It was a candid “open microphone” comment before I went into an interview with this World War II veteran at a campaign event for Ilario Pantano. I knew what Bob meant, and it broke my heart.
Bob was attending the grand opening of an expanded headquarters space for Pantano for Congress. The candidate is the GOP nominee for North Carolina’s Seventh District of the U.S. Congress. The office is situated at 2250 Shipyard Blvd., Suite 10B, Wilmington, NC.
Ilario had introduced us moments before, saying, “Bob’s an amazing guy and a great friend. He’s been there.”
“There” was Bob’s war. Normandy shortly after the D-Day landings. The liberation of Paris. Fighting through Belgium and Luxembourg. The Seigfried Line. The Battle of the Bulge.. The German blitzkrieg.
Many times, on many a chaotic battlefield, Bob – in those earlier times, in his youth -- had thought the same words that slipped out just before our interview: “I don’t have much time left.” That was in war. Now, in 2010, it is not war, but age that is stalking him.
A total of 16,112,566 individuals were members of the United States armed forces during World War II. There were 291,557 battle deaths, 113,842 other deaths in service (non-theater), and 671,846 non-mortal woundings. As of September 30, 2009, there were approximately 2,272,000 American veterans still living.
The ranks of these survivors are thinning at an increasing rate. Approximately 850 American World War II veterans die every day. The median age for a World War II veteran in February 2009 was 86 years.
So I sat with this wonderful unassuming American hero – a plain-spoken New Yorker now living in Wilmington – a dues-paying member of the Greatest Generation, aptly named by Tom Brokaw.
As an active and enthusiastic volunteer for Ilario Pantano, Bob speaks to groups about the war. He wants them to know what it was like. Not to shame them, but to remind them of the price of freedom.
“I talk about the sailors at sea, whose ship goes down, and lay in unmarked graves under the ocean, and the airmen shot down, and for me, as an infantryman. I told them that when I dig a foxhole, I don’t know if that’s going to be my grave or not. I may have dug a hundred foxholes in France, and had the same thought every time.”
Bob’s humility is genuine and endearing.
“After I got through with my talk, the people applauded. That surprised me. But it was great to know they understood. That meant a lot to me.”
Why is this remarkable American patriot at a campaign program for a Republican candidate approximately fifty years younger than he is?
“I’m here because I believe in what Ilario Pantano stands for. The United States is losing a lot of our freedoms, and I want Ilario to go to the U.S. Congress and get America back to its roots – a country of the people, by the people, and for the people – so that we can live in peace again. And may that happen. Oh, God, I hope it does.”
Bob wrote a book. It’s a good one. Honest, matter-of-fact, full of his personal stories of battles -- horror, loss, victories, courage, and his buddies in the 28th Infantry Division. Some survived. Many didn’t.
“I’m not a hero,” Bob reminded. “The heroes are the ones who didn’t return. They paid dearly. I just gave them time. Yes, I was fighting over there. But they gave everything. I came back.”
This is a statement made by many survivors of combat. There is almost a hint of guilt that they did not die too. Maybe those who returned from any and every war will never be totally relieved of this feeling while on this earth. It’s futile to tell them otherwise – that they fought valiantly, and owe nothing more. But they do know and respond graciously to true expressions of appreciation.
We owe them this.
“World War II, As I Lived It”, by Robert T. Bradicich, is the story of Mr. Bradicich’s experiences in World War II, in Europe, 1943 – 1945, while serving as a rifleman with the 28th Division, 110th Regimental Combat Team, Company ‘E’ ASN 32885196. It is a compelling personal story, and is illustrated with both color and black-and-white photographs. Copyright @ 2000 by Robert Bradicich. For information about copies, contact the author at Bobb7@atmc.net.