As a part of the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Jim “Peewee” Martin jumped out of a plane. His descent was fairly uneventful; and he landed softly in a field in Normandy, France. Martin was hardly new to skydiving; as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, he’d actually made a previous jump in roughly the same location. In fact (and God and a lifetime of English professors forgive me for this) when it comes to parachuting into Normandy, Martin is an “old” hand. See, while last Thursday did mark the second time Martin jumped out of a perfectly good airplane over coastal France, the first time wasn’t a recent event. Now an amazingly spry 93 years old, Martin last jumped into French skies on June 5, 1944.
As thrilling as Martin’s latest aerial adventure might have been, his original trip almost defies imagination. As any student of history can attest, the 101st faced a family-sized portion of hell in the months following D-Day. But Martin endured and kicked Nazi can all the way back to Berlin in a year’s time. Martin was even part of the force that took Berchtestgaden and the infamous Eagle’s Nest, a sort of Adolf Hitler-ized gated community for the Nazi all-stars.
Further demonstrating the humility seemingly characteristic of America’s “Greatest Generation,” Martin described braving bullets and bombs from Normandy to Germany thusly: “We just did what we trained to do.” He even suggested he’s being boastful, “(It’s) a little bit of ego. I’m 93 and I can still do it.” This man risked what President Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion,” and he talks about it the way I talk about going to the grocery store. If he had jumped while wearing a clown suit and playing an accordion, he’d still be the coolest guy in any room. And Martin’s bravery was as common to his time as modesty. Whether they were drafted or enlisted, the Allied soldiers of World War II approached their duties with respectful diligence. They might have been terrified — according to Martin, “everybody [was] scared all the time, and if they tell you anything differently they are full of crap” — but they gritted their teeth and saved the world.
Joining Martin in what could fairly be considered one of humanity’s greatest — and certainly costliest — victories was former British naval officer Bernard Jordan. And joining Martin 70 years later on the same hallowed ground was the same Jordan. Although 89 years old and forbidden by the caregivers at his nursing home to leave the facility, Jordan put on his uniform, pinned his medals to his chest and made his way from his home in Sussex, England, to stand one more time on the beaches where so many fell. I’m sure the staff at the home had valid reasons for wanting Jordan to stay put, but any guy who beat the Nazis in a contest of life and death is going to make short work of a game of cat and mouse against the orderlies.
In a world in which the word “hero” has been diluted more than the liquor at a tourist bar, these guys are the top-shelf stuff. Not to downplay their heroics, but what the Greatest Generation lacked in sick beats, reality television and bling they more than made up for in pure awesomeness.
Martin and Jordan are hardly the only examples of ordinary men displaying extraordinary courage under almost impossible circumstances. Indeed, quite a few men and women came before them; and quite a few have come since. But there’s no denying that they are among the last throwbacks to a braver time. And I’d bet the house that neither Martin, nor Jordan, nor their fellow real-life superheroes ever claimed to be “ashamed” of their countries or described their nations as “horror that is disgusting.” And I’d further wager that they would have refused to be traded for five (or even 500) unrepentant Nazi superstars — not that the leadership of the time would have considered it, for fear of endangering countless more when the bad guys got home. That’s just what real heroes do.
Seventy years later, men like Martin and Jordan are still better examples of the free world’s best than Bowe Bergdahl will or could be.