The world lost another hero when George “Bud” Garvin passed away on April 15. But like so many who served in World War ll, Garvin shunned the label.
“I’m no hero,” he’d say.
But how else do you describe a man who quit school and got a job to provide for his mother and younger brother when his father abandoned the family?
What other word fits a man who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, landed on the beach at Normandy, endured the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a concentration camp in Germany as the war in Europe ended?
According to statistics released by Veterans Affairs, World War II vets are dying at a rate of 492 a day. There are about 855,070 veterans remaining of the 16 million who served our nation in World War II.
I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend time with many of these veterans – including Garvin.
I interviewed Garvin in December while working on an article about the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
We met in his home, shortly before he celebrated his 100th birthday. Soft-spoken, but sharp, he recounted his memories of Dec. 7, 1941. Garvin was a 26-year-old Army lieutenant living adjacent to Wheeler Army Air Field when he went outside for the morning paper. “I saw a guy running down the street. He was yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘Take cover! Take cover! We’re under attack.’ ”
As he stood in his pajamas, clutching the newspaper, he saw the first wave of planes heading toward hangars across the street from his house.
“Our airplanes were sitting wingtip to wingtip on Wheeler Field. They caught us with our pants down,” he said. The Japanese pilots “strafed them with machine guns, setting them all on fire.”
Garvin reported for duty and his wife, Fran, was rushed to safety in a convoy that came under fire. From a ditch beside the road, she watched bullets spatter the grass beside her. She survived. The baby she was carrying at the time did not.
Five months ago, on Dec. 7, Garvin bundled up and attended a ceremony at the Pearl Harbor Survivors memorial at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. He smiled and shook hands with Fairchild Honor Guard members and bowed his head in silence to honor the memories of those who lost their lives in the attack.
“He was the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor I have ever known, and, in some ways, the most amazing,” said Carol Edgemon Hipperson, author of “Radioman: An Eyewitness Account of Pearl Harbor and World War II in the Pacific.”
“In spite of his deteriorating physical health over the past year or so, he never lost the cheerfulness that was such a major aspect of his personality.”
Of course, Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of his combat experience. His memories of the battle on Omaha Beach, famously depicted in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” were still vivid. Garvin grimly summed up the battle. “It was rough. Real rough. We lost a few men.”
But one memory made him smile. “The only time I had a motorcycle was in Paris and Germany,” he said. “That was fast living.”
He made a career out of the military, yet his son, Woody Garvin, said, “He didn’t identify himself as a military person or a war hero. I heard almost nothing about his World War II experiences, growing up. Dad just wanted to do the right thing.”
Though he had no experience of being fathered himself, he worked hard to be a good father to his two children. “He was my hero,” his son said.
There’s that word again. The dictionary defines it this way: a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
Sounds like Bud Garvin to me.
I sit with the notes I’d taken during my interview with Garvin. Five pages filled front to back with scribbles and symbols only I can make out. I look at the photo I’d snapped of him that day. I remember the feeling of his 99-year-old hand in mine.
And I can only agree with what Woody Garvin said about his dad, “He was a little guy, but his absence has left a huge crater.”