DADE CITY On the topic of their exploits overseas, the reticence of America's World War II veterans endured long enough to become legendary. Having dispatched, at the time, history's greatest threat to liberty, they came home — those blessed to come home, anyway — to resume, mostly, whatever it was they were doing when the Axis thugs pushed us too far.
Dan Johnson remembers distinctly. Coming of age in south St. Petersburg, the boy who would become John Gallagher's enduring right hand in the administration of Pasco County government learned much about manhood from these fellows who went off to work each morning and came home at dusk; helped out at the Little League field every spring; cheered from the stands on Friday nights every fall; organized camping trips; reserved Wednesday nights for bowling and Sunday mornings for church.
And every Memorial Day, they grilled burgers over real charcoal, serenaded by Indianapolis 500 racecars on the radio. Caught gazing mistily into the distance, the corners of their mouths tugged by something unseen, they'd blame the smoke, then tell you to go help your mom in the kitchen.
“When I grew up, that was just it,” Johnson says. “They all served, and they didn't think anything special about it. That was just what you did.” Oh, they could talk all day about other stuff, but you'd have had to visit the stone giants on Easter Island to find anyone with less to say about dubya-dubya-two.
Then came Tom Brokaw, the NBC Nightly News anchor, whose visits with American veterans at Normandy 50 years after D-Day confirmed his suspicion that there could be news in stories a half-century old. “The Greatest Generation,” Brokaw's profound, defining bestseller, rearranged Johnson's thinking.
Maybe they did all serve, those simple, stoic guys in his neighborhood and 10,000 others just like it. But when at last they sewed on their patch of the narrative quilt, what was revealed was by turns horrifying and glorious, brutal and inspirational, hopeless and triumphant. How was that not special?
“If it hadn't been for what they did,” says Johnson, “I mean, this was a world war; it was global — we wouldn't have anything we do, the freedoms we enjoy, the abundance we have.”
Carol Lorenzi Logue, Johnson's longtime county colleague, was always similarly struck. The daughter and mother of Marines separated by 60 years apart, Logue adores the lad, 24-year-old Steven Logue, but she worships her late father, Edward “Rocky” Williams, an otherwise bricklayer in Albany, N.Y., who slogged through the Pacific Islands from Iwo Jima to Guadalcanal.
“He was just a gorgeous Marine,” Logue says. “They were, and still are, the greatest generation.”
American troops who turned the tide of war have dwindled to a comparative handful, down from more than 16 million in uniform at the conflict's peak to slightly more than 1.46 million, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Soon, their silence will again be total, inspiring in Johnson a sense of urgency about the World War II memorial and bandstand on the northeast corner of the historic Pasco County Courthouse Square. Dedicated on Flag Day 59 years ago to all who wore the uniform and called Pasco County home — the names comprise a treasure trove of county roads, neighborhoods and landmarks — the monument encompasses 14 quarter-inch thin Masonite panels on which 1,857 names are painted.
And it's showing its age,the panels growing increasingly brittle, split, cracked, faded and crumbling behind sheets of Plexiglas. One is even cratered near its center, the result, Johnson suspects, of absorbing a bash from a reckless skateboarder.
Worse, fearful of the panels' fragility, no area sign-maker will even attempt repairs. Not that repairs would be fitting, considering. Instead, allied with Logue and her successor, eastside county secretary Mary Lecznar; Dade City's ubiquitous Pete Odom; and Hampton Inn owner Piyush Mulji, Johnson proposes to restore the memorial using polished granite engraved with the veterans' names.
As Pasco's former assistant administrator for public services, Johnson's expertise includes estimating the costs of unusual projects. He puts the price of this one at $50,000. Commissioners recently agreed to match private donations up to $25,000.
The rest is up to us. The Pasco County clerk's offices in Dade City and New Port Richey are accepting (tax deductible) donations to the World War II Memorial Restoration in person, by mail and, in the case of credit cards (a 3.5 percent processing fee will be assessed), over the phone.
Instructively, none of the organizers has a family member listed among the 1,857. But by their careers and by their choice, they are bound to the county defended by those veterans. They have decided this is a debt they owe.
If you agree, you know what to do.