My friend Larry died. That brings the number of World War II servicemen I know down to three. During my adult years I sought out servicemen to hear their stories. My father was a combat infantry soldier some of his friends also served. I wanted to understand better what my father had gone through. Like many combat veterans, he didn’t talk about the war except to tell a few funny stories about what had happened behind the lines.
At work I met a man who landed in the second wave of invaders at Omaha Beach. The plan had been for the first wave of soldiers to destroy obstacles and root out the first line of defenders. The second wave was supposed to push farther inland toward crucial cross roads and towns. Men in the second wave found none of the objectives had been achieved. The obstacles remained. Men clustered on the beach under whatever little cover there was. The second wave could stay on the beach and die or try to move inland through German killing zones. They moved inland.
In a summer job setting before my junior year at college I met a survivor of a concentration camp. He could not talk, but he made his wants known by gestures. I don’t know his history but the number tattooed on his arm told part of his story.
I worked with a man who had been a navigator in a bomber that was shot down. He spent two years in a prisoner of war camp.
My deceased friend, Larry, volunteered to fly missions even after he was eligible to return to the states due to the number of missions he had already flown. He said, “They didn’t have enough pilots so I kept flying.” He once shot himself down when fragments from a bomb he dropped flew up and clipped his plane.
One of the men, Grant, I know is now in a retirement community. He served as a dentist for troops in South Pacific. He is quite a wit. He also knows a great deal about the history of Kansas City. He can tell you when and where Paul Newman lived while acting in a movie shot in Kansas City. He can tell you when and why the FBI investigated his Sunday school teacher. He is also a sculptor with great talent.
I know another man, Charlie, now in a different retirement community, who was the commander of a group of long-distance transport planes. It would be hard to find a more generous, thoughtful person than Charlie. His face lights up when he sees friends. His extravagant welcome was one of the reasons I continued coming to the church he belonged to.
The third veteran I know is Manuel. He ferried marines and soldiers to beaches of islands in the South Pacific, which American forces invaded. He tells only one story of using a weapon. Apparently, Manuel and others were trying to sleep in a cave close to Japanese forces. A sniper would shoot at the cave from time to time, maybe hoping a ricochet would hit someone inside. Manuel borrowed a machine gun and fired bursts in the direction the bullets were coming from. He explained, “Of course I fired high. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. I just wanted him to stop shooting and he did.” I assume the sniper was trying to kill Americans. Manuel was willing to put his life at risk, but not willing to take another person’s life. If you met him for the first time you might guess correctly from his voice that he had been a radio “personality.” He was also an attorney. Manuel is one of the sweetest men I know.
It has been an honor to know these men. They helped me understand my father better. They have strongly affected the way I see the world.
Have you known a World War II Veteran?