Eastern Michigan University commemorated Veterans Day with a keynote address held Wednesday afternoon at the Student Center Auditorium. The address featured retired Marine Major General William Henderson, EMU professor Steven Ramold and Alexander Jefferson, a Tuskegee Airman.
Though all of the speakers come from significantly different backgrounds, each stressed the importance of remembering the experiences of veterans in addition to respecting the efforts of today’s vets.
The address began with a presentation of photos taken by EMU students, most of which taken in Iraq. The presentation displayed the wide range of experiences that today’s generation of soldiers have had in the military.
Ramold, who specializes in 19th century U.S. History, military history and cultural history at EMU, was the afternoon’s first speaker. Ramold explained EMU’s military history, which dates to the mid-19th century.
Approximately 160 students of what was then the Normal College served during the Civil War, including a group known as the Normal Company, which fought in several major battles, including Vicksburg and Spotsylvania.
A slab dedicated to those who served during the Civil War was dedicated shortly after the war and can be seen in Pray-Harrold.
Adam Betz president and founder of the SVA introduced the next speaker, Henderson, an EMU graduate who served with the 1st Marine Air Wing in Vietnam and flew 125 combat missions.
Henderson focused on the importance of Veterans Day’s history.
“Veterans Day was original called Armistice Day,” Henderson said.
The holiday was originally dedicated to honor WWI veterans but was changed in the 1950s to honor all veterans, past, present and future. Unlike Memorial Day, which honors those who have sacrificed their lives during wartime, Veterans Day honors those who are still living.
Henderson concluded his speech by explaining the importance of the sacrifices of veterans and the responsibility future veterans have to uphold their tradition of service and excellence.
“Even though these are tough time and times like we’ve never seen before, this country will prosper and survive,” Henderson said.
The afternoon’s final two speakers were former Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Col. Jefferson and Lt. Col. Washington Dubois Ross.
Jefferson explained the obstacles he faced as an African American man in the Air Force during WWII, including encountering racism and hatred just for wanting to fight for his country
“I can trace my family literally back to 1810. I can’t stand it when someone whose family came to this country in 1920 through Ellis Island tells me to go back to Africa,” Jefferson said. “This is my country.”
Jefferson was shot down in the south of France and became a POW. His parents were told he had been killed in action, and a month later he was captured and was being held at Stalag Luft 3, 80 miles east of Berlin.
He was rescued a few months later by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army near the Dachau concentration camp, where he said “you could smell it a mile away because the ovens were still warm.”
“Someone has the audacity to tell me that Dachau never happened,” Jefferson said.
But even when he returned home after being rescued, Jefferson still saw a nation divided by racism and segregation. And although these problems were just as much of a problem at the end of the 1940s, Jefferson said every African American man who served in the military at that time was responsible for helping to end segregation in the military.
“This is my country. I will protect her, I will fight for her, but God damn it she’s going to treat me like she should,” he said.
Ross was the evening’s final speaker, and served in the same mission as Jefferson, though his plane wasn’t shot down.
“I know how to fly,” Ross joked.
Ross’s story was quite different from Alexander’s as he focused on his experience as a youth leading up to being drafted into the Air Force.
“In Ashland we lived about a mile from the field,” he said. “It wasn’t an airport in Ashland, it was a field.”
He paid “a penny a pound” to take a ride on a Ford Tri-motor one Sunday morning. He and his younger brother and sister scrounged up all the money they could and went on their first airplane ride.
From that point on Ross knew if he had an opportunity to fly, he was going to take it.
He eventually went to the Tuskegee Academy and flew in WWII in the 332nd Fighter Group over Rome, where he patrolled over the battleships and escorted bombers. Ross left the military in 1947 and joined the reserves, which he retired from in 1981.