When I was young, Veterans Day meant watching my Dad put on his American Legion uniform and then riding with him to the school parking where he met his buddies, also dressed in the dark blue of the American Legion or forest green of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They were all veterans of WWII or the Korean War, with one or two WWI vets who would follow them in the morning parade, riding in the back seat of a convertible Impala. To me, growing up in a small Minnesota town, these were the faces of Veterans Day. Returning to that small town this past weekend, however, those faces had completely disappeared.
To many collectors—whether their focus is militaria, weapons or even military vehicles—Veterans Day has always focused on those who served during WWII or the Korean War. Sure, they gave a nod to the Vietnam veterans, but the parades, fired salutes or speeches were geared to acknowledging Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.”
This past weekend, I watched military vehicle collectors line up their MBs, GPWs, CCKWs and even an M3 half-track. I saw about a dozen reenactors dressed in poplin field jackets, wool trousers and M1 helmets carrying M1 rifles and Thompson machine guns as they climbed onto the vehicles. Then, I glanced to the few veterans who were milling about their stand of colors, waiting to take their place in the parade’s line of march. Though I recognized the family traits in the veterans, they weren’t the men I recalled from 30 years ago: Ross Johnson, a Navy veteran of the Pacific; Gale Buxengard, a veteran of Patton’s 3rd Army; or Ralph Eikens, an Army vet still carrying the wounds received on Iwo Jima. Instead, I saw men in the late 40s and 50s. They were the veterans of Vietnam and the Cold War.
As I stood on the corner of Main Street watching the parade pass by, I couldn’t help but consider a time that had passed. Time had marched on and now our WWII veterans occupied back seats of convertibles—just the same way I remembered seeing WWI veterans in the parade 30 years earlier.
The good news is, Vietnam veterans are beginning to enjoy their “day in the sun.” As these veterans enter into their retirement years, their communities, neighbors and family are beginning to acknowledge the sacrifices they made as young men and women.
This trend is beginning to reveal itself at Veterans Day parades. Whereas WWII vehicles still seem to dominate the parade route, more M38s, M38A1s, M151s, deuces and five-tons are entering the stream of vehicles as well. At long last, Vietnam vets are “taking their seats” in the parade vehicles—usually behind the wheel! But, the day will come when they, too, will ride in the back seats, waving to crowd… just like the WWI vets did 30 years ago, and our dwindling number of WWII and Korean War vets are doing now.
This last year, we saw the last of our WWI vets, Frank Buckley, “go over the top” for his final charge. I dare say, we will see the last of our WWII veterans pass over in the next dozen or so years as well. And a day will come, when we salute the last Vietnam veteran. In the meantime, don’t let an opportunity to thank a veteran pass you by. Their service, no matter when or where, helped maintain our freedoms.
Honor their service,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine