The solemn ritual plays out dozens of times every day with a neatly folded flag, a crisp salute and one more goodbye to a fast-fading generation of soldiers, sailors and Marines.
These were the men who made history in places such as Normandy and Anzio, Iwo Jima and Peleliu, vets who came home and helped build highways and houses, toiled in factories and offices, even launched their own companies. They were the ones lucky enough to see their hair turn silver, to dance at their children’s weddings, to cuddle their grandchildren.
But the ranks of World War II vets are shrinking. The youngest are now in their mid-80s. About 650 die each day, thousands are laid to rest every week. Beyond these numbers, there are individual stories of ordinary lives shaped by an extraordinary chapter.
The first seven days in May offer a small glimpse. Among the many who died in that one week were five veterans who took vastly different journeys in life. They were men who had business savvy, artistic gifts and heroic careers — and in some cases, men who finally came to terms with the world they left behind long ago.
Here are their stories:
Morton Tuller devoted his life to celebrating others, creating trophies and awards honoring a job well done at school, at work or on the athletic field.
His own accomplishments as a young soldier in the Army Signal Corps were medal-worthy, but Tuller kept his success secret much of his life. As a cryptologist, he had a high-security-clearance job deciphering American codes sent ship-to-ship in the European and Pacific theaters. For decades, he told no one, not even his wife, about his work on Navy ships that landed in Sicily, southern France, north Africa, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Tuller kept his wartime vow of silence for more than half a century. Then a public TV show featured a machine he’d used for message encryption. He figured it was OK to discuss the past — and time to collect medals he’d never received. A local Arizona congressman helped him cut red tape. And at age 79, Tuller was, for once, a recipient of honors himself.
In all, he received six medals, one ribbon and 10 battle stars.
Despite his record, Tuller was remarkably modest. When he spoke of the war, “he talked about it matter-of-factly,” says his son, Howard. “He’d say, ‘This is what was asked of us. This is what we did.’ He wasn’t more or less a hero than anyone else.”
But he made it clear he’d endured a terrifying ordeal. Howard recalls his father would say, “‘You can’t possibly imagine what it was like. Every gun on the ship would be going off. There’s nowhere to hide. People are trying to kill you. Kamikaze pilots are flying low. Ships are shooting at one another. It was just madness.’”
Tuller’s years in uniform were just part of his eclectic life. A born storyteller, Tuller always had a joke or magic trick, loved marching in parades (he played bass drum in a bagpipe band) and carried a pocketful of silver dollars he’d hand out to anyone and everyone. At family gatherings, he was everyone’s favorite Uncle Morty.
“He was a hoot,” his son says.
Tuller’s professional career started early, and improbably, for a shy son of struggling eastern European immigrants. At age 15, he reluctantly auditioned in Chicago for a role in a traveling stage production as one of the “Dead End Kids,” a group of street-smart toughs in the 1930s.
“I’m sure he looked like a Dead End Kid,” Howard says. “He had holes in his shoes.” He was chosen to play Dippy, received a Screen Actors Guild card and earned $40 a week, “more than anyone in his family had ever made.”
In his nine-month tour, Tuller and the other “kids” had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt and as part of publicity events, were fingerprinted by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and walked across the Golden Gate bridge on its opening day. He never returned to acting, but “being on the stage really changed his life,” his son says. “When the spotlight was on, he was at his best.”
After the war, Tuller married and was an early TV pioneer at WBKB in Chicago, working as an on-air host and behind-the-scenes producer. He tried his hand in Hollywood, hoping to sell a TV detective series, but eventually settled in Tucson and later started his trophy business.
Howard Tuller says his parents were a dynamic duo. Mort could chat up anyone. Sylvia, a graduate of The Art Institute in Chicago, was the creative soul, the engraver who made orders happen. She died in 1987.
But Tuller was a keen businessman, too. During a White House tour in the 1970s, his son says, his father noticed a hard-to-read nameplate below a portrait of John F. Kennedy. He volunteered to send a new one to the curator and continued to supply others over two decades, Howard adds.
Tuller created trophies and awards for 35 years. When he died just weeks shy of his 92nd birthday, he was buried with a special tribute to his past: his favorite blue-and-white cap embroidered with the words “WW II. 10 Battle Stars.”
“Crash landed off a beach near Calais France ….. Interrogation was very stern and scary. Gun pointed at forehead and threatened to shoot, because of failure to give any military information.”
Those are some of the first words in Bernard Adamski’s wartime memoir. It took more than 60 years for him to write them.
Adamski, an Army Air Corps radio operator and turret gunner, was captured by the Germans on July 12, 1944, after his B-26 bomber was shot down. The next 10 months were a constant fight for survival: First, Stalag Luft IV, a squalid, overcrowded prison camp in what is now Poland. Next, a forced three-month march of more than 600 miles, fending off brutal cold and starvation during which he used his Polish-speaking ability to negotiate for bread. Then, Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where bodies were stacked high. Weeks later, another march. Finally, liberation by the British on May 2, 1945.
Adamski had shrunk to just 97 pounds — he’d lost about a third of his weight.
Like many vets, Adamski returned to the community he’d left behind, tucking away cruel memories with his uniform and Purple Heart. He worked in the family’s meat market and grocery in Buffalo, N.Y. He attended church dances, met and married a neighborhood gal, Irene They raised three children. Adamski eventually became an assistant forester for the city of Buffalo; his wife died at age 54.
Adamski said little about the war until several years ago when he joined a POW support group at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo. He found comfort and camaraderie with other vets who’d been prisoners. They jokingly traded “I-had-it-worse-than-you” stories, says his son, David. “It was therapeutic,” he adds.
Robert Young, the VA group coordinator, helped Adamski trace the route he’d taken during the forced march, using maps and overlays. “He wanted to know,” he says. “He needed to know.”
Young noticed Adamski change over the years. “He was less anxious, less depressed, he did a lot more talking,” he says. Military officials who spoke at the center urged vets to record their memories; he did his memoir with the help of a volunteer.
About 50 copies were printed last year; the details surprised even his son. “I look at myself at age 20,” David Adamski says. “There’s no way I could have handled that.”
Despite his painful past, Adamski, who died at 88, was the eternal optimist. He harbored no anger toward German civilians he’d encountered during the war.
“He used to tell us when the Germans were marching them through towns and women and children were lining the streets spitting and throwing stones … he felt bad for them.” David Adamski says. “He’d say, ‘We’re in there bombing their cities, destroying their homes and they had nothing to do with (the war). I couldn’t hate them. It wasn’t their fault what was happening.’”
Empathy was at his very core, his son adds.
“If you came home after a miserable day, he’d say, ‘Tomorrow you’ll have a good day.’ He had a smile on his face all the time. I don’t think I’d ever seen him angry or mad,” he says. “He always found the good in people — no matter what they did or said.”
When Richard Lang was wounded by a sniper in the hip, back and knee in Guam during World War II, he was hospitalized about 1½ years. His days as a Marine were over. His dreams of an athletic career were not.
Despite the severity of his injuries, Lang ended up briefly playing semi-professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it was long enough, he told his son, to have the sweet memory of once pitching against Jackie Robinson.
Lang was a natural, a sturdy 6-footer who excelled on the baseball diamond and basketball court, scoring an astounding 61 points for St. Joseph High School in Omaha. Two bullets on a battlefield derailed any hope of turning pro, but he had no regrets.
“He said he would never change a thing,” recalls his son, Bill. “He was a Marine.”
And a tough one at that. The War Department mistakenly notified his parents in November 1944 their son had been killed in action. When he finally was able to call home a month later, his nonplussed father told him, “Oh, I knew they couldn’t kill you,” Lang recalled in a 2008 interview with the Omaha World-Herald.
Lang married another war veteran, a nurse, Phyllis, who had served in hospitals in the Pacific. They had five children. She died a decade ago.
Lang liked to say he accomplished the three goals he had in life.
To be a Marine. He wanted that since he was a boy.
To be an athlete. After excelling himself, he coached his son, Bill, and his high school team to three city baseball championships.
And to be a firefighter. In his 28-year career, he worked his way up to lieutenant in the Omaha Fire Department and became known for rescuing people from burning buildings — once a 6-month-old girl; another time, several people in a hotel fire.
The strain of the job forced him to retire, and Lang later had his right leg amputated.
But he remained fiercely independent all his 87 years.
In 2008, when Lang joined a special flight taking World War II vets to Washington, Bill Williams, whose company sponsored the event, advised him there was a steep set of plane stairs. “I made my big mistake,” Williams recalls. “I said, ‘We will carry you.’ … He said, ‘Listen pal, I haven’t been carried since Guam.’”
Lang said he’d sit on his bottom and lift himself step by step. Williams didn’t want it to seem that no one wanted to help him. A compromise was reached: Lang gripped the railing as a Marine in dress blues escorted him.
A photo shows Lang reaching the top of the stairs, a cap jauntily atop his silver hair, a smile on his face.
Dean Carter took his sketchbook everywhere — including to war.
Carter had known he wanted to be an artist since second grade in Henderson, N.C., where he created clay sculptures in school.
He served with the Army Air Corps during World War II in India and China as part of a small radar unit, spending much of his time on a Chinese mountaintop so remote that supplies were delivered by parachute. He returned home with charcoal sketches and lush watercolors of pagodas, landscapes and people.
Unlike many of his peers, Carter already had a post-war career plan. Art, especially sculpture, was his destiny. His three years in uniform were just a detour.
“He never talked about his military experience,” says Ray Kass, professor emeritus of studio art at Virginia Tech University, where Carter helped establish the art department. But, Kass says, those years at war had an undeniable influence. “He was very optimistic, always forward-looking,” he says. “That’s inherent in the spirit of his work, in the spirit of his generation.”
After the war, Carter took advantage of the GI Bill to finish his bachelor’s degree at American University and receive a master of fine arts from Indiana University. He then headed to Paris to study sculpture. Crossing the Atlantic by ship, he met Rosina McDonnell. They danced, fell in love, and returned together. Their marriage, which produced five children, lasted 62 years.
Over nearly six decades, Carter created hundreds of sculptures in wood, marble, alabaster and bronze. Energetic and disciplined, he worked six days a week in his studio when he wasn’t teaching. His creations, including many Madonna and Child sculptures and stylized fish and birds, were exhibited across the nation.
“He was very sensitive to all of nature,” says Rosina, his widow. “He had a wonderful eye. He really saw things that most people don’t.”
Carter served as the head of the art department at Virginia Tech for a decade and taught for more than 40 years. The Carters established a scholarship for visual arts students at the school.
Carter died at 91, not long after the conclusion of his final exhibit at Virginia Tech. He was too ill to attend, but a video linkup allowed him to watch from home as guests toasted his talents
Art and family were the center of Carter’s life, says his son, Clement, and he never would have been in the military if not for the war. But he adds:
“Dad was proud that he served. He had an American flag on his casket. That was one of his requests.”
After 30 years of Army duty in three wars, James Capps understood the importance of protocol.
So when his grandson, Billy, was commissioned in 2010 as a second lieutenant and chose Capps to give him his first salute, he wasn’t about to miss the moment, despite his failing health. The retired master sergeant stood proudly, placed his left hand under his right elbow and gingerly hoisted his arm.
For James Capps, World War II was the start of a distinguished military career — two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He witnessed horrors and suffered agonizing losses as a teen: He thought he’d saved a member of his company in the 79th Infantry Division, only to have him bleed to death; his older brother, Robert, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
Those experiences took their toll. “I know he had nightmares for years. We would hear him holler out,” says Bill, one of four sons, three of whom served in the Air Force and one in the Army. “But he was one of those guys who picked himself up and kept going. … He never talked about combat. He would only tell us the funny stories.”
Once, Bill says his brother Jim, after playing Army with a friend, asked their father how many Germans he’d killed. Without uttering a word, James Capps went into his bedroom and closed the door. Never ask that question again, Capps’ wife, Hazel, told her son.
When his enlistment ended, Capps bounced around a bit, joined the Army Reserves, then returned to active duty and headed to Korea, where he was a transportation and logistics specialist. A decade later, he was in Vietnam. He and his son, Bob, were there briefly at the same time. He also trained in Turkey with that country’s Army and was a drill instructor at Fort Eustis, Va.
“He loved the Army and being around soldiers,” says Bill. “He liked the security. He knew he could get a paycheck and the Army would take care of his family.”
Capps’ personality was a good fit, too. He was a strict disciplinarian, insisting on short hair for his sons and strict curfews. “But if you were punished,” says Jim, “it was just punishment.”
As important as the Army was to him, Capps never pressured his sons to enlist. “I think we all felt we wanted to,” says Bill.
And his father was there every step of the way. When Bill’s flight, heading to Operation Desert Storm, was delayed until 2 a.m., his dad waited until the plane took off. He was at the airport every time they returned home, celebrating with a big restaurant meal.
Although he wasn’t political, Bill says, “He knew the dangers of war. He once said, ‘If you don’t have a win strategy, you need to come out.’”
After he retired, Capps became a painting contractor and drove a school bus in Columbus, Ga. When he was out in the community, he enjoyed chatting with soldiers from Fort Benning impressed by the cap he wore identifying him as a veteran of three wars.
He died days short of his 88th birthday.
At his funeral, Hazel, his wife of 67 years, sat with her four sons. When an officer handed her the folded American flag, she accepted it and did what comes naturally in the Capps family.
She returned his salute.
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org. Researcher Susan James contributed to this report.