The Red Shirts remember WWII

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 23rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Memorial Day.

On Monday, Americans will remember our servicemen and women who gave their lives for this nation. But some veterans make a point to honor them year-round.

EICHER: WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson recently met some Mississippi veterans who get together every week to remember.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: The Greatest Generation Coffee Club, also known as the Red Shirts, formed nearly a decade ago. The oldest member is 98. The youngest is 87. Participant John Paul Smith outlines the qualifications.

SMITH: Originally it was World War II, to be a veteran of World War II. Now it’s been opened up to some Korean veterans in their 80s.

The group is easy to spot, whether they’re eating breakfast at Burger King or on a road trip to nearby Natchez.

SMITH: We wear red shirts, and we wear our military caps.

Today, it’s barbecue they’re after.

OWNER: Gentlemen, good to have y’all at Dump’s Barbeque. VET: Yes, sir, thank you. SULLIVAN: Thank y’all so much for your service.

A few come in all by themselves. Several use a cane, another a walker. A caregiver accompanies one wearing navy suspenders.

GREETER: Air Force? Good. We’ve got a Navy, an Army, and an Air Force already. Yes, come right in. Now there’s a step up…

Together, they represent a broad scope of military service—fighter pilot, combat soldier, records clerk.

Greeters lead them to what’s called the military room. Red chairs wait around tables. A Semper Fi patch and postcards from World War I decorate the wall.

Restaurant owner Ken Sullivan is a former mortician. He explains a large American flag hanging at the rear. It was sent by the VA when a vet died.

OWNER: He didn’t have any family to claim it. So I kept that flag, and I said, “I’m going to put it up somewhere for him some day.”

As the Red Shirts pick their seats, a blonde waitress works her way around tables, taking orders. She’s patient, and she smiles a lot.    

WAITRESS: Fries? VETERAN: No, baked beans and slaw.

The sweet tea flows.

AUDIO: [Sound of pouring tea/”Thank you.”]

They ask a blessing.  

VETERAN: So, Lord, continue to bless us in these days. We ask in Thy name, amen. GROUP: Amen…

Then the stories begin. And they’re not all sad. James Swager tells the group about a soldier friend he made in Germany.

SWAGER: A lot of times your life depends on the fellow you’re with, you know, as you get into action.

That was 75 years ago, but the relationship lasted a lifetime. Mr. Swager pulls a note from his wallet dated January 16, 2009. He reads it aloud:

SWAGER: It says, “Jim, enclosed is a gift. I sold my house, and I realized I have a huge profit. What am I going to do with it? Put it in the bank? I don’t need it.”  

Swager’s comrade-in-arms had sent him $10,000.

WAITRESS: Did you get enough to eat? SMITH: I did. WAITRESS: Good. SMITH: I enjoyed it.  

At 95, Ralph Calcote’s story has an interesting twist. He was a missionary to his former enemy.

CALCOTE: The war was just over, and they were trying to send as quickly as possible 100 missionaries to Japan. It was a blessing for me to be there. The people loved me, and I loved them.

The Greatest Generation Coffee Club has a dwindling membership. And they’re well aware of it.

VETERAN: All World War II veterans now, unless they misrepresented their age, you fellows are in your 90s. Y’all are getting old. VOICE IN BACK: I’m 93. 

The Red Shirts always gather admirers. One comes to their table with a request. He’s brought a book from 1946 that he wants them to sign.

OWNER: Autographs. WHITE: If y’all don’t mind. My grandfather, he served with Patton in the third armored division. His brother was killed in Okinawa. Just anywhere you want to sign across there will be fine.

Gatherings like this can be hard for the Red Shirts, though. They have to confront loss.  

COMBS: I lost a friend I graduated from high school with. His name was J.E. Allgood. 

RHODES: My youngest brother was killed. My parents had four boys. The youngest one went to the infantry. He was in France 13 days when a German machine gunner got him. Four of us went away. Three came back.

That youngest brother is buried in France. No one in his family ever made it there, but they have pictures of the grave marker.   

RHODES: So they talk about heroes. The ones they shipped back in in a pine box or ones didn’t come back, that’s the heroes, you know.

Still, it’s obvious they enjoy getting together. They’re cracking jokes as four of them load into a Chevrolet Impala.

HENDERSON: Good-bye, gentlemen. Such a privilege to meet y’all. RHODES: It’s just been fun, fun, fun. Really, I don’t feel too comfortable associating with these old men, but I go with them. [Laughter]

For Navy man and former Southern Baptist missionary Ralph Calcote, it would be the last such gathering. He died May 9th. Ironically, during the barbecue lunch a few weeks before, surrounded by World War II survivors, he quoted John 3:16.

In Japanese.  

AUDIO: [John 3:16 in Japanese]

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Wesson, Mississippi.

(Photo/Kim Henderson) 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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