Jay Walshon is a longtime Westporter. As Memorial Day nears, he memorializes his father — a World War II veteran — with these loving words:
On May 8, 27 days shy of his 96th birthday, my father Abraham Milton Walshon took his final breath on earth.
Forever he will be my hero.
During my 35 years in emergency medicine I’ve impacted thousands of families and helped save numerous lives. But all that pales in comparison to what my dad did. He helped save civilization from tyranny.
Whereas I worked within controlled confines of safe facilities, using disinfectants and sutures, he practiced in the office of heroism, laboring in mud, muck and mire, foxholes and entrenchments, under duress of bullets, bombs, grenades, and the mortar shells that took too many of his comrades and violated his flesh in 2 separate battles, earning him Purple Hearts among other distinctions of valor: a Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Oak Leaf Cluster, 5 Combat Stars, Occupation and Victory Medals.
It was unnerving to learn that in one Nazi assault a mere twist of fate or divine intervention permitted the perpetuation of his lineage. My father’s unpublished cathartic memoir’s final punctuation mark forever silenced the unspeakable events of those years.
Captioning his youthful image gazing from page, the June 1943 Jefferson High School yearbook notes that “Milty’s” graduation intentions were Brooklyn College and photography. But by its June publication, my dad knew all that must wait. Like for so many of his youth, World War II interrupted personal plans and desires. He turned 18 on the 4th of that month.
One brother enlisted in Army Air Corps bomber reconnaissance in the Pacific. The other served Coast Guard in the Philippines. For my dad, Army infantry under General Dwight Eisenhower awaited.
Noted by their Thunderbird shoulder sleeve insignia with “Semper Anticus” their motto, his 45th Division battled across Africa, Italy, France and Germany. Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and Rome represented places few tourists can comprehend. Asked later in life why not travel to Europe, he quipped there was no need. He’d seen enough on foot.
Educated under the GI Bill at Packard and Columbia for an unanticipated degree in accounting, my dad set a precedent: the first civilian promoted to deputy inspector general. Base commanders shivered upon his arrival to inspect accounting and procurement records. But any harsh veneer belied the tenderness that lay within.
Forgoing the power and prestige of position so many strive for, Dad prioritized his 68-year love affair with Dorothy and the family they created. He chose to resign the military, rather than uproot our lives to D.C. To my sister and me it never appeared a difficult or regretful decision.
Music filled our Brooklyn childhood home: Jolson, Dorsey, Ella, Satchmo, Steve & Edie, Judy, Barbra, Sammy and Sinatra (who my dad considered a personal friend, having once met him backstage). With his own “Sinatra-esque” vocals that brought him to clubs in NYC, accompanied by his untrained fingers caressing piano keys guided by his remarkable natural ear, our Bensonhurst dwelling was transformed in a fashion only music can do.
Strong, obstinate, sometimes impatient and abrasive (a byproduct of the Depression), proud to a fault, a king of the cha cha, Dad suffered no fools, and was intolerant of superficiality, frivolity, disloyalty or ostentation. Despite his 5-9, 150-pound stature, he never backed down.
Whereas many fathers emphasized popularity, power and fortune, the virtues of modesty, frugality tempered with generosity, and above all else family, became his guiding light – a wisdom obtained from his life being daily imperiled.
With tenderness at his core, and flowing creativity with generosity until his death, my dad gifted every single loved one a personalized poem recognizing each occasion. Each writing was unique, elegant, tender, permeated with love. Going through his belongings, we discovered 4 binders titled “The Loving History of the Walshon Family in Poetry and Rhyme.” Each overflowed with every birthday, wedding, bar mitzvah and anniversary poem he wrote over 7 decades. That was my tough dad.
His photography aspiration ultimately “settled” for many “snapshots,” and a handful of 8mm reels capturing the joys of post-war family milestones – my first bath, a wedding, rides at Coney Island – all borne of one man’s personal celebration of survival, validation of freedom’s triumph, and perhaps a subconscious poke in Germany’s eye that we didn’t merely endure. We indeed prevailed.
Losing the love of his life, severing the 68-year earthly bond to my angelic mother Dorothy 4 years ago, irreparably damaged the spirit that ravages of war had only tarnished. Despite incredible strength for a nonagenarian, independence and a continued presence of mind, these past 4 were not easy or kind. The ravages of time ultimately succeeded where the Nazis had failed.
As the Army buglers’s solemn melody embraced the mourners present, and I tearfully watched the flag-adorned coffin lowered beside his devoted love of 73 years, my only regret was not knowing them during their innocence of youth, predating the horrors and darkness that no child should witness, yet so many were forced to endure.
My dad was from a generation of boys who were steeled so that those who followed would not be forced to be. They embodied the true meaning of bravery, selflessness and sacrifice in order to make the world a place worth living for we who have followed. “Duty,” “valor,” a time when mere teenagers knew what was at stake and willingly offered the ultimate sacrifice – not one conscription amongst them. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are forever indebted to role models like my dad.
On this Memorial Day we honor, salute and remember the many who have served in freedom’s highest calling – my dad now among them. As for so many others, life will go on, but never the same.
As years pass, our Memorial Day parades may become perfunctory – replete with dogs, burgers, barbecues and beer. Conversely, they should become increasingly meaningful. In April it was estimated that of the 6.1 million WWII veterans, a mere 100,000 remain living. In 5 years perhaps, only a handful of scores; in 10, none. My dad’s passing lessens that 100,000 by only one – but for my family, as for every other, that is an enormous “one.”
Abraham Milton Walshon is not just my hero – he was ours. I pray that his kind are never again needed.