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June 5, 2020, 2:51 p.m. EDT

Lessons for the COVID generation from the greatest one

“Out of chaos comes cosmos,” says WWII vet, recalling the unity of a past national crisis

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By Ellis Henican


Angus Mordant
World War II veteran H.P. Schroer says we still face common enemies today.

One generation of Americans was asked to storm the beaches of Normandy.

Another generation is being asked to sit on the couch a little bit longer and keep watching Netflix /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX +8.07%  

People, can we do this? It’s been 11 weeks already, but H.P. Schroer thinks so.

As the coronavirus restrictions drag on in New York City, layered now with a nightly curfew against violent outbursts in the streets, the 93-year-old World War II veteran was recalling another crisis, another time, even before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17.

“Everybody did something,” he was saying from inside his apartment on Manhattan’s curfewed and socially-distanced West Side. “I’d go out and collect metal and donate that. The metal was used for building tanks and guns or whatever. Some people grew gardens. Everyone had to ration gas and food. It was a unified effort all around.”

We still face common enemies, Schroer said. A global pandemic. Persistent inequality. Flashes of violence amid peaceful protest. “I believe in peaceful protest,” he said. “That’s what America stands for. Unfortunately, because of all the divisions created by some of our leaders, we aren’t so unified now. I’m concerned that it’s hurting our effort this time.”

Schroer was living with his family in the Bronx in 1943. War was raging in Europe and the Pacific. America was the world’s best hope; maybe its only one. “My brother was in the service,” he said. “I had cousins in the service. Everybody had someone.” There’s hardly anything all Americans share now, he said. “We were trying to stop the bad guys from taking over the world.” He trained as a radio gunner on Consolidated PBY Catalinas, incredibly versatile amphibious seaplanes that could take off and land on water as easily as they could on land. “I never thought of not going,” he said.

See: Meet the seniors raising millions to combat coronavirus

During World War II, 16 million American men and women served in the U.S. armed forces. Barely 300,000 are still here to advise us. We had three times that many in 2015. Schroer has to be among the sharpest and most socially engaged. He had a long career as a marketing executive, helping bring Halls Brothers cough drops from England to America. Long retired from business, he’s spent the past three years trying to convince New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to offer half-fare bus-and-subway rides to America’s military veterans. Lately, he’s been lobbying the New York Legislature to let the state lottery cover the cost.

“I already get the senior discount,” he said. “So it won’t help me. But not all veterans are as old as I am. It’s the least we can do for their service.”

In some ways, he said, today’s crisis, with its social distancing policies and nightly curfews, asks more of people than America’s sprawling civilian war effort did. “In World War II,” he said, “we weren’t limited in going outside. You could go wherever you wanted to. In that way, the restrictions today are more severe. But they present the same question we face with any challenge: What am I doing to adapt? Out of chaos comes cosmos.”

Thankfully, Americans tend to show resilience. “I think people in general are doing terrific,” he said. “Their response to the restrictions has been much better than the response from the people in government who are asking us to do it. Some of them have made so many contradictory statements, the public doesn’t know what to believe.”

Many in his generation, he said, benefited from the great diversity of people they got to know in the military. It helped create a more unified nation.

Also see: George Possas, World War II veteran and self-made entrepreneur, died due to complications from the coronavirus

“To give you a little sidelight,” he said, “I go by my initials, H.P. I got that name when I was in service. My name is actually Harold Peter Schroer. Part of our training in a PBY was that a crew member was allowed to sit alongside the pilot and control the plane while the pilot was controlling it as well. That was so that if the pilot or the co-pilot was injured, the crew members would be somewhat familiar with the handling of the plane.

“Well, visualize a 17-year-old kid up there, sitting with his hands on the controls. The first thing I did was put us in a sharp dive. I scared the hell out of everybody, including myself. My buddy from Storm Lake, Iowa, said to me: ‘From here on in, you’re H.P., and that stands for Hot Pilot.’ Today, I carry that name only by virtue of Johnny Paulson of Storm Lake, Iowa.”

Hot Pilot: From the Bronx to Storm Lake, Iowa, and back again. If that’s not national unity, I don’t know what is.

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City. He is a former newspaper columnist.

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