The Greatest Generation

St. Louis Local 1 retired veterans gathered at the Missouri column of the WW II Memorial after taking an Honor Flight to Washington in August. (From left are Ron Birsinger, Bill Laskowitz, Guy O’Neill, Bill Fitzgerald, Harry Koettker, Urban Abel. Also pictured is guide Eugene O’Neill, Guy’s son, member of Local 1, standing behind the veteran.)



September 7, 2011 (read the story on

“They have given their sons to the military services. Thy have stoked the furnaces and hurried the factory wheels. They have made the planes and welded the tanks, riveted the ships and rolled the shells.”

Statement by President Franklin D. Roosevelt etched in stone near the Missouri column at the World War II Memorial in Washington

Bill Laskowitz, a retired member of St. Louis Local 1, walked slightly bending, but briskly past the 4,000 gold stars rising from the stone of Washington’s World War II Memorial, each star representing 100 U.S. service members who died in the war. Laskowitz, 86, who had worked until 1990 repairing the elevators in Anheuser-Busch’s legendary factory, was instantly reminded of his own brush with mortality during the war. A member of the Merchant Marine, Laskowitz had been around the world twice, but was suddenly straddling a post on his ship with his feet dangling over its side in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Remembering those who didn’t come home, he said:

This memorial [built in 2004] is 65 years overdue.

Laskowitz was one of six Local 1 retirees, the youngest 82 years old, who flew to Washington on a bright August morning to tour the massive memorial. Their trip was sponsored by the Honor Flight program which, since 2005, has covered transportation expenses for more than 55,000 veterans to visit the memorial. Each retiree, part of a group of 30 veterans, was accompanied by a guide for the whirlwind trip.

Guy O’Neill, 89, was accompanied by his son Eugene, who, along with his brothers, Gary and Gregory, is a Local 1 member. The elder O’Neill, who retired in 1985, was awarded two Bronze Stars as a member of the 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division, fighting in the vicious Battle of the Bulge and helping liberate the death camp at Dachau .Looking out at the vast memorial from under a column representing Missouri, O’Neill, whose grandson Patrick is also a Local 1 member, said:

I’ve got a lot of buddies that ain’t here.

Ron Birsinger, a 49-year member who retired in 1989, worked as a maintenance electrician at Anheuser-Busch. He served on the Naval destroyer, the USS Marshall, during the Korean War. “This memorial is wonderful,” said Birsinger, who was given priority by Honor Flight organizers since he is losing his sight.

Harry Koettker, a Navy veteran who entered the electrical trade in 1948, was inspired by the welcome his delegation received from travelers at the airports in St. Louis and Baltimore. He said:

The monument is awesome. It’s the best word I can say .

Bill Fitzgerald, a 70-year Local 1 member, worked cleaning motors, then was promoted to foreman at Anheuser-Busch. He served on the aircraft carrier Bonhomme Richard during the war. After the ship transported 5,000 Marines to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Fitzgerald served as an armature winder in a ship repair unit rewinding Russian motors from two-phase to three-phase. A fit and extremely active 88-year-old, who prides himself on having mowed his yard the day before his trip to Washington, Fitzgerald recalled how, during the war, his ship was degaussed, a method of reducing magnetism to help avoid mines. He said:

The memorial is awe-inspiring.

Urban Abel, 87, who retired in 1982, worked as an electronic technician at Westinghouse. Urban, who endured brutal battles in the jungle of New Guinea, was asked by his guide to state his full name. “Urban Spencer Abel,” he said. “That’s USA. No coincidence,” said Abel.

On their return flight home, all Honor Flight veterans received mailbags filled with letters from friends and relatives thanking them for their service to their country.

The IBEW retirees are among a rapidly dwindling flank of WW II survivors. One thousand veterans of the war die every day. Says International President Edwin D. Hill:

“The Greatest Generation made untold sacrifices in war and work and now they are leaving us behind to learn from their example and draw inspiration from their resilience. It’s comforting to know that these six brothers, traveling to our nation’s capital from the very birthplace of our union, have been given a piece of the honor that they so rightly deserve.”

Answering how he has maintained the health and vitality that carried him to Washington, Fitzgerald quoted General Douglas MacArthur:

People grow old only by deserting their ideals.

Asked how he feels about current happenings, so many decades after his service in the military, his union and community, Fitzgerald, who volunteers at a local hospital, says, “I’m scared for our nation’s future,” referencing moves by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and right-wing, Tea Party politicians to eliminate collective bargaining and weaken the labor movement that sustained his family for so long.

Dave Reinheimer, a Local 1 retiree and Vietnam veteran, who is a tireless advocate for the Honor Flight program, encourages members to and help to send more retirees to Washington. Reinheimer told The Electrical Worker last December:

If America thought it was important to build a memorial to their service and sacrifice, the Honor Flight Network believes it is important for WW II veterans to visit the memorial before it is too late.