“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” – President John Kennedy, October 1963
Sherwin Callander was there for the start of U.S involvement in World War II, and had a front row seat for the opening act of its final chapter as well. The 98-year-old Navy veteran has the rare distinction of having been stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, before taking part in the D-Day invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.
“They were both bad,” Callander said, “and we lost a lot of good people.” Now living in Madison, Alabama, Callander will be in Normandy next month when the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
However, this could mark the last major D-Day milestone that Callander and many of his fellow warriors will live to see. That’s because we’re losing our World War II veterans at an alarming rate of about 348 per day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 500,000 were still alive in 2018. The youngest of these heroes are almost all in their mid-to-late-90s at this point. Soon, the voices of the “Greatest Generation” will be forever silent.
They put their lives on hold and answered their country’s call when it needed them most. So, while we can, we should make certain to honor them for saving the world from tyranny.
Callander enlisted in the Navy in 1939 after a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was aboard a supply ship returning from Wake Island when the Japanese unexpectedly struck Pearl Harbor, killing roughly 2,400 people on a day that President Franklin Roosevelt would later characterize as “a date which will live in infamy.” Arriving in Hawaii the following morning, Callander and his shipmates were horrified at the carnage, but helped pull the many dead and wounded Americans from the water. “We pulled into Pearl Harbor and had to clean up the mess that was left,” he said.
The experience inspired Callander to go to Virginia to be trained on the Higgins boats used to deliver combat troops ashore. He took part in the invasions of North Africa and Italy in 1942 and 1943, respectively, before making several trips to shore under withering enemy fire to deliver U.S. soldiers onto Utah Beach on D-Day.
“Normandy was a rough one,” he said. “There were dead and wounded everywhere, but we were told not to help anybody. We were to get back to the ship as soon as possible because we had to get more manpower on the beach.”
Callander said that day was one he’ll never forget. “They were expecting us and were dug in,” he said. “The first three waves of soldiers, I don’t think they made it 10 feet after reaching the beach. The water was blood red for about 10 feet out. We finally got a foothold, but man, we lost a lot of people.”
Callander, who will be in Normandy when he turns 99 on June 4, left the Navy in 1945 and went on to enjoy a wonderful life that produced seven children, and more than 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He was among the many World War II veterans who returned home and immediately resumed their lives following the war’s end. Many went back to school or got married and began raising families. It’s a testament to just how much time has passed that their children are the Baby Boomers now old enough to be passing into retirement themselves.
Callander, who speaks to groups of young people on occasion, says it’s his hope that more young Americans of today might serve their country in uniform as he so proudly did. “Freedom is not free,” he said.
It’s a sobering fact that Callander and his contemporaries knew all too well. And we’re all the better off for it today.
John D. Hollis is the communications manager at George Mason University and author of “Sgt. Rodney M. Davis: The Making of a Hero.”
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