"Joe is so typical of our greatest generation. To meet him, to hear his story, to me was worth more than gold..."
It was our last day in Rochester. The convention was over, and we were going to visit some state parks before packing up and heading back north. The place we were staying at had a breakfast nook that served a free breakfast every morning. As usual, that was our first stop of the day.
After I got my coffee and was put it on our table, I noticed an elderly man trying to hold a cane, a glass of orange juice and some coffee. He had on a service ball cap which I could not read from my distance. Sensing that something was about to spill, I went over and offered to help. That is when I noticed what his ball cap said. He was a WW II vet, with WWII Navy ribbons on his hat.
When we got to his table, I knew this man had a story. I first thanked him for what he and so many did in WW II, and then asked which theater he fought in. He first told me his name was Joe. He was from the Midwest, and what he did was not that special (his words). He enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 years old and one week. If he could have gone earlier, he would have. He scored high enough on his tests in basic that some wanted him to try for aviator school. Joe wanted no part of that - he just wanted to be a sailor and fight the enemy at sea.
He as assigned to an "Oiler" - better known as "floating bombs" in those days. They carried precious fuel for the other ships in the fleet. However to the enemy, they were just another target. His ship was in many big and famous battles in the Pacific, including the Battle of Okinawa. I told Joe I was also a Navy vet, and was stationed in Okinawa. In fact the beach close to my base was a main assault point, and live munitions were still being found there.
Joe went on to tell me that just prior to the landing on Okinawa, his ship was hit by a suicide bomber. As luck would have it, they had just finished fueling a ship so where the plane hit was an empty hold. Joe was on the other side of the ship when the plane hit and was not hurt. The ship, although damaged, could be repaired enough to fight again.
After the Battle of Okinawa was over, Joe's ship was repaired and again ready to serve. While Joe was on watch, he spotted a two man Japanese sub which seemed to surface out of nowhere. Before Joe knew it, the sub launched a torpedo and it hit Joe's ship, again in an empty hold. Even though the ship did not explode, the torpedo was a fatal blow to the ship. It sunk, but Joe and many other sailors made it off.
Japan went on to surrender, and Joe was discharged just shy of his 21st birthday. This young man, just barely out of high school, fought in a war that saved the world from tyranny. In Joe's mind, he did nothing special and he was not a hero. This is just something that needed to be done.
It was an honor and a privilege to meet Joe. We are rapidly losing our greatest generation as well as their stories. To Joe and all like him, thank you. I know you do not consider yourselves heroes, but those of us who benefit from your bravery and sacrifice, do.