ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – It’s a photo most of America recognizes, a war veterans final salute that touched the heart of millions.
NEWS10’s Mark Baker posted the image to his Facebook page just one day after meeting Justus Belfield, a 98-year-old veteran who spent his last day on earth in his army uniform, with his wife by his side.
The love Justus, or Jay as he liked to be called, had for his country proved infectious to Americans from all walks of life.
But it’s his love of that uniform that has resonated even deeper with those who’ve served, and provided Mark Baker with an opportunity to show that bond to the Belfield family.
“Ohhh, my love,” Jay’s widow and bride of 72 years, Lillian, reacted to seeing her husband’s now famous photograph, framed.
To her, it wasn’t the now famous salute; it’s the man behind it.
“With the photo, she’ll be able to see him every single moment of the day and she’ll be so thrilled with that,” said Lillian’s daughter, Pamela.
But to Jay’s family, the photograph, viewed by millions online, provides peace and pride.
“We always knew grandpa was special, we’re just glad everyone else can see it too,” said the couple’s granddaughter Julie.
Belfield was just hours from dying when he gave a firm final salute as he lay in bed on Veterans Day after requesting he be dressed in his uniform one last time.
“He knew where he was going,” said his son Ray.
In October, Jay had wanted to go on an honor flight to see the World War II memorial, but couldn’t make it. So the Patriot Guard presented him with the t-shirt he would have received, had he made it to Washington.
While there, he had hoped to meet former Senator Bob Dole, who led the effort to build the memorial — Jay being an early donor.
But Bob Dole would meet Jay through the photo.
Mark Baker reached out to his office, and Senator Dole, a WWII war hero himself, responded with a personal letter to Lillian.
“Elizabeth joins me in sending our sincere condolences on the loss of the American hero,” said Dole in the letter.
“To quote him, he would have ‘burst his buttons.’ He would have been so proud,” said Pamela.
Military tradition spans generations in the Belfield family. Son ray served in Vietnam and daughter Pamela will make a future honor flight as a guardian, in honor of Jay, whose final salute has reached beyond the band of brothers.
“Everybody has a veteran they know. He was the one who made the papers. Most don’t. Most of us are veterans who are very quiet. He made the paper for all of us,” said Ray.
And yet another example of how Jay’s final salute affected so many people – as Mark Baker was going around getting quotes to have this photo and letter framed, a man who had seen the story when we first aired it came up to the counter and insisted on taking care of the bill.
Lillian passed just days after the framed photograph and letter was presented to her.
Belfield enlisted in the National Guard at the age of 19, serving as a bugler, rifleman, machine gunner and horse handler from 1936 until 1940. He left the guard when they removed the horses from service, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in the 923rd Heavy Automotive Maintenance Company and the 22nd Armored Division in Belgium and France during WWII. His unit was present at the Battle of the Bulge. He was honorably discharged as a Master Sergeant in 1946.
For a brief time in the reserves he participated in the Berlin Air Lift. He re-enlisted in the Army in 1949 and served a number of years as a recruiter. He also served in the 1202nd Army Security Unit and the US Army Reserves, finally being discharged in April of 1963 as a Warrant Officer.
He was buried at Saratoga National Cemetery with full honors.
To Justus and all who serve our country, we salute you.
Find out more about the WWII Memorial here. http://www.wwiimemorial.com/