YONKERS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Bagpipes echoed in Yonkers City Hall last week in tribute to a handful of citizens.
They would tell you they’re just regular folks — modesty is part of their fabric. But their mettle was tested in the crucible of combat.
With the world consumed in flames — the flames of war — they rose to meet a great evil. Their country sounded the call. They answered, united, and helped shape the world we know today.
As time marches on, more and more voices of the World War II generation have become silent.
The proud sons and daughters of Yonkers bore witness to history. They saw the worst of humankind and the best.
Walter Plaut, 92, though, was not born in Yonkers. His family escaped Nazi Germany in 1936.
“We’re of the Jewish faith, and my family was persecuted in Germany, although we were very fortunate — I think most of them came out alive. A lot of them did not,” Plaut told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams. “And this was like a vendetta for me.”
He was barely 18 years old. He enlisted with the Army Air Forces and served in North Africa and Italy.
“When you read all the atrocities that were happening around you, etc., you say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to me. Gotta do something about it,'” Plaut said. “And my motivation was doing something about it. The easiest way was to join the military.”
Carl Davies joined the Navy. He served 39 months in the Pacific Ocean as a quartermaster second class aboard the battleship New Mexico.
The ship endured two kamikaze attacks.
“The concussion came in through the port hatchway, and it killed the skipper,” Davies said. “And I was face-down behind him because that was my battle station. … He was killed. I didn’t have a scratch. It just wasn’t my time to go.”
He said in the chaos, explosions, smoke and flames, there was no time to cower, no time for fear.
“My job was to steer the ship, so I had to get back to my battle station,” he said. ” … You’re dazed, I’ll be honest with you. You’re in a fog. But whoever was alive after the damage was done, you had to collect your thoughts, and we got back to normal again.”
Lawrence Hughes was just 18, a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He jumped on D-Day and fought the long slog to Berlin.
“I was amazed with all the buildings bombed out,” he said. “It looked like a mess, but I imagine it looked beautiful in its day.”
He said it’s true what has been said: War is hell.
“I’m glad it did get over when it did because it was an awful thing fighting your way there,” Hughes said. “It’s not a thing you want to think about or see again.”
Once home, Hughes went to his father’s bar for a drink. And then he got on with his life. He married his sweet girl, Bernice, 66 years ago. They had four children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Time, though, has not healed all wounds. His wife said he doesn’t like to talk about carrying a fellow soldier on his back, only to find out he had died.
Hughes’ advice to younger generations: “Learn to live with one another instead of always arguing and fighting. Keep the peace is the main thing. Keep the peace, because war is hell. I lost good friends.
“I hope these young ones today don’t ever see a war. It turns you, from a little saint to a devil.”
Tom Brokaw long ago dubbed them the “greatest generation.” Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano concurs without a doubt. He bestowed medals of gratitude and heartfelt thanks.
“They are modest,” he said. “They do have a sense of duty, and they have love of country. They’re committed family people. They really are the finest example of what America has to offer to the world, and I think that that’s something that we’re losing, and it’s sad in a way. But hopefully we’ll continue to learn from them and strive to be more like them.”