, Port Arthur, Texas


May 26, 2013

Honor living veterans as well as the dead

PORT ARTHUR — I met Joe Capello in his backyard in a well-kept middle class neighborhood in Port Arthur. At 88 he still looks fit enough to wear his Air Force uniform.

The work he does in the yard shows in the well-maintained flowers and shrubs along a meandering sidewalk that leads to his work shop, where a table saw stands at ease, waiting for its next call to duty.

Capello was one of 16 million veterans who came home when World War II ended. Now retired after 35 years at Gulf Oil, he is one of only about a million still alive of those who fought and served. And we are losing them at a pace of more than 740 a day, according to what Capello said he learned from his Veterans Administration magazine.

As we lose our veterans, we are losing the treasure of their first-hand memories of events that shaped the modern world. Some of their stories are preserved in books and museums, but most will be lost as these heroes of American history fade from our ranks.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor while Capello was in high school. When he turned 18 he chose the Air Force. One of his friends told him to take his old camera with him when he went off to the service, and that camera traveled with him across Europe.

The Air Force sent Capello to bombing and gunnery school in Alamogordo, N.M. “After I was there six weeks they closed it and ran all us soldiers off,” he said in an interview last week. He later learned that base would be where the atomic bomb that would eventually end the war was tested.

Capello was in the 8th Air Force in England, where he stayed for a year. “By 1944, Germany was pretty well whipped up so they didn’t need Air Force personnel. Again they ran me off,” he said.

“In 1944 I wind up in the 9th Armored division in the Army. I joined them as a replacement in France. I was in the camouflage Division. No one knew they were there. There was no reporter except Andy Rooney,” who he said he met. He said Rooney was a great reporter and we discussed watching him on 60 Minutes and that he worked into his 90s.

While he was with the 9th Armored, Capello “traveled everywhere, France, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia.” He talks easily about the details of European geography, calling off the names of towns in Germany and France.

Capello brought out an envelope stuffed with photos he took with that old camera he carried across Europe. He studied them like cards in a poker hand then laid out selected ones on the table. The photos tell the story of the liberation of a prison camp.

Capello slid the small black and white photos across the table one at a time. The first showed an estate on manicured grounds.

“We knew there was something there,” he said. “The people of the town said they didn’t know what was going on.

The next photo showed German soldiers lined up surrendering to the American GIs. The next is of scores of bodies of the camp’s prisoners lying in heaps on the ground.

“The Germans said they were trying to escape,” Capello said, indicating he didn’t believe a word of it.

Other photos showed a train like the one in the movie Schindler’s List that would carry prisoners to forced labor camps like livestock being shipped to market.

“Someone asked my why I was not in any of the pictures,” he said. “The answer was because I was the one with the camera.”

“What I have seen, what I have done, where I have been, some people find it hard to believe. I haven’t done it on my own,” he said.

There’s not a moment of hesitation when Capello is asked whether the sacrifice was worth it,

“No question that I would do it all over. Hell, I believe in this country.”

But Capello’s belief in this country doesn’t translate into support for the war in Iraq. “We don’t have no business in Iraq. It’s the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

He discussed the weapons of mass destruction that were never found and the impact that war is having on the enlisted men and women of today.

“There have been 40,000 injured. I see them at the Y with no leg. It’s just unreal,” he said.

Capello said he celebrates Memorial Day with his family. He flies his flag. He also celebrates D-Day, when the Allied forces crossed the English Channel into France on June 6, 1944. In 1994 Capello traveled back to Europe to the site of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. There he had the opportunity to meet President Bill Clinton.

Over the years Capello was able to stay in touch with many of the people he met on his travels. “I have friends all over, from the rich-rich to the poor as can be,” he said. But time is taking away the ones the enemy couldn’t.

“Of the 400 enlisted men and 20 officers” in his 8th Air Force unit in England, “I’m the only one left.”

The Allies may have been fighting against the German government and soldiers, but Capello was able to make friends with the people no matter where his travels took him.

“The Germans now are my best friends. My English friends are gone. They (the German friends) have been over here to visit me and I love them.”

Learning that bonds of friendship can be made in the midst of perhaps the worst war ever to engulf humanity is a gem that came from hearing Capello’s experiences. The history recorded with the old camera he carried with him during those days in the service are priceless history that should be preserved for the next generation and for the next century.

Memorial Day grew out of a Civil War tradition of caring for the graves of the dead and is set aside to remember those who perished in war. But the treasure of the World War II veterans, the Korean War and Vietnam veterans and the modern day Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, is priceless, and today would be a good day to tell them.


Twitter: @RogerCowles

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