For many Americans, Memorial Day means cookouts and fun with friends and family.
But for Nate Weiser, it’s a day to remember buddies who died on the battlefields of World War II.
“I’ve never forgotten their faces – I see them all the time,” the 96-year-old retired Wayne businessman says of his comrades who were killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Allied advance against the Nazis in Europe in the 1940s.
“These guys were more than war buddies,” Weiser said, struggling to hold back tears. “We spent every minute of every day wondering if we’d get back alive. And when someone died, it was like losing a brother.”
Weiser is part of a vanishing breed — 16 million men and women who served in the American armed forces during World War II. Only 1.2 million are left and they’re dying at the rate of 600 per day.
Weiser, who feels lucky to have survived, returned home and started a family and a successful scrap metal business. But he did more. He went from serving his country to serving his community as a member of the Wayne City Council, the boards of a local bank and YMCA and the Wayne Rotary Club.
“Nate is the kind of guy who touches your soul,” says John Van Stipdonk, former Wayne Rotary president, who says Weiser, for years, contributed his time and money to the community. In 2005, when Weiser was in his late 80s, he persuaded the Rotary Club to give free dictionaries every year to hundreds of Wayne school children. “He’s gracious, gentle, kind and an extremely generous person.”
Weiser was born and raised in Chicago, one of three children of Russian and Romanian immigrants. His father was a fabric cutter for a national men’s clothing manufacturer, his mother, a homemaker.
After graduating from high school in 1935, Weiser, a football center, enrolled at Albion College with plans to become a physical education teacher and coach. But a year after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in 1939, Weiser and two friends enlisted in the Army Air Corps, eager for the chance to serve in exotic Hawaii.
The friends arrived at Wheeler Field near Honolulu in December 1940 and trained to become radio technicians on fighter planes.
They were there on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Field and other military installations on Oahu.
“I was standing in line for breakfast around 8 a.m. when we heard a loud boom outside the mess hall,” Weiser said. “The blast was so powerful, it shook the building and knocked over dishes and tables. The mess sergeant shouted that he was going to kill whoever was responsible, thinking someone on the base had messed up.”
Shaken, Weiser raced to a door, looked out and saw a plane lining up for what appeared to be a strafing run. When he spotted the huge red dot on the plane’s fuselage, he realized the Japanese were attacking the base.
“The plane was so low, I could see the pilot’s goggles and red scarf – I’ll never get that image out of my mind,” Weiser said.
Terrified, the men made a desperate break for the base’s residential area to get out of the line of fire. They dodged bullets all the way.
“It seemed like it took forever to get there,” he remembered.
When they arrived, a captain ordered them to flee to the safety of the mountains and await an invasion that never came. He also gave them a mysterious black box containing some sort of communications equipment and told them to protect it with their lives.
After spending a miserable night in a muddy foxhole, they returned to the base and surveyed the damage.
“The base was all shot to hell,” Weiser said. He never found out what was in the box.
All told, 3,500 soldiers were killed or wounded in the attack on Hawaii, including two other friends that Weiser and his buddies had partied with the night before.
Seventy-one years later, Weiser still has nightmares about that day. For a long time, the sound of a droning engine made him want to run for cover.
Months after the attack, he was back in the states for more training and later was assigned to the 386th Fighter Squadron of the 365th Fighter-Bomber Group — the famed Hell Hawks — that was sent to fight in Europe.
He became a master sergeant and supervised crews who maintained radios and other equipment on P-47 dive-bombers in England, France, Belgium and Germany.
His group participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium that December when Germans broke through the American lines. Though Weiser wasn’t on the front lines during those battles, he was close enough to be in danger.
Weiser won a Bronze Star for meritorious service for fixing a radio problem that had plagued P-47s.
“I feel like I made my time in the service count for something,” Weiser said of the award.
After the war, he returned to Albion College and attended graduate classes. He also married Norma Jones, whom he met at a dance in St. Louis. They have been married 67 years and have two daughters.
In the early 1950s, he opened Weiser Iron and Metal Company in Wayne. He also got involved in politics and civic activities, including the Wayne Rotary Club, where he’s been a member for 57 years.
Weiser cares about children and literacy.
In 2005, in his late 80s, he persuaded the Rotary Club to start giving dictionaries every year to Wayne third-graders. This year, the club presented 248 books to the children.
The program is a big hit with students, parents and teachers.
“The kids absolutely love those books,” said Amy Thorner, a teacher at Taft-Galloway Elementary School. She said the hardcover children’s dictionaries are personally inscribed, fully illustrated and contain sections on American presidents, the 50 states and other topics.
“It’s a wonderful resource,” she added. “It makes them more exited about learning. They think the books are so cool, they even take them to recess.”
Weiser’s contributions didn’t end there.
After moving several years ago to Henry Ford Village, an upscale senior citizen apartment complex in Dearborn, Weiser persuaded administrators to participate in the national Cell Phones for Soldiers Program. The project collects old phones to provide cost-free communications to active duty service personnel and veterans.
Weiser said he pushed for the program because he remembered how hard it was to call his parents after the Pearl Harbor attack.
The years have been kind to Weiser. Although he’s hard of hearing and uses a walker to get around the apartment complex, he’s in good health. He still attends Rotary meetings, visits with friends and works in an occasional nine holes of golf.
“I’m 96 and thankful to still be alive,” Weiser said with a smile.
He’s also thrilled that his Army Air Corps uniform still fits.
David Ashenfelter served as a reporter for many years for both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press and won Pulitzer Prizes at both papers. He’s a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.