Rich Schwarz has seen much in his life, but the celebration held at the Derby VFW Post 7253 was something extra special – for Schwarz, his family and the dozens of post members who attended.
They had good reason to be there as Schwarz not only had a 90th birthday party on Jan. 19, he also was recognized as one of the last living member of the post who has a service connection to World War II.
As Schwarz put it: “They told us we’re tired of having funerals for you World War II members, so why don’t we have a birthday party instead?”
Thus, the celebration was on.
The post – which also is home to American Legion Post 408 – was decorated for the occasion. Boards with photos from Schwarz’s life were put in place and a full dinner buffet was set up.
There also were songs from the era by the Sweet Adelines, a roast and, of course, a huge birthday cake.
Schwarz took it in with a smile and his self-deprecating wit.
“I’m not a hero, I just grew old,” he said.
Schwarz enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17, which in those days was legal with parental permission. He wasn’t on the front lines of the war itself, but rather in the Occupational Army that served in the Far East.
However, that army was still considered to be a part of the overall war effort and, for the record, Schwarz is considered to be a World War II veteran, entitled to the benefits of all veterans of that war.
Schwarz was stationed in Korea, which he said was a third-world country back then, and lived in a former Japanese camp with paper-thin walls.
“Conditions were harsh,” he said of the experience.
Schwarz credits nuclear weapons for changing his life’s journey – and that of his fellow soldiers. While the two atomic bombs dropped in 1945 brought great destruction and death to the Japanese mainland, it also promptly changed the course of history by stopping active combat.
“Everyone thought it was a great deal because the war ended,” he said.
Had those weapons not been available, Schwarz said the war may have dragged on for another five years as an invasion of Japan would have been necessary, along with ensuing battles. He could have been in the middle of the fight – and lucky to get out alive.
The war’s toll was fierce as more than 400,000 U.S. service personnel were killed and almost 700,000 wounded. And at the time, the nation’s population was less than 140 million.
VFW officials say there’s a reason Schwarz and his peers were known as “The Greatest Generation.”
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and killed and wounded American service personnel, there was simply no question that the country would go to war – and it had to win.
The nation’s survival was at stake and according to the belief at the time, no one fought for recognition or to be a “hero” but simply because it was the right thing to do.
That belief ran through Schwarz’s family, too.
His oldest brother, now deceased, was in the Army, and another brother, now 93, was in the Marines and saw action during the war.
Schwarz is part of a rapidly shrinking group.
Some 16 million Americans were in uniform during that period, but only 496,777 were alive in September 2018, according to the National World War II Museum. In Kansas, there were 4,723 WWII vets last year.
Because of old age and illnesses, some 348 WWII vets die each day and by 2024, there will be fewer than 100,000 alive. Five years after that, an extremely small group will remain.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Schwarz trained in Virginia at Fort Lee and thought he was going to be sent to Germany, but he went to the Far East instead. Schwarz spent about two years in the service.
After his discharge, he worked in the grocery industry in California, where he had an uncle. He also lived for a long time on an island in Washington state, where he ran a restaurant.
His local connection comes about because his wife, Shirley, is from here.
They have been married 27 years. Schwarz has two daughters and seven stepchildren.
“And I’m on good terms with all of them,” he laughed.
Still healthy and moving about without a cane or walker, Schwarz attributes his robust shape to being active and working hard.
And he has his favorite drink: a Scotch with water. And the Scotch doesn’t have to be the expensive stuff, either, he was careful to explain.
Upon reflection, Schwarz said a lot had changed since the war.
At the time, he said, everyone was united in one mission.
“The country was completely different,” he said. “There was a lot more patriotism back then. I worry about the younger generation. They don’t know what veterans have gone through to give them the freedoms they have.”