Millcreek • Like clockwork, Allen Tanner leaves his house twice a day, at sunup and sundown, to raise and then lower the American flag at his Millcreek condominium complex.
Tanner and his wife, Raeola, were among the first residents in the complex, and at some point, the 93-year-old said he got “stuck” with the flag duty.
Some things have changed for Tanner since then. Raeola died a few years ago, a fact he recounts sadly, saying, “I really miss her.” He now lives alone in the home they shared.
But the one constant over the past 30 years are his trips back and forth from his doorstep to that flagpole, which he’s recently taken to adorning with Christmas lights during the holiday season.
Neighbor Grant Gibbs said he doesn’t know if Tanner saying he got “stuck” with flag duties is quite accurate. Gibbs believes the World War II veteran saw a job that needed to be done — and did it, just like he and so many others of his generation did in World War II.
Now, approaching the 75th anniversary of the end of that war, there are fewer than 500,000 American left of the 16 million who served in that global conflict. When they’re gone, we miss out on more than just, for instance, the “flag guy.” We lose a connection to history and the selfless perspective that defined the so-called Greatest Generation, said Michelle Bridges, a volunteer at Salt Lake City’s Fort Douglas Military Museum.
“We lose the stories. We lose the connection. Men and women who fought for freedom, they fought for bravery, they fought for a way of life,” Bridges said, “And I think if you look at the country now, we’re in jeopardy for what these guys fought for.”
Bridges, who is project manager for the veteran-focused Valor magazine, said she wasn’t surprised that Tanner still takes it upon himself to raise the flag for his neighborhood. She hears stories like his all the time.
“Even though they don’t talk about what they did during their service, I still feel like that service impacted them greatly, and they have a sense of patriotism,” she said, “and a strong sense of it.”
Bridges said World War II veterans normally say when they served, what branch they served in and where they went, but that’s about it.
For Tanner, he joined the Navy in the fall of 1943. He was 17, but, as he saw it then, he either enlisted in the Navy or would be drafted into the Army, where he feared he would face the worst of the fighting.
He wasn’t wrong, but looking back on the decision, the Utah native said, “I didn’t realize how deep the ocean was.”
Tanner served in the Pacific, and his job aboard his ship was watching the radar.
Essentially, he said, “We were supposed to find the Japanese before they found us.”
In the job, he learned to write backward so he could communicate coordinates from his side of a see-through plastic sheet to his superiors on the other side, and saved numerous lost pilots by using his radar skills to direct them back to the aircraft carrier.
He also survived what he called five major battles, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as well as three typhoons.
He ended his military service in 1946 and came back to Utah, where he took a job building the road up Parleys Canyon and, around that time, met his wife.
This, too, Bridges said, is reflective of the World War II veteran experience. “They don’t talk about what they did, what they saw, because they don’t think they did anything great. They said, ‘We did our job. We came home. We built a nation.’ ”
Gibbs’ father was also in World War II and never talked about it. Gibbs said he’s been theorizing why for years and has come to the conclusion that, perhaps, “It’s just a part that they want to leave behind them.”
They all went as young men, many faced death and when they came back, they wanted a normal life: spouses, children and good jobs. That’s what was important.
Gibbs said he catches up with Tanner about once a week, just to say hi and check on him. But Gibbs said he always knows where to find Tanner — and when.
“Every morning at sunrise. Every night at sunset. [He] raises and lowers a flag,” Gibbs said. “And then has been good about reminding me when it’s starting to get worn.”
And Gibbs will get him a new one, which Tanner will raise and lower until the day he can’t.