Leland Felton, 95, flipped through a scrapbook Monday of photographs he took during his service in World War II. Young, handsome and bespectacled, Felton, who was a 27-year-old doctor at the time, sent the pictures of daily life to his wife, who remained stateside in Seaside, Calif., and the son who had not yet been born when Felton left for the Pacific Theater.
As his ship left the harbor in 1944, he looked back at the shore, Felton recalled. Even 68 years later, his eyes grew moist at the memory of that moment.
"You could see the roof of the house where she lived. You don't know if you're coming back," he said.
He did not get to see his son until the boy was 2 years old.
This Veterans Day, on Nov. 12, Felton and veterans living at the Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto will be honored for their military service. They'll have opportunities to tell their stories of those harrowing wars and enjoy patriotic songs. Each veteran and widow of a vet will receive roses.
"Veterans Day is a time to stop and recognize the men and women who have made and continue to make a difference by serving our country. ... We want to show them that they are truly appreciated," said Gerry Vadnais, executive director of the retirement community on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life.
Sitting in a comfortably decorated apartment, Felton and Herm Shapiro, 89, another World War II veteran, recently took time away from their busy family lives to discuss their military service. Both men are veterans of World War II.
Felton was born in San Francisco. His father owned a series of businesses with varying degrees of success: a fruit farm in the East Bay, then a grocery store, a market and a liquor store in San Francisco, he said.
He attended the city's schools, including Lowell High School and University of California, San Francisco Medical School. It was the Great Depression, and he signed up for a U.S. Army military course. The military had offered an extra $5 to $6 a month to medical students, which was eagerly accepted during those dire times, he said.
After completing his medical studies, he was sent off to war. He worked in field hospitals in the Philippines and Japan, which looked much like the MASH unit seen on the television series, he said. He was in the army from 1944 and stayed after the occupation of Japan into 1946.
The photographs he sent home are personal, and they reflect a physician's interest in humanity: families huddled in hut doorways, water buffalo, farmers tending to vegetable fields. Felton and his army buddies stand shirtless, pipes jauntily dangling from their lips. There's an insider's view of the officers' club and photographs of the rubble at Nagasaki and Hiroshima (Felton was stationed at both).
There is a picture of the valley and hospital where he worked after U.S. troops occupied Japan. Felton ran his finger across the photograph.
"It was traumatic to see the devastation of this valley. Everything was devastated, just flattened," he said. The regular bombing was so intensive the destruction was similar to the atom bomb, he added.
The scale of the destruction is hard to imagine. It would be as if one went to San Francisco and looked back on the city from the Golden Gate, and everything was gone, he said.
The only remaining building was the hospital where he was assigned.
But the war years were not a time or place for reflection on the totality of the devastation, he said.
"In those days all we wanted to do was to get home. We fought a war where we knew if we didn't win, we'd be dead or slaves," he said.
When he arrived on the island of Kyushu after the war ended, he did not know if the Japanese people would be fighting or peaceful. Many civilians were killed during the war, he said. But he did not see one instance of violence.
"There were no problems of any kind with the local people," he said.
Still, he stayed close to headquarters, especially at night.
"You never knew if someone was going to stick a knife in your back," he said.
Felton is a no-nonsense kind of guy. And his ire rose when he thought about young veterans returning from war today. They have brain injuries; they are limbless. Most of these soldiers did not survive during World War II, he said.
"All the wounded," he said, as a pained look spread across his features.
He made a gesture like a knife stabbing at his gut to express his emotions. "It's coming out of here," he said.
But Felton's eyes lightened when he talked about his return to the United States.
After the war, he received advanced training in radiology and had practices in New York and Philadelphia. He had a successful medical practice, a long marriage and a couple of kids who didn't get into trouble. He has wonderful grandchildren and great grandchildren, he said.
"At my age, I've had a remarkable 95 years. If you find anybody's life that's been better, I want to see it," he said.
Herm Shapiro, 89, was just as handsome as Felton, with a shock of dark hair, his old photographs show. And he usually had a pretty woman on his arm. He was 18 years old when he was called to action in 1942.
"I didn't even know how to tie my tie properly," he said.
Proudly independent, he shrugged off an attempt by Moldaw's marketing assistant, Naazmin Khan, to help him from his wheelchair to a sofa.
"Keep your hands off unless you want to make love," he quipped.
Shapiro's army career was not the usual, he said. Early on, he received a battle ribbon even though he had not yet seen any action.
"I was stationed in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, and it was considered foreign soil," he said.
He was in what was called "repo depo," an army detachment employed in rear-echelon support, bouncing around the United States at first doing whatever role was required.
He then joined General George Patton's 106th Infantry Division, where he continued his role taking on one task after another, but he did not see combat, he said.
"I don't think I ever shot anyone, and I don't think anyone ever shot at me," he said.
But he did experience the horrors of war. In France, the 106th was badly shot up, and Shapiro was sent to a port city to wait for replacements. In the dark while standing on the docks, he saw a German U boat torpedo the incoming replacement ship while the soldiers were still on board. Then it torpedoed a second replacement ship.
"Everybody rushed to the water to grab people. It was a horror. There was debris all over, and the stench was awful," he said.
He boarded a rowboat and with other men pulled the wounded from the water. They used anything they could find including grappling hooks, he said.
But he also had experiences that he remembers with humor.
Ordered to enter a town to make sure it was secure, he and five men searched for snipers, who were usually perched in church bell towers. But the town was empty.
One of the men suggested they leave and report back to base.
"Report, hell," Shapiro recalled he said.
"Let's get some booze and broads."
He and his mates managed to avoid a trip to the brig. As the war ended, they turned a three-day pass in Brussels into 13 days, he said. When they returned to the compound, they brought a case of brandy. The captain was hollering, but they were only confined to quarters for a week. The captain kept the booze, he said.
Shapiro openly refused orders once, when he was to be sent to Bavaria after the war.
"I said, 'No,'" he recalled, telling the officer that he is Jewish and did not want to see what was done to the people there.
But he did go to Bavaria and all around Germany offering soldiers a program of benefits if they stayed as part of the occupying force.
The three-week program training he received was intensive, but he learned how to keep soldiers' attention while delivering his lectures, he said.
"There was a captain with a big window shade behind him, and during the three-hour lecture to keep people attentive he'd raise the shade a little. At first you saw a woman's shoe. As he talked, he raised it a bit," Shapiro said, gesturing the shade's incremental rise.
The 40 men gave rapt attention to the captain's every word.
"They all wanted to see that naked woman," he said.
Shapiro was born in New York's Lower East Side. He was the son of an immigrant who arrived on American soil with 16 cents in his pocket. He later moved with his family to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
He has been married to his wife, Dorothy, for 66 years. They met in upstate New York's Borscht Belt on Memorial Day weekend shortly after the war, when he intentionally struck her in the back with a basketball to get her attention, he said. The couple has three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Shapiro and his wife don't focus on life's harsh realities. They don't read depressing articles or nonfiction. They are big fans of mysteries and thrillers.
"We are escapists," he said. And he doesn't become mired in the past.
"I believe when you get up in the morning and you look in the mirror, you have to ask yourself what new thing are you going to learn that day," he said.
To the younger generation, he would say: Nothing in life is free.
"You have to work for it," he said.
He reflected on what is of value in life.
"Be a mensch, and you'll be respected and loved," he said.
Mensch is the Yiddish word for being a good person, he and Felton explained.
"The good involves your entire life," Felton said.
The war he and veterans fought to preserve a good, free life is something of which he is proud, he said.
"We live in a wonderful nation. It has given me and my family a wonderful life. We've had tremendous advantages, and we've been successful," he said. And although the nation faces some hard challenges today with its economic woes, Felton and Shapiro said they are hopeful for the country's great potential.
The same spirit that carried them through the burden and trauma of war still beats in their hearts.
"In spite of what you might think, there's a tremendous future for our country," Felton said.