Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

WWII veterans healthiest group of war vets

Henry Heim, who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and later flew bombing missions over Europe, recently crawled through brush and briars while on a hunting trip to get in position to shoot "the biggest buck I ever killed."

Henry Heim, who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and later flew bombing missions over Europe, recently crawled through brush and briars while on a hunting trip to get in position to shoot "the biggest buck I ever killed."

He's 90.

Ted Paluch, who played dead to escape a German massacre of U.S. troops in World War II, moved not long ago from South Jersey to Center City to be more in the thick of things. He recently got back from a four-day speaking trip to Michigan.

He's 89.

Sam Ballinger, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, still loves ballroom dancing and is a fitness freak who works out daily.

He's 86.

"Everybody says I look good for a World War II veteran," Ballinger said. "They expect to see an old man with a mustache and a cane."

Time, to be sure, is catching up with the 1.7 million living American veterans of history's greatest conflict. Many are frail or ill.

But on the 70th anniversary of the U.S. entry into that war - at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 - the remarkable story is how well so many veterans are doing. This is the wealthiest, healthiest generation of older Americans, ever.

"It might very well be that these guys, who have seen everything and are now late in life, might become centenarians," said Carolyn Aldwin, a professor of human development at Oregon State University who has studied the life span of veterans. "The ones who are left are probably pretty hardy individuals."

Seven decades after the Civil War, fewer than 1 percent of Union veterans were living, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

At a similar distance from the First World War, 2.5 percent of veterans were alive.

Thanks to medical advances and the blessings of a prosperous post-war America, World War II veterans are doing far better.

More than 10 percent of the 16 million who served in the Armed Forces are alive.

Even by 2015, by the 70th anniversary of Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, more than 5 percent will remain, the VA estimates.

The agency projects that 855,000 will still be around in 2015, 205,000 in 2021, and 57,000 in 2025.

The last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, of West Virginia, died Feb. 27 at age 110. Quite a few World War II veterans might do as well, or better. The VA estimates that 370 will be around in 2036 - a whole generation from now.

Veterans often live longer than other people because they had to be fit to get into the military, Aldwin said.

Many grew up tough and strong on the farm, or worked in coal mines or steel mills.

After the war, the educational opportunities afforded by the GI Bill gave many a safer workplace with medical insurance, pensions, and vacations - benefits unheard of by their parents.

Penicillin and other antibiotics were among the first of myriad medical advances that saved millions of lives.

Aldwin cites what she calls the "tough-old-bird" factor.

These veterans survived some of the most dangerous years of life - their 50s, 60s, and 70s, when heart disease and lung ailments related to smoking often take a toll.

Having made it until now, they're "apt to live for a very long time," Aldwin said.

Heim, of New Cumberland, across the river from Harrisburg, knows well the toll that time is taking.

On Pearl Harbor Day last year, he spoke at a ceremony in the state Capitol, at which he counted just seven Pearl Harbor veterans. Not so many years ago, there might have been dozens.

"We're dwindling fast," he said. "I wouldn't say there's a heck of a lot of us."

Yet, Heim is feeling well.

"I still love the outdoors," he said. "I love it with a passion."

Not long ago, on a deer hunt, he was in the woods well before sunrise. "I crawled on my hands and knees for about 25 yards," he said. He then sat very still until a little after 8, when he saw a large, nine-point buck.

It took a buddy to help him drag the deer away.

Heim, who was knocked unconscious by a bomb at Pearl Harbor, says he considers every day as a bonus. But he has always done so.

"I remember when I was 19, I didn't think I was going to live another minute," he said.

He left the military after World War II, but was recalled for duty in the Korean War. He ended up a major.

He worked for Bell Telephone until retiring in 1976, more than 35 years ago. He and his wife, Kay, have been married 69 years.

"I expect to be 105 or 110," he said. "Now, that's silly; but I have always exceeded expectations."

For decades after the war, veterans kept busy with work and family. As they retired, many became more interested in the historic events of their youth, and joined veterans groups.

Many of the groups are now withering. Some have folded. Others have opened membership to the descendants of veterans, or others.

Last week, at a meeting of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, 14 veterans were on hand.

The group, which is one of the larger organizations still going, remembers a battle in the winter of 1944-45 in which 19,000 GIs were killed, 20,000 were captured, and 40,000 were wounded.

Meeting monthly at the Coast Guard station in South Philadelphia, the group has $10,000 in the bank and is planning a 2012 bus trip to Gettysburg or other historic destination.

Stan Wojtusik, who helped organize the group 30 years ago, gave up the presidency last Wednesday, turning it over to 46-year-old Gary Lambert, son of Bulge veteran Ed Lambert, 86.

The younger Lambert, an Iraqi war veteran, said he hoped to keep the group thriving indefinitely.

In attendance was Matt Reluga, 92, of Northeast Philadelphia's Rhawnhurst section.

A former sales rep who retired at age 62, he said he never expected to live this long. He had three brothers and a sister, all of them gone.

"I think it's by being thin, by not being overweight," he said.

Reluga, who was one of the first U.S. soldiers to enter Czechoslovakia during the Allied advance across Europe, attends the meetings "to have some activity" and enjoy the camaraderie.

The veterans seldom talk anymore about combat, he said. It's enough just to know that the "other guy" has had similar experiences.

Ballinger, the fitness buff, agreed that keeping trim was key.

A former mechanical engineer from Burlington, he has a full head of hair, stands 5-foot-11, weighs 160 pounds, and has "a lot of girlfriends," by his account.

"I don't eat meat, I drink soy milk, and I get a lot of exercise," he said.

Paluch, at the meeting in a crisp fedora, said he felt lucky not to have died in his youth.

On Dec. 17, 1944, the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, Paluch was in a field artillery unit that ran smack into a German heavy-tank battalion.

After the Americans surrendered, they were stripped of belongings, grouped together in a field, and hosed with machine guns in the worst atrocity committed by the Nazis against U.S. troops.

Paluch was hit in the hand, but hid silently among heaps of dead Americans, probably 80 at least.

At the meeting, he carried two new books, both of which mentioned him prominently. One was about the battle as a whole, and the other focused on the massacre.

He has found, in old age, that he is of interest to historians. He appears to enjoy it.

"Will I live to be 100? I'll try," he said. "I've got a couple more years. I'm doing pretty good."

In a video, Hank Heim, 90, recalls

the attack on Pearl Harbor at