For better or worse, Joe LaGeorge remembers.
To most young men, the draft during World War II was a frightening and unwelcome prospect. This was not true for LaGeorge. He waited eagerly for his notice, and it came in 1943, when the war was raging in Europe and the South Pacific.
Now 83 years old and living in Geneseo, LaGeorge was 20 when he was shipped overseas. He fought the Japanese in several decisive battles, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the liberation of the Philippines. He was on the first group of ships to enter Japan after the armistice was signed to end the war. "I saw a lot of action," LaGeorge said.
LaGeorge was a door gunner on a Landing Ship, Tank (LST), a naval craft roughly the size of a football field that transported troops from larger ships to the beaches of enemy islands. He remembers being fired on by kamikaze pilots, Japanese airmen who filled their crafts with fuel and ammunition and crashed them into American ships.
"Every day they were on top of us," LaGeorge recalled.
LaGeorge operated a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. His job was to shoot the planes out of the skies before they could wreak havoc on Allied ships and troops. He remembers the battle of Iwo Jima, in which nearly 7,000 Americans were killed.
"The water going to the island … was nothing but blood," LaGeorge said. After seeing many men killed during the battle, he also witnessed the famous raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi.
The memories LaGeorge holds paint a different picture than what is commonly portrayed as the reality of WWII. "It's not all heroism … what [Hollywood] shows you and what we went through are two different things," he said. Recently, those memories were stirred when he and 51 other veterans were flown to the District of Columbia to see the World War II memorial through Honor Flight Rochester.
According to the Honor Flight Rochester Web site, the program is a branch of Honor Flight, Inc., an organization that runs different venues that are "private, not-for-profit organizations created solely to honor America's Veterans for their many sacrifices." The trip was free of charge and it gave LaGeorge an opportunity to meet and talk with other veterans, as well as receive the gratitude of his country - an opportunity that he may not have otherwise received.
The organization recognizes the importance of honoring those who served to protect the world at a time when good and evil were more clearly defined. LaGeorge mentioned that his brother served in Germany, and was stabbed with a bayonet. LaGeorge was a part of this whole generation of dedicated soldiers.
This sort of sacrifice, which we refer to as "heroism," was merely everyday life for them - something they knew they had to do. Now, LaGeorge is living with the memories. "It was hard for me … because it was so drastic and all you got is that picture in your mind and it's hard to get rid of it," he said.
These memories add shape to LaGeorge's perspective today. For him there is no glory in war, no romance. Having seen it, he wishes for its opposite. "I think the thing that I would like to see is everybody [having] love for each other, and that's about it."
More information about Honor Flight Rochester and making donations can be found at honorflightrochester.org.