BIDLACK: Final salute — and thank you

Author: Hal Bidlack - February 23, 2018 - Updated: February 23, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

I never had the honor of personally meeting Lt. Jim Downing, USN, in life, but I knew about him. He was the oldest surviving service member from the attack on Pearl Harbor on that long-ago December day. We lost Lt. Downing last week, at the remarkable age of 104. He was a proud Coloradan and back in 2015, when he was only 101, I played a small role in Lt Downing’s trip to Washington DC, to be the guest of Sen. Michael Bennet at that year’s State of the Union address. Like my own WWII veteran father, when I looked at pictures of Lt. Downing, I saw the face of an old man, making it hard to remember just how young they once were. At five score and ten, in some ways Lt. Downing was no longer the 27-year-old who faced the Japanese attack. But in a more important way, he was a reminder of the Greatest Generation and the sacrifices they made.

Lt. Downing’s experiences on December 7, 1941 are worthy of a movie, as are the exploits of thousands of other servicemembers and civilians that bloody day. Downing, assigned to the USS West Virginia, had to ignore the hundreds of bodies, most of whom he knew, that had already made the greatest sacrifice for country, to fight dangerous fires. The young officer played his hose on stacks of ammunition, in hopes of keeping the rounds from exploding and causing further death and destruction.

On that same day, my father, only 21, was a young enlisted man in the Army. Raised on an Iowa farm and drafted before Pearl Harbor, Russ Bidlack left college to put on the uniform of his country. His military journey would take him to a variety of postings around the country, until he received a visit from a mysterious Captain Fogg, who asked my dad, who had a spotless record, if he would like a new job. My dad said yes, sight unseen, and thus found himself assigned to the most secret program of WWII, the Manhattan Project.

I’m quite sure Lt Downing and MSgt Bidlack never met, but they were part of a generation that we are losing rapidly. Of the roughly 16 million Americans that served in uniform, less than 2 million are left today, as men and women in their 80s and 90s, or as in the case of Lt. Downing, their 100s. The VA estimates we are losing those veterans at a rate of 400 – 600 per day. Somewhere out there is WWII’s Frank Buckels, who was the last living WWI veteran until his passing in 2011. It is difficult to imagine the sense of aloneness that awaits that final survivor. I hope he or she is surrounded by family as well as a grateful nation.

As a Captain, I had the honor of saluting a former USAF Academy janitor, who for years never told the cadets he served that he was a Medal of Honor recipient named William Crawford.  A few years back, I was able to meet and talk with Drew Dix, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War, who continues to serve to this day, running a foundation to promote core American values.

But as we recall these now old men and women, we must also remember that we are served by each generation, who were, or still are, young.

In 2014, I attended an event honoring a new Medal of Honor recipient from Colorado. That meeting may have been the most powerful of all the MOH recipients I have met, because he was the first one I met who was still in his youth. As I read over the remarkable story of his heroism, I realized he performed profoundly gallant acts when he was younger than my own youngest child. Bravery often seemed more logically packaged in the bodies of old men from deeds performed decades before. But not in this case. Here I looked into the eyes of someone so young and yet so valiant.

I am rapidly approaching my 60th birthday and am now nearly 12 years away from my own retirement from the military. I am regularly reminded that bravery does not skip a generation. My own father’s contributions lay dormant in the diaries he left after his own death in 2003. I am now working on a book about this Iowa farm boy turned soldier. And like the millions of others who served with him, all too little is remembered of the sacrifice.

And so to Lt. Downing and my father, and to all those of that era and to those that came before and after, I say thank you, and Salute. I promise to remember.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.