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Remembering the Greatest Generation on Veterans Day

No sports Tuesday. No games in Boston. Power down your computers and cellphones, find an actual newsprint copy of the Globe, turn to the obituary page, and look for the little flags that accompany some of those obits. Those are the men and women who served our nation so that we would have our freedom to watch ballgames and do everything else we do. Read some of their stories. The Department of Veterans Affairs calculates that we are losing more than 550 World War II veterans every day.

We lost Ted Williams (World War II and Korea) in 2002. Warren Spahn, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge before coming back to record the bulk of his 363 victories, passed in 2003. The great Bob Feller, who served aboard the USS Alabama in the North Atlantic and South Pacific, died in 2010. Johnny Pesky, a World War II vet, died at the age of 92 in 2012. Yogi Berra, a gunner’s mate on a rocket-launch craft during the D-Day invasion, is 89 years old.


William J. Shaughnessy in 1944. Shaughnessy family photo

My dad, who died in 1979 at the age of 64, never played Major League Baseball, but he was part of that Greatest Generation and I think of him at this time because he was born on Nov. 11 before it was Veterans Day.

One hundred years ago Tuesday.

William J. Shaughnessy was the oldest of five children in a family that lived on Kirkland Street in Cambridge. My dad played some baseball, hockey, and football at BC High, but wasn’t any kind of sports star. At Boston College he dabbled in track and occasionally rowed, but I had trouble finding him in team photos from the dusty yearbooks. He graduated from BC in 1936, class treasurer in a class that included Thomas Philip “Tip” O’Neill.


Like so many millions of great Americans, my dad raised his hand during World War II. Thirty years old, and the father of two daughters, he was part of the 63d Infantry Division that fought in occupied Germany in the early months of 1945. Less than two months before Germany’s unconditional surrender, my father was hit by shrapnel during an attack on the Siegfried Line. He came home to Tarbell Street in East Pepperell, Mass., and as far as I could tell, never spoke of it again. Like the rest of them.

I thought of my dad last week while I was sitting in the back row of a mostly empty movie theater near the Burlington Mall, watching a midday showing of Brad Pitt’s “Fury.’’ The film presents a graphic depiction of the final weeks of the Allies’ march through Germany in the spring of 1945. It’s a composite presentation of unspeakable wartime carnage and inhumanity, and it was at once horrifying and humbling to realize that this is what my dad saw and this is how he lived in that time when so many Americans made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

It made me wonder: How did those men return to the States and go back to paper bag plants, and Sunday Mass, and Cub Scout Pinewood Derbys? How did they come home to insurance company hassles, traffic jams, and the banality of sports competitions?

William J. Shaughnessy in Germany with the 63d Infantry Division in 1945.Shaughnessy family photo/Family Handout

Maybe they talked about the horrors when they gathered to play cards at the Legion Hall on Wednesday nights. I don’t know. I’ll never know. I only know that while my father let me play with toy soldiers, toy guns, and army helmets, he never talked about what he did, or what he saw over there. It never came up on those Saturday morning trips to the dump when he’d smoke Dutch Masters cigars with the windows rolled up. More likely, we were talking about Frank Malzone and Dick Radatz.


He took me to my first Red Sox game when Yaz was a rookie in 1961. He made sure I got to the Boston Garden to see the Celtics before Bob Cousy’s last game with them in the spring of 1963. He loved words and took some pride in my professional status as a “writer,’’ but he never could have envisioned the wall-to-wall coverage and hunger for sports today.

The last time I saw my dad was Sept. 9, 1979, when I was at Fenway Park covering the Orioles for the Washington Star. On the final Sunday of the regular season, I left tickets for my parents in the left-field grandstand. In the late innings, on my way to the visitors clubhouse for postgame interviews, I stopped by Section 27 to say goodbye to the folks.

A month later, I spoke to my dad on the phone from the Memorial Stadium press box in Baltimore. It was the night of the scheduled first game of the 1979 Orioles-Pirates World Series, but the game was postponed because of rain. My dad died in his sleep later that night, and he is buried in a cemetery in Pepperell, next to a Little League ballfield.


All these years later, on Veterans Day, I think of him and all the other great men and women who bled for us in World War II, and in all the other conflicts of our time. There are many American families with loved ones serving overseas today, but many of us live lives too far removed from the sacrifices and fears that plagued our parents and grandparents in an age when the United States military was the Worldwide Leader.

Our 21st-century sports dialogue is peppered with hyperbole and misuse of expressions such as “war room,” “in the trenches,” and “heroes.” Two decades ago, brilliant football coach Marv Levy set us straight when his Buffalo Bills were getting ready for one of their Super Bowl appearances and somebody asked about the next game being the proverbial “must-win” game.

“This is not must-win,’’ he answered. “World War II was must-win.’’

No sports Tuesday. It’s Veterans Day. Take a pause. Read the obits. Look for the little flags. This is a day we honor our true heroes.

Boston College High School’s baseball team in 1931. Bill Shaughnessy is in the second row, far right. Boston College

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.