‘DE­FY­ING THE ODDS’

4 brothers, all WWII vet­er­ans in their 90s: We’re not he­roes

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY THÉODEN JANES [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Per­haps the quick­est way to start an ar­gu­ment with the Dal­ton brothers is to sug­gest that — be­cause they all served in the U.S. mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II — they might be he­roes.

It also might be the quick­est way to bring them to­gether.

“Oh, no,” says Ru­fus Dal­ton, shak­ing his head solemnly. It seems he’s been wait­ing to get this off his chest.

“Speak­ing for my brothers, let me say up­front that we’re not four he­roes. The real he­roes are those that gave their lives dur­ing the war ... We’re just four guys that out­lived ev­ery­body else. And we were just part of the uni­fied na­tional ef­fort to take three dic­ta­tors out and put the world back in shape again. So, we’re not he­roes.”

On this af­ter­noon, just three weeks shy of Vet­er­ans Day, Ru­fus sits next to Harry, Bob and a framed pho­to­graph of Jim in the liv­ing room of Bob’s home in Char­lotte’s Wen­doverSedge­wood neigh­bor­hood. (Although the photo makes it seem like they’re pay­ing trib­ute to a de­parted loved one, it’s just that Jim lives in At­lanta and isn’t as mo­bile as his sib­lings.)

Harry lets a few sec­onds of si­lence hang in the air, then begs to dif­fer with Ru­fus.

“But see, that’s the mod­esty of my brothers,” says Harry, youngest of the four at 91. “They’ve al­ways been my he­roes. I’ll tell you that.”

Ru­fus, 94, chuck­les as he slaps Harry’s right knee three times. He says, qui­etly: “Thanks, Harry.”

“Grow­ing up be­hind these three brothers,” Harry con­tin­ues, “it was quite a chal­lenge to me to mea­sure up.”

Ru­fus leans close to his baby brother: “You mea­sured up good.” Fi­nally, Bob, the el­dest at 97, chimes in: “Still mea­sur­ing up.”

It’s a ten­der ex­change — and

a re­mark­ably im­prob­a­ble scene: Four Char­lot­te­born and -raised brothers, all in their 90s, all of whom were on ac­tive duty when WWII ended more than 73 years ago — and all of whom have out­lived al­most ev­ery man they knew who served in that war, save for the ones they’re re­lated to.

Fewer than 500,000 of the 16 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who served in the Sec­ond World War are still liv­ing, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs sta­tis­tics. The VA es­ti­mates 348 of them die each day.

In fact, Ru­fus says, this sum­mer he be­came the sole sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the Army’s 100th In­fantry Divi­sion, which en­tered WWII via the beaches of Mar­seilles, France, in Oc­to­ber 1944. He knows, be­cause he’s been the un­of­fi­cial cor­re­spon­dence sec­re­tary for his com­pany since the turn of the cen­tury.

Ru­fus is also the un­of­fi­cial cor­re­spon­dence sec­re­tary for his fam­ily. Upon learn­ing that the Ob­server was in­ter­ested in writ­ing about him and his brothers, Ru­fus wrote “a brief bi­o­graph­i­cal sketch” of their lives, along with de­tailed in­di­vid­ual dossiers on all four, as well as an­other on their still-liv­ing younger sis­ter: Sally Robin­son, also of Char­lotte.

And it’s clear that each Dal­ton si­b­ling is in­ter­est­ing enough to merit a story at least as long as this one. Some snap­shots, from old­est to youngest:

Bob landed in France

in 1944 as a pla­toon leader in the Army’s 8th In­fantry Divi­sion, suf­fered a grue­some leg wound in ar­tillery fire that Septem­ber, then re­turned to ac­tion as a cap­tain with the 29th In­fantry Reg­i­ment be­fore be­ing honor­ably dis­charged after the war as a ma­jor. Later in life, among many other ac­com­plish­ments, he was a tex­tile ex­ec­u­tive and pres­i­dent of the Char­lotte Sym­phony Or­ches­tra.

Jim sailed for Eu­rope

in 1944 and served closely be­hind the lines in a com­bat mil­i­tary po­lice com­pany with the Army dur­ing the Rhineland and Cen­tral Eu­rope cam­paigns; he was en route to the Pa­cific Ocean theater when the Ja­panese sur­ren­dered. He moved to At­lanta 60 years ago, re­tir­ing in 1996 from Ca­raus­tar In­dus­tries, one of the coun­try’s largest man­u­fac­tur­ers of re­cy­cled pa­per­board prod­ucts, hav­ing served as pres­i­dent, CEO and chair­man of the board. (Though he was ab­sent from the in­ter­view, and wasn’t able to join via cell­phone or a video call due to dif­fi­culty speak­ing, his brothers brought his name up at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity: “We’re very proud of Jim. We re­ally wish he could be here, too,” Ru­fus said.)

Ru­fus en­tered the

front line in the Vos­ges Moun­tains in Novem­ber 1944 as a cor­po­ral in the 100th. While his unit was en­gaged with the Ger­man Army, he took a piece of shrap­nel in the head — and re­turned to the bat­tle­field the next day. By the time the war ended in 1945, he had risen to first lieu­tenant. Among his many post­war ac­com­plish­ments: He helped found a tex­tile mill and a mi­cro­cir­cuits plant in Mooresville, and has spent half a cen­tury on the board of the North Carolina Out­ward Bound School.

Harry joined the Navy

the day be­fore his 18th birth­day in 1945 and had qual­i­fied for the Naval Ra­dio School, but the war ended be­fore he’d fin­ished. So he served at the Shel­ton Naval Sta­tion in Nor­folk, Va., un­til he was honor­ably dis­charged in 1946. In busi­ness, he ran a sub­sidiary of brother Jim’s com­pany in Rock Hill, S.C. (where he still lives), even­tu­ally suc­ceed­ing Jim as pres­i­dent, and — con­tin­u­ing his fam­ily’s tra­di­tion of sup­port­ing non­prof­its — was chair­man of the Sierra Club Foun­da­tion for many years.

As a young girl dur­ing

the war, Sally gob­bled up news­pa­per and ra­dio re­ports about her brothers’ com­pa­nies’ where­abouts, giv­ing her par­ents daily up­dates. She grew up to serve her com­mu­nity as pas­sion­ately as her brothers served their coun­try: A found­ing mem­ber of the Levine Mu­seum of the New South, she has served on the boards of the Arts & Sci­ence Coun­cil, the Char­lotte Sym­phony and the McColl Cen­ter — to name a few. (Her hus­band, Rus­sell Robin­son, is a found­ing part­ner of one of North Carolina’s largest law firms, Robin­son Brad­shaw.)

Ru­fus com­piled all of this with the idea of cel­e­brat­ing the en­tire Dal­ton fam­ily and their long lives of ser­vice, and even when asked more about the war, framed ac­com­plish­ments as a group. In an email, he listed war dec­o­ra­tions this way: “The brothers col­lec­tively re­ceived two Bronze Stars for valor, two Pur­ple Hearts for wounds in ac­tion, two Le­gion of Honor medals from France, and two Pres­i­den­tial Unit Ci­ta­tions, among a num­ber of bat­tle rib­bons.”

And though you can sur­mise which Dal­tons re­ceived which ac­co­lades from the de­scrip­tions above, Ru­fus re­peated dur­ing an in­ter­view: “Col­lec­tively, we as a fam­ily have these medals.”

Their fa­vorite me­mories of wartime are about fam­ily.

Per­haps most no­tably, Bob, while work­ing with his out­fit to track the where­abouts of var­i­ous units, de­vised ways to make sur­prise vis­its to Jim and — on the front line in south­ern France — Ru­fus.

(“Ru­fus was hav­ing a piece of chicken when I opened the door,” re­calls Bob, who mimes pre­par­ing to take a bite, then stop­ping, mouth gap­ing open. Ru­fus laughs. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” he says, “that I would see my brother right in the mid­dle of the line!”)

But the lit­tle things strike them, too — Ru­fus, Jim and Bob re­ceiv­ing let­ters from home about how the fam­ily was keep­ing track of the war via Movi­etone news­reels at the old Carolina The­atre; Harry re­mem­ber­ing their mother’s pride in the pin she wore that had stars rep­re­sent­ing each son and their ser­vice. (Proud, but also wor­ried, Harry says, es­pe­cially when it was time to add a fourth star. “She would tend to emo­tional dif­fi­cul­ties, and hav­ing three boys go­ing in the Army, go­ing over­seas to fight in World War II, I think it just got the best of her. So Dad asked me if I would con­sider vol­un­teer­ing for the Navy as soon as I got out of high school. That way I’d be go­ing a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion from the three brothers.”)

The World War II-era Amer­ica that the brothers de­scribe is a dif­fer­ent Amer­ica.

“The war ef­fort brought ev­ery­body to­gether,” Harry says. “I didn’t go over­seas, but I had the feel­ing of be­ing left home and see­ing the war from over here, and it was a very uni­fy­ing time. The home front in this coun­try was solidly be­hind our ef­forts in the war, and peo­ple did ev­ery­thing ev­ery day in sup­port of the war.”

Adds Ru­fus: “To­day, we’ve got ser­vice­men over­seas — bless their hearts — that are over there fight­ing and com­ing back and rest­ing, go­ing back, fight­ing again, and the rest of the coun­try is hardly in­volved with it ex­cept when we stand up, salute, give them recog­ni­tion at the foot­ball games and that type of thing.”

And they re­al­ize that part of the rev­er­ence they re­ceive has an­other source.

When the U.S. Se­nate paid trib­ute to Harry, Ru­fus, Jim and Bob in June — with the Con­gres­sional Record call­ing the four brothers’ con­cur­rent ser­vice in WWII “ex­tremely rare” — Ru­fus of­fered this as the most likely ex­pla­na­tion for the honor:

“We’re all still alive.” They show only slight signs of slow­ing down. Harry ar­rived for the in­ter­view hav­ing just com­pleted a 2-1/2-hour drive from a mid-fall get­away to Roan Moun­tain, Tenn. Ru­fus, who lives in SouthPark’s Sharon Tow­ers, had spent the pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon play­ing golf with his son, grand­son and grand­daugh­ter’s hus­band. When it’s warm enough, Bob still fre­quently grabs a raft, slips into his back­yard pool and kicks his way from side to side for ex­er­cise.

“We’re de­fy­ing the odds, aren’t we?” Harry says. “Our dad ... he (died) two or three months short of his 90th birth­day. So I think — I did, and I think we all did — I kind of ac­cepted that as a chal­lenge to see if we could live to age 90. And once we did, we said, ‘Well, why not keep go­ing?’

“Did you guys feel some sort of pres­sure to get to that 90th year?” Harry asks, turn­ing to Ru­fus and Bob. “I did. When I was 89 and three months, I said, ‘Gosh, I’ve got nine more months to go. Don’t fall.’ ”

He laughs, and Ru­fus joins him, an­swer­ing: “It was more of a hope than a pres­sure.”

“Yeah, yeah, ‘Some­thing’s gonna go wrong,’ ” Harry says. “But we’ve been for­tu­nate and lucky, haven’t we?”

“We have been,” Bob says.

For­tu­nate and lucky and — whether they like it or not — for­ever branded as he­roes.

What’s the most com­mon re­sponse he gets when peo­ple learn he fought in World War II? “’Thank you for your ser­vice,’” Ru­fus replies. “They’re still do­ing that.”

He laughs, un­com­fort­ably. His brothers join in, and Ru­fus adds an un­likely thought:

“I kind of think, ‘Oh, we’ve been thanked enough.’”

LORENA RIOS TREVINO [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Ru­fus, 94, Harry, 91, and Bob Dal­ton, 97, with Harry hold­ing a photo of their brother Jim, 96, who lives in At­lanta. Ru­fus says the most com­mon re­ac­tions he gets from peo­ple once they learn he fought in WWII: 1. “Thank you for your ser­vice.” 2. “What’s keep­ing you alive?”

The four brothers re­ceived these ci­ta­tions from the U.S. Se­nate this year. The flag was flown over the Capi­tol Build­ing in Wash­ing­ton.

Bob Dal­ton pays a visit to brother Jim in Eu­rope.

Pho­tos cour­tesy of the Dal­ton Fam­ily

Bob and Ru­fus Dal­ton shortly after re­turn­ing home from Eu­rope in May of 1946.

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