were no less important, and their heroism just as great.

I read this morning’s headlines and realize that the world is, again, in need of heroes like the men I met this past week; and even more, we are in need of heroes like the ones in Hebrews 11. I want to be one of those men who stands courageously in the face of fear, and I want to be a man who never backs down from my faith. But I know, the only way I’ll answer the call when the trumpet summons me to the front line, is if I’ve practiced answering the call each moment of each day.

The Overboard Life is a choice we make, each day, the moment our feet hit the floor. It’s a choice to reject the ease, convenience and comfort of the boat in order to live our God-designed lives, in faith, walking out on the water where Jesus is building His Kingdom! Let’s work together to leave a legacy of faith for those who will follow behind us.

Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!

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2 Responses to I met a 97-year-old hero!

  1. Tom Tanner says:

    I am so jealous! Wish I could have been there too! What a great opportunity, and I’m sure you didn’t waste it! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Di McIntyre says:

    Well said Joe.

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