What it means to be part of The Greatest Generation

We wait alongside them in the grocery checkout line and hurry past them on the street. They are members of our churches and grandparents to our children, but how often do we pause to ponder the content of their lives?

As teenagers and 20-somethings, they traveled to distant countries, knowing they might die there, and returned to lives forever altered by their experiences. They risked their lives, left jobs, and cast passions and aspirations aside until their missions were fulfilled.

Indeed, all who served in World War II — in battle or supporting roles — deserve unyielding gratitude, but as each Veterans Day passes, the time for thanks dwindles. We can still shake their hands and hear their stories, but for how much longer?

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the ranks of World War II vets are shrinking by about 1,200 a day nationwide.

A few of those who have retired in the Oak Cliff area take time to recall, for those of us who weren’t there, an era that shaped the world.

If you run into one of them today, it might be the right time to say “thank you”.

“I knocked out about seven Japanese tanks. That was real exciting.” — Jack Armstrong

Jack Armstong’s name appears in the opening sentence of Bill Sloan’s 2007 book about World War II, “The Ultimate Battle”.

Here’s what it says:

“Tank commander Jack H. Armstrong was bleeding from both ears, addled by a concussion and deafened by the shell that had just ripped a jagged 8-inch hole through the center of his Sherman tank, missing Armstrong by a foot or two at best.”

Armstrong was 20 years old, and that was the second time he had been blown out of his tank in the Battle of Okinawa.

Armstrong returned home and ran an automotive repair shop in Oak Cliff for more than 30 years. But at 85, he says he battles post-traumatic stress disorder to this day. Over the years, he didn’t talk about the war much, and he says he endured many nightmares. But now, after six decades, he says he doesn’t mind telling the stories.

He dropped out of Sunset High School to join the Marines when he was 17 (the school awarded him a diploma in 2001) because he was patriotic.

“I saw that movie, ‘To the Shores of Tripoli’,” he says.

Once he left home, he didn’t return until the war was over.

In the 1944 Battle of Peleliu, he used high-explosive shells to knock the turrets off Japanese tanks. His tank was knocked off its track, so he had to sit still and fight.

“I knocked out about seven Japanese tanks,” he says. “That was real exciting.”

Living in the Pacific was brutal in itself, he says. When monsoon season came, he knew he wouldn’t be dry for months. Mud was ankle-deep. They slept in the rain and took meals near the corpses of Japanese soldiers.

Even in their regrouping area, on the island of Pavuvu, it was rough. Land crabs ruled the island, and they would crawl into the soldiers’ shoes and their bunks as they slept.

He fought at Guadalcanal, and afterward, he took time off in Australia, which he loved.

“The Australians gave us clothes, food, shelter,” he says. “They treated us like children.”

His company was preparing to land in Tokyo in July 1945, but as things turned out, they didn’t have to go.

Armstrong had never heard the words “atom bombs” before the U.S. military dropped them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But when he heard, he says he knew the war was over. Six days later, the Japanese surrendered to the Allies.

“You’ve never seen so much celebrating in your life,” he says. “We thought it was like a joke at first.”

Armstrong came home on a ship, which hit a typhoon on the way. The journey took 32 days, and it’s not the least harrowing war story he has.

If Armstrong joined the Marines for a dose of glamour, he got that too. While he was enlisted, he met war correspondent Ernie Pyle, actors William Lundigan and Tyrone Power, Bob Hope, and generals MacArthur and Eisenhower.

Today Armstrong lives in Duncanville with his wife, Oleta.

“When people are wounded and in a room by themselves, no matter where they’re from or what side they’re fighting for, well, they all hate war.” — Bob Barton

Bob Barton joined the U.S. Army in March 1941. About a year and a half later, he wrote home:

“You no doubt have received the more or less bad news of my latest adventure. Yes, I am a prisoner of war in Germany. They have done a wonderful job with my leg (I was wounded but not badly), and I will be walking again soon.”

A B-17 navigator, his crew was on a mission to destroy a fighter-plane factory in Bremen, Germany, on April 17, 1942, when the plane was shot down. Barton was hit in the left leg, and he parachuted to the ground from 21,400 feet.

His chute opened with such a jolt that it ripped off his flight cap, flight boots and shoes, so he landed barefooted and was injured.

A German farmer greeted him with a shotgun, and a group of uniformed Hitler Youth took him into custody.

When an open-bed truck came to take him to prison near Bremen that afternoon, he met another man from his crew who was injured. The pilot had died, and later, Barton would find out that the engineer and four gunners had been killed as well.

Barton’s Achilles tendon had been badly cut, but his wounds were not as severe as those of other prisoners.

The leg became infected and painful.

He received no medical treatment for several weeks, and he was delirious.

Finally, he was transferred to a Luftwaffe hospital in Frankfurt.

“I had gangrene and like to died,” Barton says during an interview at his home at Grace Presbyterian Village. “I almost lost the leg. They had to cut a lot of it away, and I had nerve damage.”

When he awoke from surgery, he was in a recovery room with 12 wounded German soldiers and another man from his flight crew.

“When people are wounded and in a room by themselves, no matter where they’re from or what side they’re fighting for, well, they all hate war,” Barton says. “We became friends.”

His recovery was slow. When he looked at his medical records later, he found that his temperature had been over 105 degrees for several days after surgery.

He was given morphine for pain every day for about two weeks. And when they stopped administering it, he had severe withdrawals.

Back home in Clarksville, Texas, he had been reported missing in action. His baby-faced high-school graduation picture ran in the local paper with two paragraphs speculating about what had happened.

Meanwhile, during his imprisonment, German soldiers taught him conversational German, and he flirted with nurses. They were fed three good meals a day, he says. Breakfast was knockwurst, bread, margarine, orange marmalade and ersatz coffee. For lunch, they ate potatoes with meat gravy, and for dinner, blood sausage with goat cheese and bread. Once a month, they received rations from the Red Cross.

“It was a country club, especially compared to what the POWs went through in the Pacific,” he says.

He was in a prison camp from July 1942 until February 1944, and he expected to stay there until the end of the war.

But on Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m., a German officer came to the door of the room he shared with two other prisoners.

“Lt. Barton?” the officer said. “You’re going home. Be prepared to leave at 8 o’clock.”

As it turned out, he was one of 35 wounded American prisoners of war chosen for “repatriation” in exchange for 35 German prisoners of war. He and the other 34 were the only ones sent home through that process during the entire war.

After sailing 10 days from Lisbon to New York, he was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. He stayed in the Army for several more years after the war ended in 1945. He married his wife, Maureen, at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Oak Cliff, started a family, and had a career with Gulf Oil.

Now, his favorite pastime is baking — cookies, pies, cakes. His wife died in 1998, and he lives with his second wife of 11 years, Rey, and their two Yorkshire terriers.

The leg troubles him to this day, but at 92, he walks just fine.

“We really weren’t ready for war.” — Beans Bates

Beans Bates, 92, grew up in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Oak Cliff.

After taking ROTC at Sunset High School, where he graduated in 1936, he knew he didn’t want to be in the Army. He was certain he would be drafted, so he joined the U.S. Navy in July 1941.

“I was never sorry I joined the Navy,” says Bates, whose real name is Byron — the nickname “Beans” has stuck since he was a kid.

After training, he was assigned a job as a storekeeper on an aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, which set out for Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

“It looked like a mess,” Bates says of Pearl Harbor. “There were ships sunk everywhere, planes blown up.”

His ship had been torpedoed and was undergoing repairs during the Battle of Midway.

At the beginning of World War II, the United States had just six aircraft carriers, and by the end of the war, they had two — the Saratoga and the Enterprise. Four others had sunk.

“We really weren’t ready for war,” he says.

Once the Saratoga was repaired, they set out for Guadalcanal.

“We got up in the morning, and everywhere you looked, there were ships,” Bates says.

A month or two after Guadalcanal, they got into a fight with a Japanese carrier. The Enterprise was hit and badly damaged. That left the Saratoga as the only viable U.S. carrier in the Pacific.

While the Enterprise was being repaired, the Saratoga had to stay out at sea, even though they didn’t have enough supplies.

For 67 days, Bates and his shipmates ate beans and rice for three meals a day.

When the Enterprise finally came back into service, Bates says he and some of the Saratoga crew were able to rest in Tonga. The natives threw coconuts down to them in greeting.

“Boy, we ate that like it was going out of style,” he says.

When the Saratoga was torpedoed again later in the way, Bates says it felt like “you’re in a box and someone’s shaking it,” he says. And it left a hole someone could drive a 10-ton truck through, he says.

The ship dry-docked in Hawaii, and Bates and his seaman colleagues thought they would be island-hopping in the Pacific for years. They thought they would have to invade Japan, and they saw no immediate end to the war.

“They bombed a lot of ships and killed a lot of people,” Bates says of the Japanese. Luckily for him, things didn’t work out that way, and the war ended before his ship was sent to Japan.

Bates left the Navy in 1946, worked in advertising sales at the Dallas Morning News and retired in 1984. He lives with his wife, Billy, at Grace Presbyterian Village.

Read about the Honor Flight of Dallas, an organization that aims to give veterans an all-expense paid, overnight tour to Washington, D.C., to see the National WWII Memorial.