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Remembering America's 'Greatest Generation'

On Monday, Americans will observe Memorial Day -- remembering military personnel who have died while serving their country.

During World War II alone, nearly 300,000 U.S. service members were killed in action. These men and women have come to be known as America's "Greatest Generation" for their sacrifices.

VOA's Margaret Besheer remembers her own family's history and recalls the story of three relatives - brothers who served in World War II and returned home to tell of their experiences.

The eldest, Teddie Balesh, was in the Battle of the Bulge. Fred, the middle brother, served in India; while the youngest, Joe, entered the Air Corps as a teenager and was captured by the Germans in occupied France.

They are my mother's cousins, but to me they have always been my "uncles." These three brothers, sons of Lebanese immigrants, children of the Great Depression, grew up in relative comfort in Brooklyn, New York.

But the Second World War interrupted their quiet youth, taking them far from home to places they had only known from schoolbooks.

The war began in Europe in 1939. It would last six years and become the deadliest human conflict in history. More than 100 million soldiers were mobilized from 61 nations. Over 50 million people, two-thirds of them civilians, lost their lives.

Off to War

It was into this unfolding human tragedy that young Fred was drafted in August 1941, four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the War.

In March 1942, he was put on a ship crowded with other young soldiers and sent to India. Today, Fred is 89 and lives in the U.S. state of Ohio. He remembers the journey. "It was a terrible trip because it was very hot. No ventilation. Not enough fresh water. We had to bathe in sea water. I wondered all the time how I ended up on that ship," he recalls.

During the two month trip, the boat stopped in Cape Town, South Africa, then a part of the British Commonwealth.

"There were no men there at all except old men. We were the only young men around there when the ship came in. All the British men were overseas fighting. Even from South Africa," says Fred Balesh.

They finally reached their destination of Karachi, then part of India. After a brief stint there, Fred was sent to Delhi, where he was assigned to the Southeast Asia Command responsible for China, Burma and India. He remained there for two years serving under General Joseph Stilwell, organizing airlifts of supplies to Chinese forces fighting the Japanese.

The Air War Over Europe

While Fred was in Delhi, his younger brother, Joe, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. At 19 years old, Joe was trained as a radio operator and gunner, and in November 1943 sailed for England on the Queen Mary.

Just one month later, on December 31, during a mission to Bordeaux, France, German aircraft attacked his B-17 bomber.

"You could see parts of the nose flying off the plane, but we did not head down right away. We turned out of the formation, because we knew we could not get back to England,” he says. “So the pilot thought maybe we were so far south in France, maybe we could get to Spain and land."

But they did not make it. Nine of the crew members parachuted from the plane. The tenth man, seriously injured in the attack, did not survive.

Joe was separated from the others, landing alone in a village not far from Toulouse, in German-occupied Vichy France. Joe is now 83 years old and still lives in Brooklyn, New York. "Along comes a man. He seemed to be trustworthy. And quite frankly, I had absolutely no other option. So he said he would take me to friendly people and he did,” says Joe.

That man was part of the French Resistance. Over the following weeks, Joe was passed from house-to-house, fed, sheltered and protected by the Resistance.

"It was a tremendous chance they were taking. These were very brave people. There was no fooling around," he says. "If the Germans found you were doing this, it was not a very pleasant thing."

Evading Capture

The only means to safety was for Joe to cross the Pyrenees Mountains that separated France and Spain. Much of the trip was on foot.

At the top of a mountain, his French rescuers mistakenly told him that he was now in Spain. Joe set out to descend the other side alone. Instead, he came upon a German guardhouse. "All of a sudden there are dogs barking and the doors of the sentry hut fly open and the dogs come running out followed by three German army personnel There was no place for me to go," he recalls.

POW Hardship

Joe was arrested and sent to Toulouse, where he was put in solitary confinement in a civilian jail. A few weeks later, his situation worsened. "I was put in with the Jewish people who were being rounded up to be sent to camps,” he says. “It was very pathetic. These people had no chance. They were regular people. Some young, some old."

In April 1944, Joe was designated a military prisoner of war and sent to a camp in Austria known as Stalag-17 where conditions were harsh. He remained there for one year.

After Joe's plane was shot down, he was listed as "Missing in Action." His brother Fred remembers what a difficult and uncertain time it was for their family.

"I had written to Joe and about a month later it [i.e., the letter] came back stamped 'Missing in Action.' But fortunately, I had gotten a letter from home before that came telling me that he had been knocked down [i.e., shot down]. But as far as they knew he was alive and was captured. That softened the blow," says Fred.

As the Balesh family prayed and worried, the eldest and only remaining son, Teddie, was drafted and sent to Europe. He was in the Battle of Bulge -- the bloodiest single battle of the War in which Americans fought. Meanwhile, Joe remained a prisoner of war in Austria.

In April 1945, as the Russian army advanced, the Germans decided to move their prisoners. "We were on the road marching across Austria to the West," says Joe.

On May 2, 1945, just days before Germany's surrender, American troops liberated Joe and his fellow prisoners.

The War's End

The three brothers survived the war and were reunited in Brooklyn, New York.

Their stories are typical of the bravery, sacrifice and humility of the other young men who defended America in World War II. It is no wonder that they are often called our "Greatest Generation."

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.