By Dan Wilcock
When Roy Menning was 19 years old, he hitchhiked from Minneapolis with his best friend Harold to New York City to see the 1939 World's Fair. The two wandered saucer-eyed around the city, checking out bizarre exhibits such as the "Perisphere," an orb as wide as a city block that sat alongside a 700-foot-tall needle. Almost penniless, the two young men ate cheap meals and slept in the park one night upon discovering their flophouse was infested with vermin.
Exhilaration and change mingled in the air with the smells of fried sausages and fresh popcorn. Four years earlier, a group of New York businessmen had decided to host one of the largest world's fairs of all time to lift the nation out of the Great Depression. They called the fair "The World of Tomorrow." And for some fleeting moments wandering the city, Menning says, it did feel like change for the better was possible.
But that reverie halted, dead in its tracks, by the flashing newsreel lights scrolling across the New York Times building in Times Square: "GERMANS INVADE POLAND." Staring up at the headline, Menning was struck. He knew America would be heading to war, and he wanted in. Later, after Pearl Harbor, he became an Army pilot and participated in America's first bombing raid over Berlin. He moved to Colorado Springs five years ago.
Menning is 84 years old now -- broad-shouldered and still handsome but in gradually failing health. He is a rare man. Meet a World War II veteran these days, and count yourself lucky. More than 16 million men and women served America's military during World War II. Of the 15.7 million who survived, less than 4 million still live today. According to the 2000 Census, 5,561 of them lived in El Paso County. Nationally, every day more than 1,000 veterans from history's most far-flung and deadly war die.
The daily loss of World War II veterans in 2004 averages out to about one death a day in El Paso County based on population estimates, and 13 deaths each day statewide. But these statistics do not tell the story of what will be lost when the World War II generation says its final farewell.
To understand that loss, you need to talk to men like Menning -- and his friends Henry "Hank" Becker, Tom Hetherington and Terry Salt, who are members of a club called the Argonauts. The all-male by-invitation group that meets frequently at the Valley Hi Restaurant in Colorado Springs isn't exclusively military or partisan. Rather, it's a group of "ornery independent old-timers" with an average age of 73. About 50 of the group's 147 members fought in World War II.
You can learn a lot about how America has changed by talking to these men, who grew up before video, the Internet -- and refrigerators.
"The kids would all climb on the back of the ice truck to get ice chips," Becker said of his childhood in Denver. "It was a small city," Becker said, "and very neighborhood oriented and provincial." Horse-drawn wagons delivered his family's milk and ice. With most of America still buckled under the weight of the Great Depression, kids created their own games in the street.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars held picnic lunches and invited the entire city. Elitch Gardens was a small amusement park in North Denver -- a far cry from the current downtown Six Flags park. "There was no professional football team or basketball team," Becker said.
Becker decided to stay in Denver after high school, matriculating at Regis University as a tall and skinny freshman in the fall of 1939. He was there when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
"Everybody was seriously affected," Becker said. "All the young guys together felt the same way. The thing to do would be to get into the service."
Becker enlisted in the Navy in February of 1942 and was deployed in the Pacific Ocean in January 1944 as a minesweeper. His crew, the Pacific Mine Fleet, moved step-by-step in advance of island-hopping American forces moving toward Japan.
Becker and many of the soldiers who traveled through crystal-clear blue waters, white-sand beaches and deep-green forests of the Pacific theater called it a "beautiful hell."
His crew would use sweeping cables attached to cutting blades in the water that separated Japanese contact mines from their weighted tethers. When the mines popped to the surface, Becker destroyed them with gunfire. His crew also destroyed magnetic and sonic mines with a variety of tools and got lucky. Despite a dangerous job navigating mine-infested harbors and dodging incoming gunfire, no one on his ship was shot.
But he came into contact with American wounded frequently enough to hold no illusions.
"The worst was Iwo Jima," Becker said. The wounded had fought a grisly battle to secure the island's black-sand beach. "Many of the guys, sand had gotten into their wounds," he said. "It was hot... and the water was warm and it wasn't even palatable."
For a few months in 1945, Becker prepared for a final showdown with the Japanese. He'd been stationed on the Bonin Islands east of Japan and it looked like an invasion of the mainland would be inevitable. Then, in the summer of 1945, America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was over.
How to handle a piss-pot
"A lot of people got very drunk real fast and almost passed out the day we got the news," said Hetherington of Colorado Springs, about learning America had dropped A-bombs on Japan. Hetherington, then a tough young man who'd survived a hardscrabble childhood in Butte, Mont., and had been drafted into the Army's 33rd Infantry Division in 1943. He had become a squad leader in Philippines by the time news of the atomic bombings arrived.
"We thought we'd have to fight the dogs and the cats and the wives and chickens if we ever got to Japan," Hetherington said. And by then, Hetherington had learned the horrors of island warfare.
During the war, guys like Hetherington earned the nickname GI Joe -- a term coined in a 1945 film, The Story of GI Joe, about war correspondent Ernie Pyle who followed American soldiers in the Pacific and died on a small island near the Japanese stronghold at Okinawa. Infantrymen were crude and crass but effective despite the harrowing nature of island invasions. "A tent was a luxury," Hetherington said. "We were usually on our own in the jungle."
Among the teeming trees, the Army-issue helmet, or "piss-pot" became a soldier's best friend. "I learned to take a helmet full of water," he said. "First of all you shaved in that helmet water, then you bathed in that helmet water, then depending on the circumstances, how much was left, you washed your socks out."
But the experience of island warfare did not extinguish Hetherington's desire to serve his country after VJ Day. He joined the Montana National Guard in 1946 and wound up serving again in Korea. He returned to active duty in 1965 as an administrator during Vietnam. "The Army put their size 12 boot right in the middle of my back," he says with a smile. "To me, the big green machine was a worthwhile experience." He finished his military career at Fort Carson in 1978 and decided to stay in Colorado Springs where he took up work as a drug and alcohol counselor before retiring in 1990.
Inside the bomber
Salt, born in Minneapolis in 1921, flew bombing missions in a B-24 Liberator all over Europe. "My war was how cold it was," Salt said about the icy temperatures inside the bomber. "How cold it was would be like going into a cold storage locker and staying six to eight hours there." He flew missions over Italy, Austria and Poland. Like Hetherington, he also went on to serve in both Korea and Vietnam -- as an artilleryman in howitzer units in Korea and as a researcher in Vietnam.
He retired from duty as a lieutenant colonel in 1969 and settled in Colorado Springs, taking a job as a math teacher. In 1979, he ran for county commissioner as a Republican and won. He retired six years later.
Along the way, he and his wife of more than 60 years had six children. "Our kids thought we were square and too tight," he said. "But there hasn't been a one who didn't come back and say thank you."
Salt, like many of his generation who grew up during the lean 1930s and then fought in the war, places great value in thrift and modesty. "We were so badly shot up, we had almost a derogatory feeling toward medals," he said. "I don't think we're heroes," he added. "We just grew up and did what we had to do.
The 'can-do' generation
"Americans approached [World War II] as a job," said Dennis Showalter, a history professor at Colorado College and author and editor of numerous books on World War I and World War II. The young Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and came into adulthood during America's colossal postwar economic expansion experienced the war, almost uniformly, as "something that needed to be done, to be finished," Showalter said.
"There's nothing wrong with America Hitler can fix," became a popular expression among pragmatic Americans during the war years, Showalter said. Americans were less driven by ideology than people of the Axis nations, he said. A hard work ethic -- forged during the Great Depression -- became readily apparent in America's postwar rise to prominence.
"World War II marked the emergence of a middle-class society," Showalter said. "It made us a nation of homeowners and college graduates."
A look at economic statistics confirms Showalter's point. America's military production juggernaut during the war helped to more than double the nation's gross domestic product between 1940 and 1944, lifting Americans out of the Depression. The GI Bill, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, began paying college tuition for some 7.8 million returned World War II veterans -- roughly half the total number of surviving veterans. More than ever before, the battlefield ranks were offered a shot at joining the management ranks of business at a time of blossoming prosperity.
Roy Menning took advantage of the GI Bill to attend the University of New Mexico for two years before heading to the College of Optometry in Chicago. He worked as an optometrist in Albuquerque for nearly 50 years before moving to Colorado Springs eight years ago, working part-time as an optometrist here until he was 79 years old.
But before his successful postwar life, Menning saw white-knuckle action in the skies over Europe and hoped every day for it to end. He completed 50 missions, including a D-Day diversionary bombing raid from Russia to Romania and the historic first bombing raid on Berlin in March of 1944.
Married just before deployment, Menning hurried home in the summer of 1944, relieved to be able to join his wife. He almost didn't make it. The plane that would take him home lost its engines and crashed on a Miami runway. Miraculously, he survived.
Watching his three sons grow in a comfortable home with all their needs taken care of, Menning was keenly aware of the changing times. "We had to struggle when we were kids," Menning said, describing his generation. "We appreciate how great this country is."
But that sense of America's greatness and the need to accomplish faded with the rise of the baby boomer generation -- the demographic tidal wave of persons born between 1946 and 1964 -- Menning says. "I see the difference in my own children," Menning said. "They don't see the need to struggle."
Not only did the ambitions of many Americans change in a newly prosperous America, says Colorado College professor Showalter, the perceptions American society began to dramatically alter after World War II. "Successor generations," Showalter said, are "prone to the notion that something within the core of American society is fundamentally wrong." This can be seen, he says, in the rise of the Vietnam War-era peace movement and post-Watergate journalism and politics.
But despite Menning's sacrifices for America, Menning does not think America's government is always right. About Vietnam he said, "It was a mistake, but it's easy to say that with hindsight."
About the current American war in Iraq, he also expressed mixed sentiments. "I thought it needed to be done," he said, about Iraq. "But I don't like the results."
He also doesn't view his generation as fundamentally different or necessarily the "Greatest Generation" -- journalist Tom Brokaw's affectionate term for the World War II generation. But he does wish younger Americans would show more patriotism.
"I haven't lost my faith in America," he said. "I've visited many countries and you know the most common question I get?" Menning asked, pausing a couple of seconds. "How do I get to America?"
Long live the Argonauts
If you mention the number of World War II veterans that die each day, all four men will invariably nod their heads in silent acknowledgment.
They, more than anyone else, know the human face of those statistics. They have already seen almost all of their wartime friends pass away. And with each passing, a universe of stories is lost. Life spins faster and faster each year with new technologies, 24-hour news, hip-hop, punk rock and many other trends that leave them behind.
But these men know a lot about the passage of time and societal changes. Their stories link our frenetic life in 2004 to a time when a bottle of Coca-Cola cost a nickel and that's all a guy needed for a date on the town.
These men know these things, but they do not mope. In fact, some of them show a youthful glimmer of excitement. "We're going to see some unbelievable change in the near future," said Becker. "I think they'll have a colony on Mars in the not-too-far future."
But even if that doesn't happen, Becker says, one thing is certain. "There's been a lot of change," he said. "There'll be a lot of change, and I don't think it'll ever be any different."