100-year-old Iowa WWII vet honors West Point graduate grandson

The old soldier's hip hurt and he was unsteady on his feet.

Yet John Neu, a month shy of his 101st birthday, rose from his wheelchair on a sweltering Monday evening in front of the Iowa World War II Memorial at East 13th and East Walnut streets.

Neu steadied himself on his walker as his grandson, Joseph Anchondo, took a knee beside him.

Anchondo wore his U.S. Army dress blues with sharp creases in the pants and black shoes shined so well they could have been mirrors. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in May.

Anchondo wanted his grandparents to be there to pin his second lieutenant's bars to his shoulders, but John Neu wasn't well enough to make the flight to New York.

So Anchondo, who grew up in Lockhart, Texas, brought the ceremony to his grandparents, who live at Valley View Village in east Des Moines.

The pinning is the symbolic transition from cadet to officer in the Army. Any officer, current or retired, can perform the ceremony.

As it happens, both Neu, and his wife, Lois Neu, held the rank of lieutenant in the Army.

John Neu served in the Army Air. Lois Neu was an Army nurse who served in France.

John Neu pinned a second lieutenant's bar to his grandson's right shoulder. Lois Neu pinned a bar to Anchondo's left.

Anchondo's girlfriend, Nikita Price, a senior at West Point, gave her beau his first official salute. Then she followed with a kiss, which may not be standard Army procedure but seemed suited for the occasion.

"It was very important to me that this happened," Anchondo said. "I'm proud to serve our nation and continue the legacy of Grandpa and Grandma."

Service runs deep in Anchondo's family. His father, Robert Anchondo, served 23 years in the Army in the 1970s and '80s.

His older sister, Louisa, also graduated from West Point.

The U.S. military has changed so much since the Neus served during World War II, which ended 71 years ago this September.

John Neu was drafted, but the draft is long gone. Anchondo volunteered, as do all members serving in the nation's armed services.

John Neu saw the horrors of war up close. He towed a glider on D-Day — the invasion of Germany-occupied France that ultimately turned the war in favor of the Allies in the European front.

He remembers looking out his window at the line of ships speeding toward Normandy. The air around the plane was filled with tracer rounds and anti-aircraft flak.

John Neu thought he would die that day. But he survived and lived a long life, working as an engineer for Ford Aircraft, American Bosh, Hallicrafters and other companies.

Lois Neu's time in the war was cut short after a chance encounter with her husband in Rouen, France. John Neu got a buddy to take him from England to France so he could visit his wife, whom he'd met at a basketball game in Warrenville, Ill., two years earlier.

John Neu connected with his wife at the 179th General Hospital, which operated out of a converted hotel.

"I was a first lieutenant at the time and had my own room," Lois Neu recalled to me about a year ago. "Not long after that, I was sent back to the states. Nine months later, our daughter Jeanne was born."

Now the baton of service has been handed down to a third generation. The Neus' grandson begins his service at a time when America is still at war in Afghanistan, the longest conflict in U.S. history.

John Neu seemed acutely aware of this when he addressed the crowd of family and friends after pinning the bars to his grandson's shoulders.

"There are times that are going to be tough to handle," the old soldier said. "I wouldn't have done it freely. Congratulations to you, and may God bless you."

Daniel P. Finney, the Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Twitter: @newsmanone.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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