He reached out to shake my hand, then remembered we couldn’t do that.
“Let’s just do this then,” Sgt. Eugene “Doc” Deibler said as he closed a fist for a light bump on the knuckles.
We were outside his tidy one-room apartment Thursday morning. It’s attached to the house his daughter and son-in-law own in south Charlotte. Doc’s 95 years old. He parachuted through flying bullets on one particularly important Normandy night. He then fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
“Pull your mask down,” he told me. “I can’t hear you.”
Today, May 8, marks the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest days in Doc’s life, one of the greatest days in world history. On this date in 1945, people in Charlotte woke up to the headline in the Observer, “NAZIS SURRENDER.” Hitler’s reign was over. From London to Washington to Paris, they danced in the streets. The day became known as Victory-In-Europe Day. Americans shortened it to V-E Day.
Doc was in a six-man tent in rural France when he heard the news come over the radio. His fellow paratroopers in the 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment whooped and hollered. They looked around for the closest thing they could find to drink, Calvados, a brandy made near Normandy.
“You had to hold your nose to drink it,” he says. “But we did. Everybody got drunk.”
If you were in that camp on May 8, and someone told you that you’d be alive on this May 8, you’d probably guess it’d be a day for another celebration. You certainly wouldn’t have guessed that some other form of evil would be sweeping the world, targeting people in your age bracket, of all things.
About 404,800 young Americans from Doc’s generation lost their lives in World War II. About 25,000 have died in the past two months due to Covid-19.
It’s why, even as North Carolina begins to reopen today at 5 p.m., with Governor Roy Cooper relaxing the stay-home order, officials still recommend that people in Doc’s age bracket continue to stay home.
About 45 minutes north of Doc’s house, in Mooresville, there’s a coffee shop that’s especially good about taking care of people like him. It’s called Richard’s. There’s a table for the old guys — for the geezers, they’d tell you — and nobody’s been able to sit down around it since the state shut down in March.
Veterans get free coffee at Richard’s on Thursdays, so of course they come every other day, too. Speaking of days, those relentlessly turning things, the coffee shop lists vets’ birthdays on a calendar online. One later this month, May 30, is marked for a U.S. Navy Seaman First Class named Art Rogers. He’s one of the most well-known WWII veterans in the Charlotte area. You’ve probably seen his work; his job was to take pictures of mushroom clouds.
“It’s the most patriotic coffee shop in North Carolina,” Brenda Rogers, Art’s daughter-in-law, told me yesterday. “It’s a healing place for these veterans. It doesn’t matter if you’re a private or a general; everybody is veterans there.”
Sometimes when you have your feet in one struggle it helps to gain perspective by trying to put them in one from another time. Since Easter or so, we’ve been, as a country, at odds with ourselves about lots of things: When to reopen. Who’s suffering worst, or least. Who should and shouldn’t receive a small-business loan. Who should get tested and who shouldn’t. To wear a mask or not wear a mask. This model or that model.
One of the more unsettling developments, though, has been a rising shrug over the fate of elderly people. Even the state epidemiologist last week told a group of news outlets that he didn’t think providing the public with information about COVID outbreaks nursing homes was a priority.
A good way to measure a generation, though, is to grade how it cares for the ones that came before ours and those that’ll come after ours.
This week I spent time talking to a few of them and their families and organizations that support them, hoping to see how people who spent years of their youth in combat were handling a couple of months in quarantine.
North Carolina has about 9,000 living World War II veterans. Many of them are in assisted living facilities at a time when getting reliable information about assisted living facilities is difficult. Nationwide, about 300 WWII vets die every day; in my few days working on this story, one I was hoping to talk to went into Hospice care.
Let’s talk about two, though. Let’s talk about Doc Deibler and Art Rogers.
Doc Deibler has a wooden grandmother clock in the corner of his apartment that chimes every 15 minutes.
The place has a sink, a small fridge, a toaster oven, a bathroom, a blood-pressure machine, a television that’s tuned to an easy-listening station.
Just about everything else is a documented memory. Books about past wars. A big binder that keeps photos from his time in Europe. Pictures of his kids and grandkids. And, of course, pictures of Mary.
There she is, on the dresser, when she was old, the night after she learned she had cancer. (“We had a party to go to that night,” he says, shaking his head. “So we went.”) And there she is again, above his nightstand, when she was young and in her wedding dress. (“We got married in her parents’ living room,” he says. “That dress she’s wearing is made out of my parachute.”)
Before he was Doc, he was a boy who went by Bud, growing up in the town that invented the Zippo lighter. Bradford, Pennsylvania, was a well-to-do place in the 1920s, but Deibler didn’t know much of prosperity. He lived with his grandparents after his mother up and left the family.
On November 17, 1942, nine days after his 18th birthday, he signed up to become a U.S. Army paratrooper. Back then, in the early months of the Army’s airborne divisions, the parachutists trained for their first jumps at Fort Benning, Georgia, by doing static-line drops from a 250-foot-tall tower that had been part of the 1939 World’s Fair. Then they moved on to learning tactical jumps at Camp Mackall, a budding facility in North Carolina near Fort Bragg.
One afternoon while stationed at Camp Mackall, Deibler and his friends went into Sanford for fun. One of the other guys had a girlfriend, and she wanted to set Deibler up with a local girl named Mary. Deibler had been on all of two dates in his life so he almost backed out. But the moment he saw Mary walking toward the car, he says he was in love.
About 18 months later, they were still dating when he learned he’d be going to war. He left in January 1944 and trained in England for six months before news came that on June 6, he’d be one of thousands of paratroopers to jump out over Normandy on what would become known as D-Day.
They left at around 10:30 p.m. on June 5, and just before 1:30 a.m. the next morning, his plane was circling off the coast when it was time to make the pass and jump. Deibler remembers asking himself a question he didn’t have an answer to at the time: “Why is God going to be on our side and not the Germans’ side?”
He survived the jump. Survived the battles. And five weeks later he was on a plane back to England. Over the next 10 months, he fought in Holland for 78 days and Bastogne for 36. All the while, he wrote to Mary.
Four months later, on May 8, he was in that six-man tent in France when the news crackled over the radio: The Germans had surrendered. Pop the Calvado.
He spent the next six months finishing up in Europe. On one assignment, he was asked to examine a concentration camp to see if people were still alive. He says it was there that he got the answer to the question he’d asked 11 months earlier about why God would choose one side and not the other.
Deibler arrived home in Sanford on December 17, 1945. He and Mary married in her living room on December 22.
He went to N.C. State to become a textile engineer. Did that for a while, then came home one day and told Mary he wanted to go to dental school. He sent a letter to UNC Chapel Hill as part of his application, and he remembers telling them that he was 31 years old and just wanted to do something with his life.
After earning his degree and becoming “Doc,” he set up a practice near Sanford, and they lived in the area around Southern Pines for most of the next half-century.
Mary died 13 years ago from the cancer. About three years ago Doc moved into the downstairs garage in south Charlotte. He has plenty of company. Seven family members live in the house — his daughter and her husband, his granddaughter and her husband, and three great-grandkids — and they love it that way.
He spends most of his days watching TV. He’ll sit on a chair on the porch that’s framed by jasmine vines. He gives the great-grandkids lots of chocolate. Occasionally he’ll open one of the old scrapbooks and read the letters and telegrams Mary saved while he was overseas. There’s one from when he first landed back in the U.S.: “Will probably see you in week or ten days,” he wrote then. “I love you with all my heart.”
He still does. In the moments he wasn’t talking about the war on Thursday, he was talking about her. Everything else, including the virus, was less important.
When I asked him how he was handling the quarantine, he laughed.
“Psssht,” he said, “I’ve been doing this for 13 years.”
The Queen City Honor Flight should’ve been preparing to take off next week. The nonprofit organization is devoted to flying veterans to and from Washington D.C. to tour the memorials and monuments in their honor. This year’s trip was scheduled for May 16.
More than 300 veterans applied for the trip. The organization can only take 100 of them — the plane seats 186, and the other 86 are for caretakers and medical professionals and organizers.
Of the 100 veterans on this scheduled flight, about 15 or 16 were from World War II. The others served in Korea and Vietnam.
“They are national treasures,” Nico Iannelli, the director of Queen City Honor Flight, told me. “We want to keep them safe at all times. So we had to make a decision and postpone the flight.”
Postpone until … ?
“We’re looking to see if it’s feasible to do a flight in the fall, but who knows?” he says. Each Honor Flight costs about $85,000. “If we have to take two flights next spring, we will.”
But when it comes to people in this age group, next spring is not guaranteed.
About that. Art Rogers was one of the happiest Honor Flight participants ever to fly.
Born in New York City in 1926, Art was a skinny teenager who worked with some of the world’s finest fashion photographers for about six months. He enlisted in the Navy at 17 years old in 1944.
He never went overseas, but served until 1946 while stationed in Texas. After the war, he went back to New York to try photography, making pictures of fashion models for Sears. Then a friend called with an opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project, the U.S.’s operation to research and develop nuclear weapons.
Art spent the next 20 years of his career taking pictures of top-secret nuclear explosions in top-secret places. His photos were vital to the missions — the better his shots, the more accurate the scientists’ measurements of an explosion’s yield.
Art’s wife, Katherine, was from New York. When Art told her he landed a job in Los Alamos, New Mexico, she’d never heard of the place. But she went anyway. When they pulled into town, she was shocked to see the guards and security checkpoints. But she stayed anyway. For about two decades.
They built a family, and Art put together a strange and exciting career.
One of his most famous photographs was of a mushroom cloud from a hydrogen bomb explosion on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, taken in the late 1950s.
Rogers retired in the 1970s and eventually he and Katherine moved to Fuquay-Varina. Around 2008, she developed Alzheimer’s. Art tried to care for her on his own, sometimes to their detriment. He pushed aside help from care workers and friends. Eventually, his son Russ and daughter-in-law Brenda overruled them and brought them to live in Mooresville with them. They stayed there until Katherine died in 2009.
Brenda introduced Art to a coffee shop in Mooresville called Richard’s. It’s one of those special places around North Carolina where old men and women in khakis and pullover sweaters gather each morning and playfully dispute the charges on the bill, even though the bill’s the same every day.
Now with friends and conversation, Art opened up again. He signed a lease on an apartment, a couple miles from his family. “He was Art Rogers again,” Brenda told me.
He was Art Rogers for 11 more years. He became the unofficial ambassador for Richard’s. He went on two Honor Flight trips to Washington. He went to New Orleans. He became, in some ways, the most famous World War II veteran in the Charlotte region.
In March, Art Rogers decided to take another flight. It was his yearly trip to the Dominican Republic with family. A fine time, as usual. But one day Art was sitting in some shade and felt cold. He moved around to the other side of the pool and stayed too long; he got a mean sunburn and a skin infection.
He landed in Charlotte on March 20, and went to the hospital immediately. The infection required surgery. He spent three days there before being discharged to a long-term care facility.
When they arrived, Autumn Care of Cornelius didn’t report any coronavirus-related trouble to them, Brenda told me. But a recent release from Mecklenburg County showed that the facility had the largest outbreak in the county, with 60 confirmed cases.
One was Art.
His family asked for a test in early April; the results came back the Tuesday before Easter. He was transported to Novant Medical Center. Brenda says she loved the care he received there. Art was a big opera fan, and the staff let her bring a CD player to him. Each day when she’d call, Art told her how the nurses had been playing his opera music for him.
Doctors eventually told Art he had little chance of surviving. He spoke up with something they didn’t expect: He said he wanted to try the anti-malarial drug Chloroquine, just to see if it’d work.
Brenda says that regardless of the results, he saw contributing to the research of the drug as a way to serve his country, and the world, one more time.
“Bren’,” he told her, “I’m either going to beat it or help find a cure.”
He took three treatments but his condition worsened. Soon the man who photographed the hydrogen bomb was holding the fanciest piece of technology he’d ever seen — an iPad — and he was saying goodbye to family members.
“He wanted to be active and have purpose to his last breath,” Brenda said. “And he was.”
On April 24, Arthur Mund Rogers became North Carolina’s latest Covid-19 victim. He was 93, and like so many from his generation, right to the end, he did everything he could for us.
His family hasn’t had a service for him yet. They’re waiting for a time when they can all gather safely at Salisbury National Cemetery to bury him next to Katherine, with full military honors.
To sponsor a veteran on the next Queen City Honor Flight, or to fill out an application to take the next trip, whenever that may be, visit the organization’s website. For additional ways to help veterans, try Veterans Bridge Home, which helps veterans connect with their communities. Or visit the Mecklenburg County Veterans Services site.