Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ninety-nine years well lived -- Feb. 18, 2021 column

By MARSHA MERCER

“When you put your life on the line for other people, you become a hero & one day I truly wanna be someones hero like you are mine!” a girl named Jasmine wrote in red ink on pink construction paper.

I came across the note in stacks of thank you cards from school children who had heard Guy DeGenaro talk about his experience as a glider pilot in World War II.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 325,000 remain, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported last Veterans Day. Every day, about 300 veterans of World War II leave us.

I’d like to tell you about one of them.

On his 18th birthday, Nov. 20, 1939, with Europe at war, DeGenaro left his home in New Haven, Conn., and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was a sergeant major shuffling paper when he learned volunteers were being sought for a dangerous mission.

“Almost as a lark, I said I’d put my name down,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017. He became one of the first class trained in piloting gliders.

An Army website describes gliders as “the stealth technology of their day.” Lacking engines and unarmed, they were powered by air currents and the courage of their pilots. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland described glider pilots as “the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances.”

On D-Day, DeGenaro piloted a British-made Horsa glider about 6 miles behind German defenses in the Normandy invasion. He hit the ground going 70 mph, slowed the glider by hitting two or three Rommel’s Asparagus, the tall anti-glider poles installed by the Germans days before, and finally drew the aircraft to a stop by steering the nose between two trees, sheering off both wings.

“This really could be dangerous,” he later recalled thinking.

Miraculously, no one was hurt. He, the co-pilot and six 82nd Airborne troops clambered from the wreck and made a wild dash for the nearby hedgerow ditch with bullets flying in all directions. Later, a jeep and trailer were unloaded in usable condition.   

DeGenaro served on two other glider missions in Europe during World War II, then made a career in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. But he was always thinking ahead. He took advantage of educational opportunities in the military to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

After he retired from the Air Force in 1968, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Florida and became a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, teaching for 26 years. He then started a management consulting firm and was still working in his 90s.

He married a Texan named Jennie Jennings in 1948. She became a teacher and administrator in Henrico County. When she died in 2014, he continued to live independently, with help from a support team that included a weekly cleaning lady, meals delivered by a catering company and help from a friend with paperwork, shopping and driving him to doctors’ appointments. 

In his 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw praises its members’ common purpose and values -- duty, honor, courage, service, love of family and country, and self-responsibility.

The DeGenaros, characteristically of the generation, downplayed their individual roles in making their country and world better. As the generation’s numbers dwindled, he talked more about the war with school groups, in programs at the Virginia War Memorial and with reporters.

Last November, DeGenaro celebrated his 99th birthday with a small family gathering. He’d have a real party when he turned 100 and COVID-19 was in the past, the family agreed.

His mind remained sharp. He kept up with current affairs and the stock market, taking the conservative position in many spirited discussions about politics. His sly smile was a tip-off he was about to zing me. He learned to Zoom so we could talk during the pandemic.

For, you see, I’m Guy and Jennie DeGenaro’s only child. He was my No. 1 reader, always supportive, even when we disagreed. I wish he could read this column. He died Feb. 13.

Several years ago, a 7th grader wrote my dad: “Even though you think you are not a hero you will always be a hero in my eyes.”

Mine too.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at marsha.mercer@yahoo.com)

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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