The 1940s saw World War II, the ’50s had the Korean War followed by Vietnam, and most recently, the War on Terror. Wars continue to impact generation after generation.
Those honored as part of the U.S. Military fought for our country and stood in the face of danger, representing the millions call America home. Today, there are more than 18 million veterans in the United States.
Throughout Veteran’s Day week, we’re honoring the men and women who put their lives in danger, some during the most tragic times in world history.
They protect our country and the freedom we enjoy today.
Here are their stories from across generations.
December 7, 1941: “A date that will live in infamy,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressing the nation one day after Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We’ll make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us,” he said.
Harry Long, 95, vividly remembers that stark declaration the day the U.S. joined its allies in World War II.
“Next day I thought, ‘I gotta enlist,'” said Long. And he did, a few months later on his 18th birthday.
Long was among a rising tide of young men who rushed to sign up for battle throughout the war, and especially when the U.S. suffered losses.
He earned his wings in April 1944, later serving as a First Lieutenant in the Ninth Army Air Corps piloting a B-26 Medium Bomber.
“We had a couple madmen in the world then,” said Long.
Italian fascism lined up with Nazi Germany—a moment in time he will never forget.
“We had Mussolini dictator, then we had Adolf Hitler dictator and they were planning on taking over Europe and, eventually, the U.S.,” he said.
Long’s air medal is just one valiant reminder of his 33 combat missions in Germany.
“We bombed smaller stuff like bridges and railroad switching yards,” said Long. “A couple times, our spies, so to speak, got word there was going to be a concentration of German troops in a certain area and we were sent to an area like that.”
He flew mostly low-level attacks, around 10,000 to 12,000 feet, but back then, radar was in its infancy. Long turned that to his advantage.
“It took the German 15 seconds of tracking you on their radar to get your altitude, speed, heading and all of what they needed to fire off a shell at you,” said Long.
So, he timed his turns just right.
“If we weren’t approaching the target where we could still have room to turn a little bit, about 20 seconds, we’d turn her over like this and look out the side window: POW! POW! POW! Right where you would have been, see. And we thought that was sporty,” he said with a chuckle.
Still, the enemy attacks were relentless.
“We had minor damage to the aircraft from flack, six consecutive missions in a row. Thank goodness nobody in our crew got hit,” he said.
Long says the U.S. had better odds of hitting targets because of the Norden Bombsight: a U.S. secret weapon to target the bombs. One of them can be found at the Naples Museum of Military History.
“They were trying to impress on us if we ever got shot down, or gone down, to try and destroy it. It wasn’t that secret,” he said.
And that accurate, too.
“It was hooked to a needle in our cockpit by our flight instruments and it told you to go left or right a little,” he said. “With a good bombardier, he could almost drop it down a chimney if we wanted to.”
The U.S. and allied crews flying the B-26 dropped a total of about 150,000 tons of bombs in raids over Germany by the end of the war.
Long remembers those years vividly, especially because the entire country came together for one mission.
“There was no division in the country during WWII,” he said. “I’ve never seen this country like that before and since.”
Long went on to fly for the airlines for three decades after the war. He knows he was lucky to be alive when so many lost their lives.
He pointed to the “death march” toward the end of the war; a time when German troops forced POWs to march west for hundreds of miles in brutal winter conditions with little clothing or food.
Long’s boisterous voice grew quiet when he thought about the many soldiers who died a torturous death on the march.