Turning 95 on Saturday, Charles Alford can vividly recall the exact moment he and his friends decided to join the military in 1942, a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was a single kid when I joined the Army. I was 21 and I lived with my dad in Chicago because he had split with my mother,” Alford said. “I break it down a lot and for 21 years, I was a dumb kid. I didn’t know anything, didn’t learn anything. I worked a couple of places, and when Hawaii was bombed, pretty soon everyone wanted to join the military.”
He and six other World War II veterans sat in the small library at Harmony Science Academy on Thursday morning, swapping stories as they waited to serve as the grand marshals of a Veterans Day parade down the campus hallways and to be guest speakers in classrooms.
Noey Meza, Harmony Science Academy’s campus outreach coordinator, organized the event with his son, after his son said he wanted to teach his peers about local WWII veterans for the holiday because Meza’s uncle served in WWII.
“The focus today for Harmony was just putting a face to our veterans and celebrating their service and making sure our kids know these stories are real people,” said Erin Wolfe, the Harmony Science Academy spokeswoman for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “They’re a real face and a real story from somebody personally, and I think that builds our American spirit and community efforts here.”
For Miguel Valverde, a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter chaplain who helped find the WWII vets for the event, the parade was about setting an example and focusing on observing Veterans Day on Friday instead of the protests that have popped up across the nation since voters elected Donald Trump as president three days ago.
“This gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Let me step back and see what I do not know,’ ” Valverde said. “Well, here’s WWII veterans that endured many pains and suffering their families had to go through throughout the years, or Vietnam veterans who came home that were spit on or got treated like garbage and yet, today any veteran I see, I always welcome them home. Some students don’t realize that happened in our history, or we’re not teaching it.”
As his daughter sat nearby wearing a scarf decorated with the American flag, Alford explained he served for a year and a half under General George S. Patton in Europe. Another vet walks by and asks if the pin on his uniform is a Silver Star, the third-highest a military combat decoration that can be awarded to someone in the U.S. Armed Forces. Alford nods, then goes back to his story.
‘Join the military’
“I had three drinking buddies, and we’d go around looking for girls,” Alford said. “And I told the guys one day, ‘You know what we need to do? We need to quit our jobs and as soon as we run out of money, join the military.’ They said that sounds good. Everybody wants to do that. So we tried it.”
Initially, Alford wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force. But bad vision kept him out, he said, joking his first flight wouldn’t have ended well anyway.
The veterans lined up in the halls of the school, behind a Boy Scouts color guard, and Alford’s daughter Sharon Sexton stood behind his wheelchair, ready to escort him.
Alford didn’t start talking about the gravity of the war until much later in life, Sexton said. She, like the children he speaks with, sometimes has a hard time wrapping her mind around what her father has done for the country, she said. Alford served as an artillery man on the front lines of battle, including the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, he said. That battle played a critical role in defeating German counterattacks and freeing a country from the Nazi regime.
“That’s what I spent the war doing, shooting people,” Alford said. “That’s what war’s for. Did you know that?”
That’s about as close as he gets to opening up about what he saw on the battlefield. As Sexton pushed her father down a hall lined with students on either side, she was overwhelmed. He would reach out to shake their hands or offer up high-fives, and they would clap or salute. She cried, she said.
“I don’t know if you know this story, but a lot of them didn’t have the clothing (needed). He grew up in Chicago and said that’s the coldest he’s ever been, marching into Bastogne, and Patton in his chrome helmet,” Sexton said. “He told me Patton would always be out in front of the men and he’d be waving the troops as they walked by.”
She remembers hearing about how her father traveled overseas, with his ship zig-zagging every seven minutes to avoid being targeted by German submarines. Men were seasick, packed into an old cruise liner stripped of everything, and Alford would go up top for fresh air, she said. Those stories are what shaped her father, turned his life around and gave him a direction, she said.
“The other touching thing I remember is when they came upon concentration camps and he said the men were — I’ve seen pictures,” Sexton said, choking up and unable to go further. “They didn’t know that. They thought they were just fighting a war. They had no idea. Have you ever seen ‘Band of Brothers?’ They just kind of went, ‘What is this?’ and the Germans dropped everything and ran. They were just in such horrible conditions, and I think that’s when he realized that’s what it was all about, the atrocities of the war.”
After the parade, Sexton watched her father from the other side of the library. She smiled as Harmony Science Academy teachers and fellow veterans sang happy birthday and Alford blew out candles in the shape of a nine and a five on a cake. Once they finished, he hollered, “Well, aren’t we going to have a piece?,” and waited to be served.
“When you go back to Normandy and France, they do sort of what they do here. The kids just line the streets, and they know what it was like to be occupied and they’re teaching that to children so it doesn’t happen again,” Sexton said. “I don’t know if the students can truly grasp the magnitude of what they did, coming up on the beaches when everybody around them is dying and they just keep going.
“He’s always shut that part out for us. . . . You get him in a group of men, other veterans, I always say that’s his first family, and we’re his second family. He stands up straighter and he lights up. He’s always kind of said, ‘Why would I tell you these things? You don’t understand.’ These men, they understand, and that’s important.”