By the time you read this the body of Joe Dent, 92, former Sergeant, U.S. Army will be laid to rest in a cemetery in Hebron, Connecticut where he lived.
If Joe's name isn't familiar to you, that is your loss not his. We often hear about Americans who flooded the military recruiting offices after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December, 7, 1941, but Joe had a somewhat different story.
He had already served in the US Army in the 1930s and was honorably discharged years before America entered WWII. But Uncle Sam tapped Joe on the shoulder once again and requested his return to active duty. Joe, who at various times in his life was a cowboy and a bull rider - as opposed to bull throwers which are much more common - responded without complaint and re-entered the Army.
He survived World War II, including 7 months of combat in the Battle of New Guinea. This battle actually was divided into several phases that went on from 1942 to the end of the war in 1945 in some places. As a major land mass just to the north of Australia, New Guinea was strategically important because it was suitable for all kinds of military bases including air fields.
Joe didn't talk much about the war when he went to Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion meetings at the veterans post in Hebron. He was more prone to talk about doing something right because it was the right thing to do.
For instance, he was well known to Hebron's veterans, politicians, and municipal workers alike for his constant attention to the status of the various American flags in town including those flying at the schools, Town Hall and the town green. If a flag was tattered, if it was flying at night without the requisite light shining on it, if if was damaged, if it was flying at full staff when either the governor or president had ordered it to be at half staff, someone would get a phone call.
One such person was John Tuttle, past commander of American Legion Post #95. "Hey Tuttle," the call would go, "the flag at the center is at half staff. It's supposed to be back at full staff. Get someone to take care of that will ya?"
And just like that, the problem would be corrected. Joe was also the driving force behind the VFW's annual Buddy Poppy sales to raise funds for local veterans in need. But he didn't just chair the committee. He also visited the locations where the poppies were distributed a week before Memorial Day each year, literally inspecting the troops and making sure they all were presentable.
Dent never asked people to shape up. He told them to shape up. Joe Dent was a sergeant and sergeants usually don't ask when they can give orders instead.
In recent years Joe was suffering from cancer and unable to make most of the meetings of the veterans organizations he belonged to, although he would move heaven and earth to attend the annual Memorial Day parade and ceremonies in Hebron. But as part of the Veterans Day ceremonies that took place this November, Joe was named the first Veteran of the Year by his peers.
He was honored at a packed Veterans Breakfast hosted by the local Senior Center, and the news media gave him great coverage. His photo was on the front page of the local Bulletin, in full color, and he gave a great interview.
In an impromptu speech to the gathering Joe told of the difficulties encountered in fighting the Japanese in New Guinea and made no effort to hide his disgust toward the former Japanese military society that gave no quarter and treated prisoners of war with extreme brutality. Like many of his generation Joe was not prepared to deal with the savagery of a centuries old military structure that considered defeat or surrender a disgrace that was far worse than death.
Joe was close to death at that breakfast but as many of his friends and comrades noted, "He sucked it up; he toughed it out." In his speech Joe also noted that he had a soft spot in his heart for the US Marines, having shared the South Pacific combat theater with Marine units. Which is probably why the Marines in Hebron who knew Joe had a soft spot in our hearts for him.
When my book on the Marine operations in Vietnam, Masters of the Art, came out in 2005, Joe bought one copy, read it, and then bought another to give away. He called and told me, "Winter that book told it just like it was." I told Joe that I had encountered some criticism from some who thought the language in the book was too salty - profane in some cases. "What did they expect, that's the way we talked," he responded.
I'm glad I knew Joe, and happy that he was named my community's first Veteran of the Year. I can't think of a more fitting way to say a final goodbye to a true American patriot, a man who served selflessly and never asked for anything more than the right to live in freedom, which he proudly fought to preserve.
At his wake, on Wednesday December 15, dozens of veterans took part in the joint funeral services by the VFW and Legion. Joe was eulogized by VFW Post #8776 commander Ron Parkyn, American Legion Post #95 Commander Joe Fetta, Post #95 chaplain Warren Holbrook, and past Post #95 Commander Tuttle. Tuttle read Joe's list of decorations, the first of which was the Army Medal for Heroism.
We had never heard Joe speak of that medal or how he earned it, but it was no surprise to any of us that he had earned it, and wore it proudly but quietly. There was no shortage of volunteers to act as pall bearers at his funeral today.
His passing is sad, but not tragic. He lived a full and honorable life and will be remembered that way. I suppose I should point out one other factor regarding Joe's death.
He died this past Sunday night, December 12, as the vicious storm that dumped heavy snow and high winds on much of middle America finally arrived in New England. The snow that collapsed the roof of the Minneapolis Metrodome stadium forcing a relocation of the Giants-Vikings game, and raised havoc throughout the Midwest, came to New England as rain due to a warm southern air flow.
Instead of snow we were hammered with torrential rains and high winds.
As the storm raged Sunday night, the call went out around 10 p.m. - Joe had finally succumbed to the cancer he had fought for years. Oddly enough, another call went out at nearly the same time. The flag on Memorial Green had been damaged by the high winds and would need repair. Someone would have to get out there and retrieve the flag and put it safely away until the pole was fixed.
I know what you're thinking and you're probably right. Those two events were probably just a coincidence and one had nothing to do with the other. On the other hand ...
Thursday, December 16, 2010