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 Veteran’s Day, Rufus sits next to Harry, Bob and a framed photograph of Jim in the living room of Bob’s home in Charlotte’s Wendover-Sedgewood 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 Charlotte-born 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 100th Infantry Division’s Company H, 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 an Army 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.’”’