Long Island's vets are our living history

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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William Nedwick sat in his wheelchair, blue eyes as clear as they were serious, as he told of his time at Nagasaki.

Nedwick is a Navy atomic veteran, one of the few left from a group of sailors and Marines that landed at Nagasaki in September 1945, four weeks after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city.

"I was there at the second most historic event in the history of the human race" -- second only to Creation, Nedwick, 91, of Glen Cove, offered at one point. "We created the unthinkable, the atomic bomb, and with it the power to annihilate the entire human race."

There was no easy way, in the light, airy meeting room of the Long Island State Veterans Home last week, to digest the significance of what Nedwick was saying.

He was not telling history. He was giving a powerful lesson from having lived that history.

Nedwick was one of many veterans crowded into the community room on Friday to commemorate Memorial Day. He had friends who died in the war, and, like other veterans in the room, said he's never forgotten them.

Long Island has more than its share of war veterans, and many of them, like Nedwick, are advancing in age. Nonetheless, this year, as always, you'll see veterans like him in celebratory Memorial Day parades and at somber wreath laying ceremonies across the Island.

Thanks in large part to Vietnam veterans -- who made it their mission to give Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan war vets the kind of homecoming they themselves were denied -- Americans now routinely thank veterans for their service.

That gratitude extends well beyond the traditional boundaries of both Memorial and Veterans Day.

As it should.

But across the nation -- and especially on Long Island -- there's opportunity to do even more. Let's call it Memory Day. And let it be celebrated any day, any time of year.

How?

Ask any vet, who is willing, to tell their stories, talk about their experiences, to bring back adventures with their lost brothers and sisters at arms.

No book, no television special can substitute for a veteran's living, breathing testimony about events that significantly shaped the course of the nation's history.

The region is lucky: Veterans are everywhere, a legacy of the migration of servicemen who made Long Island the nation's first and most famous post-World War II suburb.

Many had children and grandchildren who followed in their footsteps. As a result, there's an unusually deep, rich and wide vein of experiences to learn from.

Julius Freeman, 86, of Queens, the last surviving Tuskegee Airman in our area, shared his stories from the World War II "Red Tail" fighter pilot unit with students at Merrick Avenue Middle School in Merrick last week.

And in December, several of the region's Pearl Harbor veterans gathered at the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale for an annual ceremony where a chaplain blesses one rose for every year since the attack.

In the Stony Brook veterans home, the Memorial Day ceremony attracted local veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan -- generations of servicemen and women, and their families, coming together.

Kenneth Cox, 93, of Westbury, was in the Army signal corps. He didn't let a pacemaker and a broken hip stop him from rising from a wheelchair to stand for the wreath-placing ceremony.

"I want to show respect because we are all dedicated to the same thing," he said. "One by one, in different branches of the service, we all responded to our government's call to defend the country.

"I am proud of that," he said.

Cox brought a birthday card for his friend, Carmine DiMare, who, braving hails of gunfire, stormed the Normandy beach.

Nearby, John Blankenship, 83, who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars as a pilot, considered the holiday's meaning. "I lost friends, and God was good enough to spare me," he said.

As we remember this weekend, we can also learn.

"There were no trees, no grass, no people; it was really weird," Nedwick said of his first few moments in Nagasaki. "You felt like you wanted to run, but where? There was nowhere, there was nothing."

As Jonathan Spier, the home's associate administrator, said: "People love to watch the History Channel. Here, the history is real."