Saturday, November 10, 2001

Piece of paper shows we remember

        Fifty-six years later, he takes the handkerchief from his pocket and touches it to his eyes. That faraway look you sometimes see in veterans comes over Tommy Rose. He's visiting a place he'd just as soon forget, only he can't. He doesn't want you to come with him.

        “Okinawa was a rough one,” he says.

        He didn't go there, but his seven best friends did. They were all Army corpsmen stationed in Hawaii in May of 1945. They trained stateside together, learning to fix broken soldiers fighting in war. They hitch-hiked into L.A. from Camp Pendleton on weekends and dreamed about girls back home. They had been inseparable.

        Then they got the call to Okinawa. All of them except Tommy.

        “Wasn't long until they were all on the casualty list,” Tommy says. “Ten days, I b'lieve.”

        Ten days. They were here, and then they weren't. The Japanese soldiers must have seen the red crosses painted on the green battle helmets, as the corpsmen moved to the front lines to tend to the broken. “The enemy didn't care. They just wanted to kill Americans,” says Tommy. Ten days from here to eternity.

        “My buddies' names was up on the bulletin board. We checked it every day.”

        Tommy has lived in the same house in Loveland for 44 years. That puts him a little behind Paul “Pappy” Hahn, who has lived in town all of his 78 years. They started calling him Pappy in Europe in 1944, when he was a 21-year-old machine gun corporal in the 255th Field Artillery.

        Pappy broke three bones in his back jumping out of a barn when he was 7. The bones might have healed properly if Pappy had gotten them set, but he didn't. He has spent six decades slightly bent forward, looking older than he is.

        Pappy fought in the Battle of the Bulge. “People getting killed,” he says. “Bodies flying everywhere.” He will show you a book about that battle. It contains photos of men he served with. He remembers their names.

        Pappy contracted hepatitis in France in 1945. He landed on a hospital ship in New York harbor on V-J Day. He hides his war scars behind a white beard and an easy laugh. “I believe in having a lot of laughter,” he says.

        For nearly half a century, Pappy and Tommy have lived just a few miles from each other. They've never met, until now.

        They'll be together today, at a ceremony at Loveland High School. The government is doing a fine and good thing for Tommy and Pappy today, Veteran's Day 2001. It is doing it for them and thousands like them, in at least 30 states. The government is giving them the high school diplomas they never got, because war intervened.

        It's useful now to remember that half a century ago, boys became men in the service of their nation, no questions asked. Some never came home. Those who did were forever changed. They earned a different sort of education. It's sculpted on their faces, creased by tears of pride and memory.

        It's just a sheepskin, a roll of paper to hang on a wall. But it tells them we haven't forgotten them. Heaven help us if we ever do.

        After serving in the occupation forces in Japan, Tommy returned home in 1946 and stayed married to the same woman for 53 years. They raised six children. Beulah died six years ago. Next April, Tommy will remarry a girl he knew from his hometown in Kentucky.

        Pappy still works as a barber, $7.50 for a man's haircut, in a three-chair shop in downtown Loveland. He has been married 56 years, raised six kids.

        They were ordinary men, made extraordinary by the circumstances of their lives. On Sunday, they'll get a token of gratitude long overdue. Tommy has already decided how he'll dress for the occasion.

        “I was thinking about some patriotic colors. Red blazer, blue tie, white shirt,” he says. “I think that would be good.”


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