John Sherman was 13 on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese conducted a surprise military strike against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
“It was a Sunday morning, and we had the Washington Star delivered. They put it in the paper box,” said Sherman, now 91, of Cape May Court House. “I went out to get the paper, and when I came back in the house with the paper, my grandmother said, ‘Pearl Harbor was just bombed.’”
Three years later, when he was 16, Sherman wanted to enlist in the military and fight the Japanese, but his mother vetoed the idea.
He did join the Navy at age 17 and was stationed on the USS Niobrara in the Pacific during World War II’s last year.
World War II veterans, who were hailed as heroes for defeating Adolf Hitler and saving Europe, are now in their 90s. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1.7 million of them remain.
As with veterans of other generations, they had to return to civilian society, deal with their memories of combat and decide how much volunteering they wanted to do with military service organizations.
“Every generation returns home from war thinking nobody understand me,” said Joe Davis, director of communications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
It is hard for anyone who didn’t serve to imagine what Sherman went through as a teenager.
The Niobrara, a tanker that was used to refuel the ships that were striking against Japan, was bombarded by Japanese kamikaze planes that would fall out of the sky in the pitch black of night.
Sherman was deployed to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on those cities in 1945.
“People’s shadows were embedded into the concrete,” said Sherman, who recalled these memories while sitting in a chair in his home with his Quilt of Valor to keep him warm.
After the war, when Sherman was back home in Maryland, he said it did not matter to people that he was a World War II veteran.
“They had so much war. They really didn’t care,” he said.
Sherman joined the American Legion in the late 1950s and marched in parades, but he devoted most of his time to raising his five children, working at Atlantic City Electric for 38 years and being one of the founding fathers of the Middle Township Ambulance Corps.
Just like Sherman decades earlier, Robert E. McNulty Sr. volunteered to join the Navy in 1969 during the Vietnam War when he was 18.
McNulty spent four years using his engineering skills on a ship in the combat zone of the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam. His ship was fired on a number of times.
After the war, McNulty continued to give of himself to others by being a volunteer firefighter. He did not start working with military service organizations until 25 years had passed. He started his involvement with the Vietnam Veterans of America in 1998, going on to lead the Egg Harbor Township chapter.
“Somebody had to carry the torch. We are leading in the challenge to make a difference,” said McNulty, 68, of Egg Harbor Township.
The Vietnam veterans faced such different challenges than the veterans who came before them that they started their own organization, instead of immediately joining the American Legion or the VFW.
They suffered the consequences of Agent Orange, which was not used during earlier wars. The term post-traumatic stress disorder was not even in the vocabulary until the Vietnam era. And, of course, the war was unpopular, so veterans were not greeted as conquering heroes upon their return.
Vietnam veterans also deal with Hepatitis C issues, McNulty said.
McNulty is currently involved with legislative affairs with the Fleet Reserve Association, an organization that represents the interests of enlisted Navy, Coast Guard and Marine veterans and active duty personnel.
With more than 40 new members of Congress taking office next month, McNulty will be traveling to Washington, D.C., to let the new members of Congress know what his organization is looking for as far as veterans in general.
“Our work is far from over. The mission continues,” McNulty said.