According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 16 million men and women served our country during World War II. Of those 16 million, it is estimated that just over 600,000 are still with us today. San Diegan Byrd M. Banks Jr. is one of them.
Banks was born in Dublin, Virginia, in 1923 and was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943. He served for three years in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, and fought in four battles.
“I didn’t mind being drafted,” says Banks. “I lived in a very small town and the South was still very prejudiced at that time. My mother passed away when I was 16 years old, which was a great loss because we were very close. My father didn’t want me to go, but I was ready.”
Soon after being drafted, Banks found himself on a British ship travelling from New York to Liverpool, England, with hundreds of other enlisted men. He remembers the food as being lousy during the 15-day trip and the waters rough. His experiences upon arrival were no less daunting.
“We lived in the fields in pup tents and foxholes during the war,” he remembers. “The roads were lined with very tall trees that would be cut down by Hitler’s men so that they would fall across the road to block our passage, making us a perfect target.”
Between battles, Banks recalls sleeping in barns and eating meals out of his mess kit. Soldiers would heat water in their steel helmets as makeshift baths.
“It was very difficult, but the camaraderie was super,” he says. “We were like brothers.”
Banks later enlisted with the U.S. Air Force in 1956 and was promoted to the rank of Master Sergeant. He enjoyed a successful Air Force career during which he served in Vietnam for two years and travelled to 13 countries while performing and teaching aircraft maintenance.
He received numerous awards during his time in the service, including three Commendation Medals for good conduct. When he retired from the Air Force, he moved to Youngstown, Ohio, and worked in a steel mill. He enjoyed living in a more diverse city that allowed him greater rights and freedoms.
“It was a godsend,” he says. “We could eat any place we wanted to and go to the movies and didn’t have to sit in the balconies.”
Later, Banks was a sales executive for a national paint company. He and his late wife, Alberta, were married for close to 36 years; they had one daughter who is married with a son and remains close to her father, living just 1.5 miles away.
Banks now enjoys cooking, taking care of his apartment, running errands and serving his church as a Deacon Emeritus. He and his daughter, son-in-law and grandson will celebrate Veterans Day together by visiting one of the many local restaurants that invite veterans to enjoy a complimentary meal.
When asked about his long and healthy life, Banks says that he gives the credit to God and Dr. Brian First, board-certified internal medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group and medical director of the Sharp Senior Health Center in Clairemont.
“I couldn’t ask for a better doctor,” he says. “Dr. First and the staff at the senior center are wonderful.” Banks is also appreciative of the men and women he served with and those who continue to serve our country.
“Veterans Day is a very good reminder of the times we’ve been through,” he says. “I hope people take the time to celebrate all veterans and the sacrifices they have made.”