WWII’s last legion: Their final roll call

Retired Army Col. Paul Farineau, who volunteers with Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care, salutes George Yankowski, 97, in a ceremony at home that drew the whole neighborhood. Yankowski died six days later.

They are the men and women who came of age in the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, then went off to fight in the Big One.

They are the men and women who came home from that war, ignited the baby boom and built the most dominant economic powerhouse in the world.

Their children — today’s retirees — are the most educated and wealthiest generation in American history.

“To some generations much is given, of other generations much is expected,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, five years before America’s entrance into World War II. “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Today, few of those who fought in the Great Conflict remain to tell the tale. Fewer than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II

are alive today, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fewer than 8,000 are projected to still be living 10 years from now — when the youngest will be 102.

It is a last legion that stands as a witness to history in veteran strongholds such as The Villages, where 1 in every 6 residents has worn an armed forces uniform, compared to 1 in 15 nationally. The Villages leads America in veterans per capita of all metropolitan areas that aren’t home to a military base.

Yet, even as the community marks 75 years since the war’s end, the number of final salutes is accelerating.

Through a rigorous analysis of census data, voter rolls, military club rosters and exhaustive door-to-door canvassing, the Daily Sun confirmed 233 World War II veterans still living in The Villages last Pearl Harbor Day.

In the year since, 25% of them have died.

“The standard is World War II, the sacrifices of all of those Americans,” said retired Air Force Col. Don Hoover, of the Village of Glenbrook, a Vietnam War veteran, who later survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, where he was in charge of the Air Force air rescue and survival program.

“We are mere dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants.”

During the past year, the Daily Sun attended Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care ceremonies for three such giants.

The program includes a quilt, pin, certificate and an outpouring of respect.

On Feb. 19, when retired Army Col. Paul Farineau came to present the honor to George Yankowski, 97, he found a home full of more than 100 people.

Yankowski lay smiling in his den, surrounded by medical equipment as his heart was failing, but looking, as everyone said, very much like himself.

The home displayed the modesty imbued into World War II veterans — Yankowski’s Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and French Legion of Honor medals hang in the laundry room next to memorabilia from his professional baseball career.

Like other everymen of his generation, he was a bit of an unlikely hero.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he didn’t even make the Watertown High Raiders baseball team until his junior year. But his tenacity drove him to the 1939 All-Scholastic state team as a catcher, and he went on to play at Northeastern University, drawing the eye of the legendary Connie Mack.

In 1942 at age 19, the same year he made his major league debut for the Philadelphia Athletics, he married his high school sweetheart, Geraldine Molito.

Newlywed life was short lived: The winds of war were raging, and “it was a little more important than baseball,” he said.

In 1943, he did get to play in an all-star charity game at Fenway Park coached by the mighty Babe Ruth.

“I hit a ball off the wall in Fenway, and Ruth put his arm around me and said, ‘Good hit, kid,’” Yankowski said. “That was pretty neat.”

But within months, he was in the thick of battle, fighting across France as a sniper in the brutal Battle of the Bulge.

Lasting six grueling weeks, the forest assault took place in frigid winter, with 250,000 German soldiers against a mere 80,000 freezing Americans.

“It was terrible fighting in that winter,” Yankowski said. “I never thought it would ever, ever get warm again.”

The tide turned Christmas Day when the skies finally cleared.

 “What a beautiful sight that was,” Yankowski recalled. “Blue skies and hundreds of vapor trails from our planes destroying German tanks.”

The U.S. Army suffered more than 75,000 casualties, and Yankowski earned the French Legion of Honor medal for his sacrifice.

“There are some pretty famous people who have gotten this award,” he said. “Eisenhower, Patton ... and me? What did I do to win the war? The guys who won the war were the ones who paid with their lives.”

His last months of service included encounters with survivors of the Nazi death camps. A first-generation American raised by Polish parents, he knew an aunt had been sent to one, but he never learned her fate.

Post-war life mirrored that of millions of other World War II veterans: briefly returning to the Athletics, finishing a degree in business administration and playing for the Chicago White Sox until 1949.

He taught business education at Watertown until 1965, also working as a guidance counselor and head baseball coach.

He and Geraldine raised six children, including a son who was captain of the football and basketball teams and a son and a daughter who joined him in the Watertown Hall of Fame.

He lived as a widower for 15 years after Geraldine died of pancreatic cancer in 1983. But like most men of his generation, he was wired for long-term commitment. He fell in love again with Mary, a widow of 12 years with four children of her own.

They shared 20 years of marriage.

They shared military balls and a retirement that included 58 cruises.

And they shared a love that led her to pull a portable cot next to his hospital bed in their den, where they slept holding hands until the night he slipped away.

“I guess you want them to live forever, you know,” she said. “And then he was just gone.”

Cornerstone has performed nearly 2,200 hospice ceremonies for Villages area veterans since starting the program 10 years ago, according to Mindi Brock volunteer specialist.

They don’t have to belong to a certain military branch.

They don’t have to have fought in combat.

They don’t have to know what day it is.

Or even be conscious.

More than once, an unresponsive patient has tried to salute their fellow veteran at the ceremony’s end, Brock said.

“Sometimes you’ll see the breathing change, you’ll see a foot move, you’ll see them blink their eyes.” 

Retired Army Col. Dave Johnson remembers performing a ceremony for a veteran who couldn’t move his arms. As he saluted, the veteran called his wife to pick up his forearm so he could salute back.

“I got tears in my eyes on that one,” said Johnson, 80, of Village Santiago.

Ceremonies can be planned in advance or in just hours.

Volunteers have been known to drop their own birthday parties to rush to a declining veteran’s side.

It’s an angel’s errand, Farineau said.

“I have an opportunity to be the last military person who will thank them for their service,” said Farineau, 78, of the Village of Bonnybrook. “It’s not like a person meeting them in Walmart when they’re in their World War II hat saying ‘thank you for your service.’”

Johnson agreed.

It’s vital that the salute mean something, he said, it’s a military gesture of respect that a veteran may not have received in a while.

Johnson got involved in the program after attending a ceremony for a friend. He has conducted about 25.

Farineau, one of the program’s first volunteers, has conducted 432. 

“It’s really a happy ending for them,” he said. “And 99% of the time, it’s the beginning of closure because they know once you enter hospice, you’re usually getting the diagnosis of passing within 6 months.”

Over time, he’s memorized a script, installed software that lets him print out ceremony materials at home and stocked the console of his car with pins.

The two top shelves of his closet are filled with quilts neatly stacked and wrapped in plastic bags — each year The Villages Quilting Guild delivers about 200.

Farineau and Johnson always arrive in uniform.

While not required, it can be impactful.

“When we have dementia patients, they may not recognize the (company) polo shirts we have, but they’ll recognize a uniform every time,” Brock said.

She remembers an instance in an assisted living facility with a veteran who was suffering from dementia so severe he would not speak or leave his room. When he saw the Cornerstone volunteer in a uniform walk by, he walked out of his room, stopped in the hallway and saluted.

A certified nursing assistant began to cry.

The patient, she said, didn’t even remember his name.

On July 22, Cornerstone volunteer Chris Salerno, a former Army chaplain, found himself conducting his second pinning ceremony “a little by default.”

Salerno doesn’t typically perform this honor, but today was a special exception.

He’d met World War II veteran Louis Salerno (no relation) in Cornerstone’s care. They had the same last name, and both had lived near Philadelphia. The pandemic was keeping volunteers from going into patients’ homes, and the chaplain didn’t want his new buddy to miss out.

“I have a heart for people of that generation,” he said.

Louis Salerno, 94, an Army technician fifth grade who fought in the icy hell of the Battle of the Bulge, today required the use of a wheelchair during the ceremony. 

Dressed in his Villages Honor Flight polo shirt, he wore his World War II cap despite the summer heat.

 “No person was ever honored for what they received,” the chaplain began. “Honor has always been the reward for what individuals have given.”

His words rang clear on that silent, muggy day. There was no traffic to interrupt, no barking dogs.

That was good, because Lou Salerno has trouble hearing. He’s also recovering from an eye stroke and nursing a bad heart. And sometimes his memories get fuzzy.

In 1943, at age 17, Salerno decided to drop out of 11th grade, fudge his age and enlist.

“It was the thing to do,” he said. “It was wartime. I wasn’t doing too good in school, and I figured this was my best way. I didn’t know any better.”

His family wasn’t happy about it, but they understood.

Like most Depression-era families, they were struggling in Eastwick, Pennsylvania, in a home in which Lou and his younger sister were growing up without electricity or running water.

His trip to basic training in South Carolina was the first time he’d been on a train. Yet months later, he was fighting in the icy hell of the Battle of the Bulge, where Life magazine photographed him guarding prisoners at work collecting dead bodies.

In the bitter cold, six-week battle, Salerno’s feet turned black from frostbite, though he later regained circulation.

“I had the same clothes on the whole time I was over there, I never changed,” Salerno said with a chuckle. “Same socks. I had a lot of close calls, but I made it,” he said.

He was in a French hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds in his legs — which doctors would still be removing two decades later — when he learned the war was over.

After his release, he spent some time as a guard at a laundry facility in Nuremburg and flirted with working as a military police officer in Detroit.

But he was eager to reenter civilian life.

He worked at a Philadelphia printer making the dialing instructions on New England pay phones.

Frugality is a core value of World War II veterans, and Salerno sold a boat he owned for $1,200 to finance a 114-acre farm he bought in Delaware for $32,000.

He played the organ, mandolin, guitar and a little bit of harmonica with his uncle and father in a band called “Sloppy Tones,” and he managed to pay off the farm within a few years.

Five years after the war ended, he married a young secretary named Madeline, and they spent 30 years together before she died of cancer.

He sold the farm and moved to Clayton, Delaware, where he met his second wife, Virginia, at an airport cafe. They were married for two decades and relocated to Elkton, Maryland, before she also died of health complications that included dementia.

What does Salerno miss most about her?

“Everything.”

While he never had children, Virginia did.

It was her son, Harry Barnes, who convinced Salerno in 2017 to join him and his wife in The Villages.

“We couldn’t leave Lou there alone,” said Barnes, of the Village of Palo Alto. “He was too good to my mother.”

Salerno settled in the Village of Country Club Hills — his Purple Heart and European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three Bronze Stars tucked somewhere out of sight.

In the weeks after his hospice ceremony, his health declined and he moved in with his stepson who set up a hospital bed in the living room.

But that move wouldn’t last long either.

In October, he began to need round-the-clock care and moved into Chatham Glen Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center.

On Veterans Day, the community invited its veterans outside, under an overhang away from the light rain, for a special recognition.

Many, like Salerno, were seated in wheelchairs.

Brian Lake, a clinical liaison with Cornerstone and himself an Air Force veteran, presented them with certificates and pins.

He had a full schedule that day, as Cornerstone had lined up 557 veterans in Lake and Sumter counties.

The group at Chatham Glen was on the smaller side, and Lake insisted on saluting each veteran individually.

It’s more respectful than a group salute, he said.

Slowly and cheerfully, Lake made his way around the semicircle of veterans, stopping briefly to acknowledge each one.

Salerno though, drew him up short.

His baseball cap, and the words “World War II,” stared back at Lake.

“World War II,” Lake said. “My goodness.”

He bent down and gave Salerno his second Cornerstone pin.

“You are an icon, sir,” he said.

And then, straightening, Lake saluted.

Five years ago, The Villages was home to around 1,000 World War II veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a starkly different reality than the fewer than 200 left today.

In a community wallpapered with veterans, it’s a major loss.

“We’re losing a generation of heroes without whom America’s success would have been unthinkable,” Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Navy veteran, told the Daily Sun. “We run the risk of allowing what they did for the world to fade from our collective memory. We must resolve never to forget, and to recognize that our freedoms are a result of their sacrifice.”

What will America look like once this foundation crumbles?

One thing is certain: The majority of the country’s leaders will come from the civilian world. In 2012, for the first time in modern American history, neither major presidential candidate possessed any military experience.

Seven U.S. presidents were World War II veterans: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Today, neither the outgoing nor the incoming commander in chief has served in the military.

World War II veterans such as Sam Walton and Douglas Dayton became titans of industry, founding mass merchandisers like Walmart and Target.

World War II veterans such as Medgar Evers, Ralph David Abernathy Sr. and  Jackie Robinson led the fight for civil rights, in professional sports and other areas.

Racial repression and bigoted attitudes, infuriated not only Black World War II veterans but also many of their White comrades, said G. Kurt Piehler, Florida State University associate professor of history and director of the Institute on World War II & The Human Experience.

“They were real eager to change things when they returned,” he said. “They didn’t experience the same patterns of segregation in Europe or Asia like they did in the United States. They didn’t want to live in a world of Jim Crow.”

World War II veterans such as Robert Beale, of the Village of Hadley, changed societal attitudes by becoming educators.

“For World War II guys who saw action, it was a sobering experience, a lot of time, you don’t express it in words, maybe just emotionally,” said Beale, 95, who was a teacher, coach and administrator in Broward County for 30 years after serving as a Marine. “My impact on young people was telling them the truth, being fair and honest with them, trying to be genuine, taking the time when a kid had a problem, being patient.”

Civic engagement has never been higher than it was in the post-war years.

Compared to the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 1.4 million now comprise the active military, according to Department of Defense data.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Donald Hansen developed a desire for public service from the example of his father and two uncles who served in World War II.

“In many ways, that’s the reason we went in,” said Hansen, of the Village of Charlotte, a Vietnam War veteran and president of the Lake & Sumter Counties Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America. “Most of us coming into the military at that time had parents who served in World War II.”

That drive powered an economic engine unlike anything the world has ever seen.

“The main thing that they brought back, when they came home from war; they were sick and tired of war, of seeing death, of hearing about friends killed and wounded,” Hansen said. “They came back with a hunger to thrive. They wanted to get back to work, to get involved. And they definitely did.”

U.S. gross domestic product grew by 23% from 1947-50 and a stunning 68% from 1947-55, according to federal data. Disposable personal income grew a whopping 68% from 1959-70.

Piehler added that not only did veterans’ experience with training and camaraderie uniquely prepare them for the world of work and challenges of life, but millions of small-town kids came back with a broader, more worldly view.

“They were forced to become a little more cosmopolitan, even if they retained their parochialism,” he said.

America is losing a deep well of wisdom as these veterans fade into history, said Jim Renner, of the Village of Bonnybrook, who co-founded The Villages World War II History lifestyle club.

“The one thing that we don’t have today, which obviously they had, is that sense of patriotism,” he said. “Even though they worked in many military specialties, they all had a common cause. That’s the one thing about today. The sense of the common cause is not there. Unfortunately, the further you get from the common cause, the further you get from the oneness that’s there. People have drifted from the commonality to more individualistic.”

He said it’s one way The Villages, with its high concentration of veterans, stands apart from other communities.

“There’s just a respect that people here have for them.”

No one was more committed to seeing their family life succeed as World War II veterans were, Piehler said.

“We’re losing great individuals who not only led during wartime but also made significant contributions to community and family,” he said. “Look at families now. The number of the nuclear families is significantly less now than after World War II. Very seldom did you see families without both parents.”

The veterans of World War II and the Korean War spent an average of 7% of their lives in the military, according to census microdata. Their baby boomer children spent only 4%.

“It’s a generation overall that had strong values, not just of hard work, but what it took to make a nation,” Piehler said. “They understood each other even if they disagreed on a lot of issues. There was this common bond that they served. There was this remarkable common ethos that they understood each other.”

Those changes are not lost on U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Naples, a Navy veteran whose stepfather was a World War II combat paratrooper.

“I am awe-inspired by what he and others did to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” Scott told the Daily Sun. “My dad, and others like him, are the very fabric of America.

They endured a great deal of hardship, but never gave up on the American dream. They knew freedom is fleeting and worth fighting for. They are the foundation of a country that always yearns for more, for better. We must never forget their sacrifice.”

On Aug. 17, Johnson was back on his Cornerstone beat, passing under a sign that read “Peace to All Who Enter Here” in a Village of DeSoto home.

Inside, a small group of friends and family waited with Henry Trumbower.

He’d only been in The Villages a week, but that was long enough for Cornerstone to organize a celebration.

The Army Air Corps veteran could use a win, given how hard things had been lately.

Trumbower, who turned 103 just last week, had just arrived at his little sister’s home after a string of miserable events.

The pandemic had confined him to isolation in a Melbourne assisted living community when he developed a painful hernia. He’d hoped doctors would operate, but his age dissuaded them.

He was then mistakenly sent to a rehab facility, isolated again and unable to speak to his family on the phone.

His move to The Villages with his sister, Ellen Miller, 83, was a rescue operation, he said.

It was a fitting gesture for someone who’s spent a lifetime being the big brother.

The oldest of nine children, Trumbower was born in Zion Hill, Pennsylvania, and the four living siblings “never have arguments or problems,” his sister said.

He excelled in math at his one-room schoolhouse, but it was life at his grandparents’ farm that was really exciting. He loved to follow his grandfather around and help him curry the horses, bring in the cows and use a hand pump to water them all.

Trumbower skipped a grade, graduated high school at 16 and majored in chemistry at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

He found work in a lumberyard and met his future wife, Elaine, who lived next door.

Trumbower was drafted at age 26 before they could tie the knot. But they got that done on his first leave.

There was no cake in the small church ceremony, but there was a honeymoon in “a big prestigious hotel” they got for $5-$10 per night because there was no demand during the war.

His academic aptitude served him well: He applied for meteorology training, graduated as a second lieutenant and was sent to Stewart Field in New York to help teach West Point graduates how to fly.

The assignment allowed Elaine, who had been living with her parents and continuing her job as a secretary, to live with him instead of taking the train to visit on his days off.

He retired as a captain in 1946 and worked as a meteorologist at Eastern Air Lines in Miami until 1982.

He and Elaine raised three children and enjoyed a whirlwind of RV trips before her heart gave out in 2004 after 62 years of marriage.

Her death came one week after their home was destroyed by Hurricane Jeanne.

Despite his trials, Trumbower doesn’t ask for much. When Johnson arrived, he tried to shrug off the honors.

“I feel just not worthy of you coming here, because I guess there’s a stigma if you didn’t get out of the United States,” he said.

Johnson doesn’t let talk like that stand.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he tells veterans who object along those lines. “You did what they told you to do. You followed orders. What you did was important. You don’t have to carry a rifle on the front lines to call yourself a soldier or a veteran, because every job in the military is important.”

Trumbower took comfort in his words, saying he’d wear the pin proudly and treasure the quilt made by an Allamanda Quilters member.

Miller smiled at that gift for her brother; she’s a member of the Allamanda Quilters herself.

Miller said her brother is “like a new person” since relocating to a community peppered with veterans.

A few weeks after the ceremony, his girlfriend, Deena Macdonald, 91, came to visit.

The two met through the Military Officers Association in Vero Beach, where Macdonald lives, and they’ve been an item since 2012.

“He is the most gentleman’s gentleman you’ll ever meet in your life,”  she said. “He’s always the first to help a lady with a chair or a door. Everyone loves him.”

The visits have kept coming.

His son has visited from Maryland and his daughters have driven down from North Carolina.

But not everything he enjoys about life has been possible in a time of pandemic. Instead of attending church, he logs onto his iPad to listen to pastor Jim Spanogle of Concordia Lutheran Church in Micco.

“We gather in all the places that we are to celebrate new life, to celebrate hope,” Spanogle began during a recent service. “Hope for today and hope for our future and for the future of all humanity. We are apart, and yet we are together.”

Trumbower says The Villages is “a utopia” that illustrates that ideal.

“If there were more places in the United States like The Villages, the whole country would be much better,” he said.

Just to drive the point home, the community made his birthday on Nov. 25 unlike any other.

About 2 p.m., Trumbower was escorted to a chair in the driveway under a banner that read “Happy 103rd Birthday Henry WW II Vet” and balloons decorated the yard.

Then the golf carts arrived.

A few days earlier, Miller had posted on social media post about his birthday, asking if anyone would be interested in a golf cart parade.

And oh, they were interested.

About 60 golf carts streamed past the house, honking horns and bearing “Happy Birthday” signs. Some played music and waved, while others tossed cards into an open box on the curb.

“Happy birthday!”

“Thank you!”

“Thank you for your service!”

Trumbower sat there, repeating over and over that he couldn’t believe it, his hands clasped together or waving, a dazed and pleased smile on his face.

When he looked through the cards later, he realized that almost every one was from a stranger.“I just can’t imagine,” he started.

His brother-in-law just laughed. “You’re in The Villages,” he said.