Creative Commons License

A Real Hero, Henry Allingham, Has Passed

Monday, July 20, 2009 at 08:09 PM EDT

Over the weekend, the global community lost one of the greatest journalists to ever pick up a notepad: Walter Cronkite. However, this tribute is not to him.

I do not want to take away from Cronkite’s passing. As a former journalist and a person who was immersed in the Medill School of Journalism community, I recognize the great debt that the profession owes to perhaps the greatest person to ever deliver the nightly news. But there have been more praising op-eds this past weekend than one could possibly ever read. I want to highlight another man of integrity.

Courtesy of The Daily Inquirer

Courtesy of The Daily Inquirer

On Saturday, an ocean away, the world lost a man whom you probably had never hear of until this moment. His name was Henry Allingham, a World War I and World War II veteran, who passed in his sleep at the age of 113.

After living through 12 decades on this earth, his life story is unmatched. It is amazing to read that he could have left us during an attack in the trenches of the Great War, nearly a century ago.

Allingham was one of the last three surviving British veterans of the First World War, the last surviving founding member of the Royal Air Force, the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland and the last living member of the Royal Naval Air Service.

In Allingham’s autobiography, Kitchener’s Last Volunteer, Prince Charles wrote the following in the foreword: “He has witnessed so much of our history – including the sinking of the Titanic, the Great War, the Depression, the Second World War and the building of the Welfare State – taking in six of my forebears, as well as 21 Prime Ministers.” (Note: I read this book a year ago. It is a brilliant story, and I highly recommend it.)

Prince Charles neglects the more important and direct things that Allingham witnessed and fought against: The rise and fall of Stalinism, the rise and fall of Nazism, the rise and ultimate fall of countries that attempted oppressive Statism. He also lived through the greatest expansion of global freedom and Democracy in history. Even more important to him, he also saw family: five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-great-grandchild.

How Times Have Changed in America

Off topic: I’m not British, and my grandfather who fought in Burma in World War II passed in 1988. But I want to highlight Mr. Allingham’s lifespan to explain both how long and short life, societies and politics run. What’s a posting on The Sad Elephant without a little politics, right?

In the United States in 1896, the ruling party was under Democratic President Grover Cleveland and Congressional conservatives known as the Bourbon Democrats. The Bourbon Democrats, who I feel are the last true descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic teachings, represented small business interests, supported banking and travel, promoted laissez-faire capitalism (which included opposition to union protectionism), opposed imperialism and U.S. overseas expansion, fought for the gold standard and opposed corruption of city bosses.

One more time: The ruling Democratic party 113 years ago, when Mr. Allingham was born, promoted banking and business, capitalism, opposed imperialism, fought unions, abhorred political corruption and wanted economic conservatism to the point that they wanted the Gold Standard to keep Federal budgets in line.

How much a party has changed since the day that Mr. Allingham was born?

All That’s Right in a Man

In his autobiography, Allingham explained that he was on the wealthier side of the great Victorian class divide. During the war, he had every opportunity to avoid enlistment, but like many patriots during this time period, he enlisted with honor and courage.

He was a founding member of an experimental military branch known as the ‘Air Force’, which at the time reported to the Navy. In his story, he describes the horrors of war, a living hell with vivid reminders and appalling visuals. Allingham explores a time period in which what would be considered basic medical treatment today was not practiced during the Great War. At the time, medical officials had yet to learn that a tourniquet could save a soldier’s life, and how faulty emergency hatches on planes frequently led to horrific burning deaths of many pilots.

Later, Allingham found himself in the trenches of the Western Front. For any student of war history, one would know that these war trenches were the most horrific battle conditions of the 20th century. On one occasion, he found himself being swallowed by mud, water, rats and human remains as he was unable to get a foothold to escape, nearly leading to his drowning.

Henry Allingham is more than just a man who lived for 113 years. He was a true beckon of individualism that needs to be continuously publicized on both sides of the Atlantic. He showed a tremendous sense of duty to his country through voluntary service in two wars. He worked diligently as an engineer to develop the modern automotive vehicle. He showed us that all of us are unique individuals with different health systems incapable of predictability by a government surgeon general (See his final quote at the end of this article if you disagree).

He exemplifies the importance of family, friendship, honor and country. He was a hard-working, self-sufficient survivor, deserving of heaven after fighting through hell for his country and for freedom.

In addition, he showed that the human body and mind are capable of extraordinary longevity through personal responsibility and knowledge of one’s personal limitations. And on top of all this, he still somehow found a way to maintain a sense of humor. In 2006, in a ceremony in his home town, Allingham shared his other secret to to such a long, storybook lifetime.

That secret?

“Cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women.“