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These Vets couldn't go to unveiling
___Uncle Albert Jonikas couldn't make it to the dedication of the World War II memorial over the weekend.
___He's an 84-year-old veteran of the Second World War who saw action in the Pacific — Iwo Jima, Saipan, Okinawa, which was near where the Japanese surrendered — but he doesn't get around much anymore. He's had health problems for some years now, and traveling to Washington from Melrose Park, Ill., where he lives with his wife, Rosalie, would have been too difficult for Uncle Al.
___The $175 million memorial on the Washington Mall, with its granite pillars, although well-intentioned, was built about 40 years too late. It is far from an artistic success, lacking the grandeur of the Vietnam memorial.
___The World War II veterans are in their 70s and 80s, and at their age, not many of them will travel to Washington and see the monument for themselves. Three-fourths of the 16 million veterans who served during the war have passed away, while 1,100 more are dying every day.
___"In another 15 to 20 years, they'll all be gone," Uncle Albert says.
___"It was the last willing war we've had," he continues. "Practically everybody was willing to go because the country had been attacked. I signed up in December 1941 in Waussau, Wisconsin. I was 21 years old and married."
___He was working on his father-in-law's farm without pay, but found a wife as compensation.
___"I thought it was a pretty good deal," he says.
___When he signed up with the Army Air Corps, "there was snow up to my belly button. I didn't see snow again until 1946 because I was in the Pacific. I was paid $21 a month as a buck private. It wasn't enough to get you in trouble. You couldn't spend money on the islands. I saved up $1,000, which is the equivalent of $10,000 today.
___"We were working our way up to Japan. We were on the island of Ie Shima when they surrendered."
___He never brags about his accomplishments, and doesn't complain much, but he says, "It sticks in my craw that after all these years, the (World War II) memorial wasn't built before the Vietnam memorial, and it should have included the civilians who were killed. There were more civilians killed than soldiers."
___Cousin Rudy Feldman, who's 89, is a veteran of the European conflict who didn't make the trip to Washington.
___I called him Sunday and told him I was thinking of him during the dedication of the memorial.
___"You didn't go to Washington for the ceremony," I said.
___"No, I didn't," he answered.
___Then he started reminiscing, the way old people do, going way back.
___He's a former Chicago mailman who lives in Las Vegas, having retired there some 30 years ago. He's a widower with a Ronald Coleman moustache and Holly-wood good looks who enjoys the bright lights of Vegas and the cheap buffets at the casinos — and his mind is as sharp as ever.
___"I was wounded in action," Rudy said. "I got a purple heart. I was in three battles."
___"You heard of the Battle of the Bulge?" he continued. "I was in the Battle of the Bulge."
___He'd been telling me about the Battle of the Bulge going back 40 years, when he'd drop by our house on Sundays. His father and my dad's father were brothers.
___"I used to visit your mom and dad and you and your brother," Rudy recalled. "How are they doing?"
___"They're doing fine," I said.
___"I got shot on the right side of my neck during the Battle of the Bulge," he said. "I was in the hospital for six weeks. I'm very lucky."
___For his brother Sidney, who fought in the Pacific, the World War II monument came a little too late. He passed away last year at the age of 82 after suffering from Alzheimer's, although he could still recall every island he helped capture and the date it happened.
___The monument also came too late for Jack Fogel, a great uncle of mine who landed at Normandy 60 years ago and was killed in action a few weeks later.
___He's buried in the American cemetery in Normandy, where you can see a much less expensive but a more powerful monument to those who fell in battle there. It's a field of crosses and stars of David, which move us far more than the granite pillars in Washington.
___In its stark simplicity, the Normandy cemetery reminds us that it's sacred ground, while the Washington monument is a costly failure that not many World War II veterans will ever see, not at this late date.

 

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