The elderly white haired man stood in the lobby of the posh Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC unnoticed.
All the man did was help save the world.
James “Pee Wee” Martin wasn’t taking selfies or uploading pictures to Facebook or Instagram or texting anyone. He wasn’t posting his status or what he was going to have for dinner that night or when his next album would “drop” or shopping for a reality TV deal to give the world an opportunity to see how cool he was or hang on his every word. He mostly sat there observing people.
He had jumped into Normandy on June 6, 1944, and did it again this past June at the age of 93. This time no one was shooting at him.
Once in a while a person would notice the 101st Airborne patch on the old man’s sleeve and come over to say something, mostly thank you, but the man, who had sat down by now in a corner seat, was mostly invisible.
A short while later another old soldier was pushed into the lobby in a wheelchair. Don Burgett also wore a patch with the 101st Airborne’s “Screaming Eagle” on it. The two men sat near each other. The man in the wheelchair has published four books about his experiences in World War II, one of which was endorsed by Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of the best examples of how combat really was in the war. Both had jumped into Normandy and fought on the frontline throughout the war in Europe, from France into Holland, Belgium and Germany.
Some time after that, two more men entered the lobby of the Mayflower. One was Col. Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in plane number one on the famous “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo on April 18th, 1942. A mission that changed an entire nation’s morale following the carnage at Pearl Harbor.
The other man, with a head full of beautiful white hair, was an 82nd Airborne legend in World War II, the highest decorated officer in the history of the famed “All American” division. If not for an army paperwork snafu, James “Maggie” Megellas would have been wearing the Medal of Honor around his neck. The Doolittle Raider is 99 years old, the 82nd veteran about to turn 98. The four men in the lobby were all over 90 years old.
People came and went from the hotel. Some passed the men and went into the bar, others walked by them to get a taxi or head out for dinner. The people looked at their phones, texting, emailing, calling, posting and never looking up to see the old men off to the side.
The veterans weren’t in the lobby for recognition. They weren’t there to sign autographs at $20 a photo or promote anything. They weren’t dressed in loud colors or weighted down with medals. There was nothing about them that was sexy, chic or would sell Lincoln SUV’s in a Super Bowl ad.
They were headed to a military recognition dinner.
They were here in our nation’s capital to represent all those friends buried in overseas cemeteries who saw their lives end as teenagers in places like Normandy, Holland, Belgium, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and in the skies above Europe and the Pacific.
Busy people continued to pass by the men, who did not own cell phones or iPads or watches they could speak into or any of the latest technology. The old veterans looked each other in the eye when they spoke. Their handshakes were firm. Their speech not filled with expletives.
“We are not heroes,” they told a young military man, a veteran of war in the 21st century who stopped by to say hello. “The real heroes never came home.”
Hundreds of other people came and went from the Mayflower lobby over the course of that hour, not looking up to see that just yards away was history. History that will soon be gone forever. History that represents the best of what America stands for; honor, courage, sacrifice, cooperation, getting the job done without complaint and the flag itself.
Sometimes it’s good to look up and see what’s around you.
If you can’t do that, at least grab your smart phone and Google the words World War II and read about the men in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel and what they did for all of us.
Soon they will be just a memory.
Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit World War II Foundation.