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City Lights: One more reason to be grateful to vets

September 26, 2012|By Michael Miller
  • Harold Tor, a World War II veteran shows off his medals that he received after more than a half century at his home in Huntington Beach in June.
Harold Tor, a World War II veteran shows off his medals… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

A few years back, the Los Angeles Times wrote a moving story about the death of Britain's last-surviving army veteran of World War I. No, that's not a typo. The man's name was Harry Patch, and he passed away at the age of 111, breaking his country's last surviving link to the nearly century-old war.

Reading the story, I was struck by how much of an everyman Patch seemed — and, given his unusual circumstances, how iconic he became in others' eyes. The former machine-gunner had been feted by governments and celebrated by England's poet laureate; when he died, the prime minister declared that the country was mourning "the passing of a great man."

To borrow a line from Shakespeare, some people are born great, others achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. Patch, who was a teenage apprentice plumber before being drafted in 1916, probably had no inkling that his country would view him as a priceless resource 93 years later. But the simple fact is, someone must be the last of any group to die. And when they do, a chapter of history goes with them.

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I thought of Patch on Labor Day this year when I visited an annual picnic held by American Legion Huntington Beach Post 133. The post comprises veterans of many wars, and those from World War II, in particular, are thinning in ranks. That notion is disquieting to me personally — when I was growing up, members of the Greatest Generation were gray-haired but robust, and Baby Boomers were just inching into middle age. Time hurries on.

At that picnic, I learned that two members of Post 133 are writing memoirs of their military experience, which they plan to self-publish. Will their books have a wide readership? Without a major publishing house, perhaps not. But each one is a precious resource, a firsthand account of a time whose witnesses, increasingly, are few and far between.

One of those authors, Milton Cook, is already seasoned at self-publishing. In 2008, he put out "That's the Way the Ball Bounces," a recollection of his experiences as a military policemen in the Army Air Forces. Right now, he's working on another memoir of his time in the Navy after World War II. The title for that one: "That's the Way the Buoy Bobs."

Cook, who is nearly 90, spends about two hours a day writing when he can manage. He enjoys the craft, but doesn't expect the book to be hugely profitable — he knows from experience how hard advertising can be.

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