TUCSON, Ariz. (Tribune News Service) — American flags and a red, white and blue theme decorated a grand ballroom. Black-and-white photographs of young men and women serving during World War II were on display. Some veterans brought their decorations and medals earned in battle.
The lively sounds of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and other tunes of the 1930s and ’40s were performed by The Manhattan Dolls, a swing-style group that originated in New York City in 2009, entertaining at military events and celebrations. Some songs, including the service songs of each branch of the military forces, brought tears to veterans’ eyes.
Nearly 150 veterans — known as the “Greatest Generation” — living during the Great Depression and fighting in the war gathered for a luncheon that was honoring them. More than 400 attended the event Thursday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson.
It was a time to socialize and recall war stories, rekindling memories and friendships among themselves before they die. Some entered the ballroom on their own two feet, others used canes, walkers and some were in wheelchairs.
The oldest veteran in attendance was Sgt. Sophie Yazzie, 105, who enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The auxiliary unit later converted to the Women’s Army Corps.
Yazzie is from Chinle on the Navajo Nation. She lives in Tucson with her daughter, Kathleen Lampert. Lampert said her mother, who does not talk much anymore, was assigned to the Army Air Corps and was trained as a cook and a nurse in the 734th WAC, post Headquarters Company in Florida.
Since Yazzie could not stand the sight of blood, she became a cook and worked preparing meals and baking sweets, eventually stationed at Foster Air Force Base in Victoria, Texas. It was a training airfield during the war.
Lampert remembered her mom’s tasty cinnamon rolls, eating them as a child on into adulthood. She said her mom never used a cookbook, rather the recipes were all memorized.
After her military service, Yazzie was hired as a cook at Fort Wingate Boarding School in New Mexico and retired in 1979. She often attended military and veterans celebrations up until two years ago, slowing down with aging, said Lampert. She filled up with pride once more, being among fellow veterans celebrating their accomplishments, and seeing the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Honor Guard.
Other honorees included Pfc. Robert Whalen, 94, who left Tucson High School at age 17 in 1943, enlisting in the Marines with his father’s permission. He witnessed the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima. And there also was Army Staff Sgt. Denzel Clouse, 95, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge — spending Christmas Eve in 1944 in a foxhole in Belgium.
Whalen, an artilleryman with the 14th Regiment in the 4th Marine Division, said he was a poor swimmer and almost drowned when his landing craft sunk. He was rescued by another landing craft and went on into Iwo Jima where a major battle ensued — the Marines and Navy eventually capturing the island from the Imperial Japanese Army.
“We were a tough breed,” said Whalen, who was honorably discharged in 1945. He married Dorothy Hughes, a nurse, and the couple have been together for 72 years. She was at his side during the celebration.
Whalen received his bachelor’s in sociology and his master’s in education from the University of Arizona, and was a teacher and principal for 29 years in Tucson Unified School District, retiring in 1984.
“I am enjoying being with and seeing this brotherhood of men and women,” said Whalen. “We had so much patriotism, there was no division,” he said, describing the unity he felt among the veterans, and the joy hearing songs performed by The Manhattan Dolls.
Clouse, also attended the event with his wife, Sue. The couple have been married for 29 years. He said the most difficult memories of the Battle of the Bulge, serving with the 75th Infantry Division, were living in the battlefields over the winter months.
After his military service ended in 1945, he went back home to Terre Haute, Indiana, and then moved to Tucson in 1951 and worked in accounting.
Carl Haupt, a 93-year-old World War II veteran, philanthropist and author, hosted the event, along with a charity he founded, to honor his fellow comrades. He received the help of veterans organizations in extending invitations.
Haupt said he paid for the veterans, their wives and caregivers to attend the occasion. He said he wanted to honor them for their service and caring acts in their lifetime. Each veteran will receive a medallion in gratitude with an angel on one side representing the charity Angels on the Border, an organization he helped start.
“This is a historical event — the gathering of these many World War II veterans at a luncheon,” said Kathy Mansur, coordinator for Honor Flight Southern Arizona. “This is possibly the largest gathering in recent years.”
It is a privilege to see the Greatest Generation connecting to each other and being remembered, explained Mansur, who along with her husband, Thom, joined Honor Flight Southern Arizona to pay homage to their fathers, both World War II veterans who have died.
Mansur is a volunteer with the nonprofit organization that provides all-expense paid trips to World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans to see their memorials in Washington, D.C.
Since 2011, the group has flown 957 veterans from Southern Arizona to the nation’s capital, including 714 World War II veterans, of which 356 are alive, said Mansur.
As the Greatest Generation ages, most veterans in attendance at the DoubleTree were in their 90s, one was 89 and some were nearing 100.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data shows that in 2018, 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive. About 348 were dying every day.
©2019 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)
Visit The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) at www.tucson.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.