Something to celebrate on the 4th of July

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Three Sergeants: Sgt. Dennis Anderson, Staff Sgt. Franklin Branagh and Sgt. Henry Hearns at the Memorial Day Veteran Pinning Ceremony. (Courtesy photograph)

It always seems the shortest stretch of time between Memorial Day and the 4th of July, the time measured between one barbecue get-together and the next.

On Memorial Day weekend, at the William J. Pete Knight Veterans Home in Lancaster I was able to share a little quality time with Palmer Andrews, a World War II Marine who served in the Pacific under the legendary leatherneck, Chesty Puller.

Andrew’s wit is dry when he recalls how he came to serve with one of history’s most iconic Marines. “He said, ‘You. You’re coming with me.'” And off they went on a long patrol, which meant a lot of death, and danger.

So, tomorrow is the 4th of July. On July 4, 1776, George Washington was not in Philadelphia with the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was with the troops in New York, preparing for the fight that would secure this nation’s future.

So, with the 4th of July, 2019 fast upon us, I was grateful this past week for brief visits with a couple of Army buddies. One was Henry Ochsner, 96, veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, veteran of D-Day, of the defense of Bastogne, and the capture of Hitler’s Alpine redoubt, the Eagle’s Nest. Henry honored me with a brief visit on his way back to California City, with his bride, Violet, who recently turned 91. They met in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, and have been together ever since.

I was also able to spend a few moments with Charles P. Rader, 96, of Lancaster. As a U.S. Army Air Corp technical sergeant, Rader was awarded the Silver Star in 1944 for the role he assumed in helping to land a B-17 Flying Fortress that sustained heavy battle damage from a Nazi fighter plane. Rader, the top turret gunner, helped the command pilot land the plane.

“The bombardier was so badly wounded that he would not have made it if we hadn’t gotten him medical attention,” Rader said, a week before the Independence Day holiday.

They spotted a rocky field in Yugoslavia, and picked it for the spot to crash-land the stricken aircraft. With the command pilot landing the plane from the co-pilot’s controls, Rader assisted, and then ensured the rest of the 10-man crew evacuated the wounded bird. Those actions, and fending off the Messerschmitt while the Nazi pilot blew away his turret, were worth a Silver Star — And more!

“The minute we got out, we were surrounded by the meanest looking fellows you’ve ever seen,” Rader said, with a laugh.

Luckily, they landed in territory held by anti-Nazi Yugoslav partisan fighters. “We saw a tent with a Red Cross,” Rader said. That is how they saved the bombardier’s life. And that is how Charles “Charlie” Rader is with us to share the story 75 years later.

Just a short time ago, on Memorial Day, U.S. military veterans of all eras, wars and conflicts were recognized in a “pinning ceremony” at the Ellison John Transitional Care Facility. It’s a long name for a skilled nursing facility that takes time out to recognize its veterans. The ceremonies were arranged by one of the group’s executives, Diana Dee Cook.

Among those recognized was Franklin Branagh, 93, who like Rader, served in the Army Air Corps. Like the Tuskegee Airmen, Branagh was a black man who served in a still-segregated military. His journey took him all the way to the Pacific atoll of Tinian. He told me he was serving with ground troops when the Enola Gay took off with its world-changing lethal atomic bomb. He was there when the war ended after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering in the end of World War II, history’s most massive and deadly conflict.

On Memorial Day, Branagh, who was frail, did what it took to don an Army service uniform, and was wheeled in for the pinning ceremony. He was joined by Bishop Henry Hearns, mayor emeritus of Lancaster, also an Army veteran of the Korean War.

“We were just two brothers who served in the Army,” Bishop Hearns said.

A small crowd of more than 50 veterans and their loved ones gathered at the pinning ceremony, and Branagh saluted when he was recognized. “I would do it again,” he said.

Last week, on a visiting round, I learned Army Staff Sgt. Franklin Branagh had joined the ranks of the thousands of World War II veterans who are leaving us forever.

I felt gratitude for the World War II buddies who were with us. And I feel a little light go out each time one of them leaves.

On July 6 and 7, at the Palm Springs Air Museum, memorial observances are set for Lt. Col. Robert Friend, who was 99, and one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Reading a Valley Press column about the Tuskegee Airmen brightened the day for former Army Air Corps Master Sgt. Charles P. Rader, who could think back and remember 75 years vividly.

“They were the Red Tails,” Rader said. Rader’s B-17 heavy bomber squadron was based in Italy during the final year of World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were also based in Italy.

Rader smiled, and said, “We loved the Red Tails. We knew that when we were flying in our bombers, they would do their best to keep us safe!”

That is what puts the value in the service of veterans. On any day, or night, the job they have is to do their best to keep us safe.

That have been doing that since before July 4, 1776. And that is something to celebrate on Independence Day, July the 4th 2019.

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group who works on veteran and community mental health issues. An Army paratrooper veteran, as editor of the Antelope Valley Press he deployed as embedded journalist with the first California National Guard unit sent to the invasion of Iraq.