Today I helped celebrate Veteran’s Day by singing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” with a company choir at work. We had two ceremonies to honor veterans at our two main buildings. I was proud to be a part of this celebration, and proud to honor those who served, and are currently serving.
The military was not my path. I was hounded by recruiters when I was a senior in high school, but never even considered it. I wasn’t the military type. Thank goodness there wasn’t a draft at the time, and I could make that decision. However, my family has a military history, starting with my Grandpa Renken, who served in World War I. He spent some time in France, but according to him, never ranked higher than a buck private, and never really saw any fighting. I have a photo of him in the army on a bookshelf to my left. He’s holding a gun, and looks very young. I can only imagine what was going through his mind at the time.
To my right is a photo on the wall of my dad in the army. It is his formal portrait that was taken upon his graduation from basic training in World War II. Dad was newly married with a child on the way, and was working at Caterpillar in East Peoria at the time. Cat sent a lot of tractors overseas for the war effort, and they needed men to work on them. So upon receiving his draft notice, my dad went through basic training in Louisiana, then joined the 497th Engineer Battalion as a diesel mechanic. He spent a little time in California, then was shipped overseas to Burma, where he spent the next three years. My sister was born in October, 1942, and my dad didn’t see her for the first time until April of the following year.
Like my grandfather, Dad said that he never really saw any action. His contribution to the war effort was to help build roads. In fact, he helped build the famous Lido Road in Burma, which lead to the bridge over the river Kwai. For three years, he lived in a tent in the jungle, far from civilization. He once told me the only enjoyment they had was trying to catch monkeys in the jungle and get them drunk. When he was honorably discharged in 1945, he had reached the rank of Tech Sergeant. Dad told me that when he got off the train in Chicago, he got a ride with a trucker that took him all the way to Minonk. After he got home, he packed all of his uniforms and army gear in a trunk, and tried to put it all behind him.
My stepfather was also in the army in World War II, and also was fortunate enough to stay far behind the lines. He worked in a mess hall in the Philippines. He told me about how much he hated being away from home for so long. When he received word that he could go home, his commander told him he could leave whenever he found a plane that would take him. One night, two pilots came in to the mess hall for dinner. My stepfather asked where they were going, and they said they were flying to the mainland at 3 in the morning. If he wanted a ride, he had to be on time. He said he went to his tent packed his bags, and didn’t sleep all night because he was afraid of missing the flight. When he finally pulled into the train station in Chicago, he hitched a ride with a truck going down Route 66. He rode as far as Dwight, then walked the rest of the way home to Streator…about 15 to 20 miles.
My sister’s husband was in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, he once told me that he was sitting on a plane ready to take off from Paris Island in South Carolina, in full gear, ready to invade Cuba. Everyone was very quiet until they got the order to stand down. I can’t imagine how relieved they must have felt at that moment.
So even though the veterans in my family never saw any dangerous fighting, I’m amazed when I hear of the hardships they had to endure, especially compared to the cushy life that I lead. I think of them everyday as loved ones that I miss terribly. But today, I honor them as veterans, and am proud of the sacrifices they made in the name of freedom.