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Our World War II vets

Apr 5, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

A reader made an observation Tuesday afternoon.

"It's been a tough week for our World War II veterans."

He was right. In the preceding week our obituary page carried news of the deaths of R.J. Brown and Hewitt Youtz, two of Riverton's best-known. We say best-known, but how well were the stories of these two men really known locally?

Brown was the Pearl Harbor veteran who was an eyewitness to the Japanese surrender aboard the mighty battleship USS Missouri and the sky-filling flyover by 400 American B-29 bombers moments later. The fine journalist and historian Theodore White was there, too, and his magnificent description of the surrender ceremony he and R.J. Brown witnessed is worth the effort to find and read. It was, as White wrote, the "supreme moment" of American power on Earth.

Youtz was the volunteer who earned his fighter pilot's wings and distinguished himself in the skies over Europe while at the controls of a P-38, the plane the Americans called Lightning and the Germans called the fork-tailed devil. When the war ended, Youtz had a chest full of military decorations, each bespeaking the valor and expertise he brought to battle. If you wondered why the big military aircraft was buzzing over Riverton on Monday, it was in tribute to Youtz during his funeral.

When we produced our big World War II 50th anniversary edition called "When Riverton Went to War" in 1995, we realized that every man or women who served in uniform during the epic war had a compelling story to tell. Even those who didn't see brutal combat or win honors for battlefield exploits had experienced something that few in the generations that followed would match.

The problem was, many of them were reluctant to talk about it. Many didn't want to relive their death-defying experiences, preferring to leave them behind. Others didn't see the point.

Virtually every man, and many women of a certain age, had been in military service in those years, and that made many feel that what they had done was ordinary, not worth singing out.

"Everyone has the same story," said one veteran in 1995. "Why make a big deal out of it?"

In fact, the stories, while having the same foundation, are remarkably different, each distinct and vibrant in its details -- and each worth telling, retelling and remembering.

That's why R.J. Brown and Hewitt Youtz stood out. They were willing to talk about what they had been through, what they had seen, who they knew, what they had done. Did they have a bit of brag in them? Sure they did, but in the right way. Every bit of it was justified, and then some. That very expansiveness helped build our community's unique World War II heritage, and it is as valuable as solid gold.

R.J. Brown was 90 years old when he died March 26. Hewitt Youtz was a year younger at the time of his death the next day. Thankfully, their stories did not die with them. They are preserved in the memories of the many who heard them and through their families, who will see to it that these legacies are not forgotten.

Statisticians estimate that at least 1,000 American World War II veterans die every day. The sad circumstances the families of Mr. Brown and Mr. Youtz experienced last week were repeated around the nation at the same times, as they will be today and tomorrow. Both of our newspaper's founders were World War II veterans, each with unforgettable tales of the war. One has been gone five years, the other 29. One day all of our World War II veterans will be gone as well, and that day is much closer than any of us would like.

If you know a veteran of that war, do more than thank him for his service. Take five minutes, 15 minutes, an hour or a day and listen to what he did. Hear it first-hand, from the history maker himself. Then you'll be a historian as well. Good thing, because one day we'll need you.

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