Joe Graham's memory lane stretches through eras and across continents, from North Carolina and Canada, where he trained for tank combat, to the battlefields of France, Germany, Austria and Italy, where his battalion helped the Allies defeat Hitler's forces.
Now 100 years old and a resident at Channing House in Palo Alto, Graham vividly recalls the day that when then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted a draft and the day he -- a 24-year-old with "total mechanical ineptitude" -- enlisted in the military.
"We didn't even know how to spell 'Army,'" Graham said Monday evening, as he addressed more than 100 spectators during Palo Alto's Veterans Day recognition event at City Hall. "The pre-war army was a ragtag outfit if there was one. But oh boy, did they improve!"
Now in its third year, the veteran-recognition event celebrated both current veterans and those who fought in prior periods, dating back to the Revolutionary War. As the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West played military songs and tables throughout the council chambers displayed military memorabilia, Graham and dozens of other veterans from all branches of the military were recognized with standing ovations and proclamations by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Mayor Greg Scharff.
Graham recalled his memories from World War II: training young recruits; testing four different tank models to determine which would be most effective; going to northwestern Canada to practice tank-infantry attack tactics; learning on the train trip back from Canada that he had just been promoted to captain; and then zigzagging across the Atlantic in a transport ship to avoid U-Boats, en route to Marseille, France.
As the commander of the 781st Tank Battalion, Graham recalled the long battles against the Axis powers in Western Europe and that day in Italy, when his war-tested soldiers united with the advancing U.S. 5th Army -- an occasion the troops marked with celebratory swigs of German schnapps.
World War II veterans weren't the only ones who were honored at the Monday event. The U.S. Army 63rd Regional Support Command's Historical Recognition Team was on hand to illustrate the succession of American troops through the ages: the Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers; the "Doughboys" who fought in the trenches during World War I; the Women's Army Corps that provided support to combat troops during World War II; those who fought in the Korean, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars; and those who enlisted after 9/11 and are fighting abroad today.
A representative of each military unit -- dressed in full uniform -- marched to the front of the Council Chambers during the ceremony to a round of applause.
"Our country's veterans are from many generations and many backgrounds," said Scharff, who hosted the event. "Some charged across great battlefields, some fought on the high seas, some patrolled the open skies. All contributed to the greatness of America."
The event also drew more than a dozen youthful spectators, including local students. Among them was Audrey Li, a Gunn High student who founded the nonprofit, Students Partner with Veterans, which records students' conversations with local veterans.
"As future generations, we owe them our thanks, we owe them our respect and we owe them our freedom," Li said.