Strains from Saving Private Ryan play in the background. A short man, about 5'10" walks up to a monument at the Academy cemetery and places a black and white picture of himself standing next to a pair of sailors in their days of youth.
Every midshipman recognizes Howard Dignen as the man walking to the gravestone. "Howard" - every midshipman is on a first name basis with him - has shaved all of our heads at one point or another. When I arrived at the Academy, despite having my hair already shaved with a triple aught blade for stitches earlier that month, Howard ran over my head with a razor just as part of the process. "You'll feel more like one of everyone else this way", he said.
For sixty seven years - a full twenty five at the Academy shaving the heads of the hand picked of the nation - Howard served the government and never once balked at what many might consider a menial job. "If there is a cream of the crop, then it is at the academy. I am just glad to be a part of it", he'd often say. Hearing him say it, you got the impression he wasn't just pandering to midshipman egos. Howard turned down a battlefield commission twice, instead preferring to remain with his platoon- a platoon that suffered 75% casualties and was involved in the first waves of landings at Normandy. He was shot in the leg by a sniper and walked with a slight emphasis on that leg even as late as when I met him. His only regret? His thirty days of recuperation leave caused him to miss the end of the war.
Howard was no hero, but they still managed to award him the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Each Purple Heart was given to him as the result of being shot. One was even awarded to him posthumously. A bomb went off near his foxhole killing his radioman and knocking him unconscious. The Army put him in a body bag, the chaplain said Last Rites and Howard shifted weight in the bag. He woke up a couple of weeks later in a military hospital.
Howard was no hero, but never failed to do his part. He owned a barbershop and a restaurant in downtown Annapolis, and served in the city government. And once a year, he'd lecture the entire Brigade of four thousand mids and warned us of the dangers of a loss of integrity. "Know what you are saying and mean it. That way, your men will have confidence in you," he told us numerous times.
Howard was no hero by his own declaration. His humility naturally deferred glory to others. He retired a First Sergeant in the Army; his job was to make "buck" Second Lieutenants look good when by all accounts they'd screw up on their own. But today, the sixty-third anniversary of the attack at Pearl Harbor, Howard Dignen places a black and white matte print on a tombstone and looks up to see his friends killed in action on USS Vestal and USS Arizona. One hands him a pair of dog tags which he holds and places on the tombstone. Then he walks into the background.
At the time, it was meant to be a farewell video celebrating his career and a play on the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. But instead it became a eulogy for one of the 1,200 of The Greatest Generation who die each day. Howard Dignen, not yet retired for a year and looking forward to spending more time with his wife of fifty seven years died this summer.
A road in downtown Annapolis has been renamed Howard Dignen Way.