Russell Pittsley last month buttoned the Army jacket that he wore during World War II, when he served in the infantry.
Russell Pittsley last month buttoned the Army jacket that he wore during World War II, when he served in the infantry.
John Tlumacki

THOMAS FARRAGHER

Old soldier salutes other veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice

LAKEVILLE — As the ramrod-straight Marine raises the bugle to his lips, Russell Pittsley snaps into the gesture of respect that he first practiced — and then perfected — as a young man a very long time ago.

Under battleship-gray skies, the 99-year-old Pittsley stands at one end of a line of a dozen men dressed in the colors of the country they once served, as an American flag waves high in the chilly autumn breeze outside the Dahlborg-MacNevin Funeral Home .

The old soldier is still saluting the uniform and the service of veterans like himself, now as part of a military honor guard that has become his final tribute to those who left their homes and their families — their towns and their cities — and marched off to defend the nation to which they swore allegiance and then helped reshape.

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“It might be one of the most important things I have done,’’ Pittsley told me later over lunch at a diner in his hometown in nearby Middleborough. “When you have Veterans Day, you think about things. I think about the guys who didn’t get home. The guys who didn’t make it.

“We honor each other, I guess.’’

Russ Pittsley’s latest act of service, paying tribute to veterans at funerals and at solemn memorials about twice a month, is almost certainly his final performance of duty to his country that stretches back more than three generations.

Middleborough-10/31/19- Russell Pittlsey, age 99, is one of the last of a generation of World War ll veterans. He places his hand on a photograph of himself in the war. He still serves his community as a member of the honor guard. Was was in the Army infantry in the Pacific theatre in the war. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Russell Pittsley placed his hand on a photograph of himself in the war.
John Tlumacki

That duty began in 1940, when a military recruiter from Cape Cod encouraged him and two friends to wear the uniform of the National Guard.

“We figured, oh, we’re going to protect the Cape Cod Canal,’’ recalled Pittsley, wearing a sly smile beneath impish blue eyes.

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Except that’s not what happened.

“We went on maneuvers up in New York state, and when we came back in late September 1940, Roosevelt had federalized the National Guard,’’ he recalled. “Now, we’re in the service.’’

And then in a world war.

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It was a life-shaping military march that took him to Camp Hulen in Texas, where he was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit until the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“We didn’t know anything about Pearl Harbor,’’ he said. “I didn’t even know where it was. Anyhow, we walked into a barroom and had a couple of beers. And the guy sitting at the bar says, ‘Well, you guys are in trouble now.’ I said, ‘We don’t know what the hell happened.’’’

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What happened was the defining moment of what has been called the Greatest Generation, the monumental war effort of young men and women who marched across Europe, defeated Hitler, and sailed into the South Pacific.

John Tlumacki
Russell Pittsley.

Pittsley found himself in Luzon in the Philippines, where he trained for an invasion of Japan and was part of daily patrols in mountainous terrain to capture what was left of the Japanese forces, bringing them back to US camps for interrogation.

After the US dropped atomic bombs in early August 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pittsley was a member of the US occupation forces in Japan, eventually returning home to Massachusetts, where he was discharged from the service at Fort Devens in January 1946.

He married the woman who would become his wife for 57 years — Evelyn Smith of Springfield — and they had three children, members of the demographic colossus known as the Baby Boom.

And as he built a life and a family, he put his military life on a shelf. Or he packed it in a closet as he adjusted to life as a civilian.

“When I came home, I kind of goofed around a lot,’’ he said. “Back in those days, the state of Massachusetts used to give us 20 bucks. Used to call it the 52-20 Club. For 52 weeks, you got 20 dollars a week.’’

He drove a cab. He cut logs. His father had a little printing shop, so he set type and ran the press, and that became his career.

Middleborough-10/31/19- Russell Pittsley, age 99, is one of the last of a generation of World War ll veteransHe puts on his Army jacket he wore and WW ll and adjusts his cap in his bedroom mirror. . He still serves his community as a member of the honor guard. Was was in the Army infantry in the Pacific theatre in the war. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Russell Pittsley.
John Tlumacki

Three children came along and the old soldier went to work as a father, the guy who fixed his own plumbing, changed his own oil, and re-roofed his own house.

“He was always soft-hearted,’’ said his daughter Geri Ballard, the middle child. “We always went to him instead of my mother because he would always say, ‘Yes.’ He’s got a good heart.’’

Five years or so ago, Pittsley and his son, Michael, retraced his path into the military, eventually finding his old barracks on Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay.

“It made him who he is today,’’ the old soldier’s son said. “It helped form him as a young man. The things that he saw made an impact on him.’’

They still do. And it helps explain why he was sitting with other old soldiers the other day in that booth in Middleborough.

“That man sitting right over there is history,’’ said Bob Lessard, the commander — and historian — of Middleborough’s Simeon L. Nickerson American Legion Post 64, pointing across the table to Pittsley. “Right in the flesh.’’

Paul Provencher, a Vietnam veteran who retired in 2017 after serving as Middleborough’s veterans agent for 13 years, said the last US World War I veteran died in 2011 at age 110.

“Now, we’re probably within five to 10 years of the last World War II fellow passing on,’’ Provencher said. “And the Korean War guys are right behind them. So we need to celebrate these guys as often as we can.’’

That’s what Veterans Day is all about.

“When you think about it, if it wasn’t for a lot of the guys in World War II, we’d be speaking German today. Or Japanese,’’ Russ Pittsley said. “And I’ve thought a lot about that. We’re here to keep these guys from taking over our country. And if you didn’t do something about it, they’re going to walk in and take it.’’

Russ Pittsley lived his life and raised his family and only rejoined the VFW in 1997. He’s now a lifetime member.

And a frequent and treasured part of its honor guard.

“It seemed like a good thing to do: to honor the guys who have gone, who have died,’’ he said. “To honor the guys who have gone before us. I hope somebody is going to honor me someday.’’

And then, as we sat in that diner the other afternoon, somebody did.

Two young men and a young woman emerged from an adjacent booth and stopped to shake the hands of men dressed in jackets and caps that identified them as the soldiers they once were.

“Thank you for your service,’’ one man said.

Then they shook the 99-year-old hand of Russ Pittsley, a hand that once held a rifle in the Pacific when the world was at war.

His hands still snap to attention to salute other veterans who, like himself, left home for a foreign land and then returned quietly to their old neighborhoods to enjoy the fruits of the freedom they had fought to secure.