Canton’s elder statesman reflects on life, love, military career

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The story below originally appeared in the Canton Citizen on November 27, 2013. The Citizen republished it this week in honor of George Sykes, a longtime Canton resident and World War II veteran who passed away on Saturday at the age of 97. (Click here for obituary)

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At 94 years of age and part of the rapidly diminishing cohort of surviving World War II veterans, George Sykes of Canton has gotten quite accustomed to his role as an elder statesman.

George Sykes (center) accepts a piece of cake from Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.

George Sykes (center) accepts a piece of cake from Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sometimes he is recognized as such and other times it goes unnoticed; but rarely has that honor meant as much to him as it did on Friday, November 8, when Sykes was recognized as the oldest living veteran at the U.S. Marine Corps birthday luncheon at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Hosted by the Semper Fidelis Society and attended by thousands of Marines from across the region and beyond, the celebration featured plenty of “pomp and circumstance” and a speech by the Marine Corps commandant himself, General James F. Amos, along with the annual cake-cutting ceremony — a Marine Corps birthday tradition dating back to at least the mid 20th century.

As is the custom at such celebrations, the oldest Marine present — who this year was Sergeant Sykes — takes a piece of cake and then passes it to the youngest Marine, symbolizing the passing of knowledge and experience from one generation of Marines to the next.

“It was quite an acknowledgement for him,” remarked Larry Pushard, owner of the Roache-Pushard Funeral Home in Canton and a nine-year veteran of the Corps.

Pushard, who buys a table every year at the luncheon and shares it with members of the Canton Funeral Honor Guard, had actually realized at last November’s celebration that Sykes was the oldest Marine in attendance; however, the distinction had already been assigned to another man, and Sykes was therefore ordered, in Pushard’s words, to “live another year.”

For the humble and unassuming Sykes, the experience of being singled out among all those fellow veterans and standing shoulder to shoulder with the commandant was far and away the “most exciting day of [his] life as a Marine” and the perfect bookend to his 70-year love affair with the Corps.

“I’m just so honored and proud,” said Sykes. “From the day [I enlisted], and now 70 years later to be in this situation, I thought, ‘How lucky can a guy get?’”

***

The irony is that when Sykes first walked into a Boston recruiting office in 1942, luck did not appear to be on his side whatsoever.

Afflicted with Dupuytren’s contracture, a hand disorder that causes the fingers to bend toward the palm, he was initially told he could not join the Marines but that the Army or Navy would take him if he was interested.

“No,” he remembers telling the recruiting officer. “I’ll be back.”

Informed that his right pinkie finger was the stumbling block, Sykes decided to call Mass. General Hospital and arrange to have it removed — and he did just that, attracting the attention of a Boston Globe reporter but ultimately landing at his intended target: Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.

While at boot camp Sykes proved to be a crack shot on the rifle range, and he later stayed on as an instructor for a short period of time before being sent to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

During his time at Camp LeJeune, Sykes called his girlfriend and the love of his life, Agnes, whom he had met at Chez Vous roller skating rink in Mattapan, and asked her to come join him on base.

“I was told I wouldn’t be shipping out for a while,” he said, “so I called my girl and said, ‘Look it, I’m going to be here a while. Would you like to come down and we can get married?’ And she came down in a flash.”

The couple lived together for about a year in a trailer park for married enlisted Marines, and then Agnes headed back to Boston, pregnant with their first child, while Sykes got ready to ship out to the Pacific.

Prior to leaving, he made a quick stop home on furlough to see his firstborn son. “I came home to the hospital, saw my newborn son behind the glass in the nursery, and the next time I saw him was 18 months later,” recalled Sykes.

George Sykes (far right) at Camp LeJeune

George Sykes (far right) at Camp LeJeune

He went on to serve overseas in the Pacific Theatre and saw action at the Battle of Okinawa, where he was injured while jumping into a foxhole and later sent to Guam to recover.

Many of his memories from this period are hazy, although there are certain details that he remembers like they were yesterday: landing on the beach at Okinawa and climbing down the side of the assault ship; stopping on the side of a dirt road and seeing a row of dead bodies — all U.S. Marines — laid out under a tarp.

He also remembers Carl Bittner, a young Marine who he shared a tent with at Guadalcanal and who stowed away on an assault ship rather than stay behind as he had been instructed. Bittner would survive the war but was later killed in a freak accident in Japan — electrocuted by a high-tension wire while he was connecting power to a water treatment plant.

***

Sykes was recovering on Guam when he first heard the news that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and he later spent time in China helping to disarm the Japanese before returning to the U.S. in 1946 by way of Pearl Harbor.

He was discharged in Maryland, and before heading back to Boston he made a pit stop in Philadelphia to visit the Bittners and to tell them how sorry he was for their son’s death.

To this day, Sykes can still remember the look on Mrs. Bittner’s face when he knocked on the door in his green Marine Corps uniform.

“All the grief was just right on her face,” recalled Sykes, fighting back tears. “They say Marines don’t cry, but I just swept her up in my arms and both of us had a good cry. And for her husband to tell me [the next morning that] my visit was helpful to her meant a lot to me.”

After the war, Sykes focused his attention on his family and his career, eventually landing a high-paying job at the Watertown Arsenal while attending Northeastern University on the GI Bill. Together he and Agnes had three more children, all boys, and in the mid 1950s they moved from South Boston to Pleasant Street in Canton.

At the time, Sykes said Canton felt like the “end of the world” to him, especially coming from Boston, but he quickly “blended” in the community and became active in various civic organizations and veterans groups, from the Canton Senior Men’s Club to the Fish and Game Club to the Funeral Honor Guard.

“I was right at home with all my fellow veterans,” said Sykes, reserving much of his praise for Canton Veterans Agent Tony Andreotti. “We would go into the schools and talk to the kids about respect for the flag and folding the flag. Those were wonderful years.”

***

In March of this year, Sykes said goodbye to his beloved Agnes after 70 years of marriage. She had battled dementia for the last six years of her life, and in the end “it got so bad,” according to Sykes.

“I used to go to the Hellenic Nursing Home every day and sit by her bedside,” he said, “and I would hold her hand and tell her how much I loved her.”

Today he visits her at least once a week at the Norwood Cemetery. “I have an aluminum garden chair that folds,” he said, “and I take that chair out and I walk over to her grave, open the chair up, sit down, say my prayers and talk to my wife.”

And though he still misses her dearly, Sykes considers himself blessed to have a loving and supportive family — including seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — and a lifetime of wonderful memories.

“I’ve just been so blessed all my life,” said Sykes on the eve of his 94th Thanksgiving. “To have been in love with a lovely lady — for 75 years in love and 70 years married — and to be 70 years bonded with my Marine Corps, I couldn’t think of any more good fortune.”

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avatar Posted by on Dec 5 2013. Filed under Citizen Classics, Features.
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