Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Great World War II Meet-Up

Like many people my age, both of my grandpas served in World War II.
My generation is attached to the Greatest Generation by a few degrees of separation and the kind of time that makes it difficult to associate either grandpa with his vitamins and cranberry juice and attachment to Matlock with the square-jawed young men raising the flag at Iwo Jima or posing in uniform in the German countryside.

And like many grandchildren of vets, the stories I know I only know in fits and starts. Either because I was too young to understand or the stories, even decades later, were still too fresh to be told.
Still, what I do know is that home was a talisman, at least for one of my grandpas.
R. Gregory Warren was only a year into military school in Claremore, Oklahoma, when he enlisted and was sent to Germany in May 1943 as a paratrooper. He was an only child, famously ornery, and pretty much joined up to learn some discipline along with the fact that he was compelled that fighting against the Nazis was the right thing to do.
He doesn’t tell many stories about the war. Mostly mentioning how he was super careful about having clean socks and took up smoking because personnel got cigarettes for free. (He quit smoking when he returned but has been obsessive about cleanliness ever since.) No stories of bravery or killing Nazis or saving innocents, though, I’m sure there’s some mixture of those things locked up tight in his 89-year-old mind.
But the story he does tell, and that I’ve heard many times, is about when a piece of home found him in the middle of Germany.
As I’ve mentioned, he was an only child—The Great Depression kind of ruined his parents on having other kids—but he was very close to his twin female cousins, called Bob and Frank by the family and everyone else (though their names were Barbara and Frances). They were like his older sisters and they were extremely important to him and he missed them dearly, though both had wartime jobs as nurses.
One day, in the middle of Germany, Greg’s supervisor drove up in a Jeep and said, “Warren, come with me.” Of course, he did, because by then the orneriness was under wraps, and he was pretty good at doing as he was told. Plus, in an active war zone, you always do as you’re told.
He followed the commanding officer over to a Jeep. There, in the back, was a woman. And as he got closer, his heart started racing.
It was his cousin, Bob.
The nurse had been given time off and went in search Greg, and in doing so, both found a little home, there in the middle of Germany, in the middle of a war.
Greg’s commanding officer waited for the pair to stop hugging before clearing his throat and saying, “Warren, can you drive a Jeep?” Greg nodded. And was told he had three hours and the Jeep to do with as he pleased.
The pair jetted off as far as they could go, trading stories and catching up half a world away from the farm in Oklahoma where they’d pal around each summer together, along with Frank, who was on leave in England and missing out on the fun Greg and Bob were having in Germany.
And fun they did have, even taking a picture together in front of a bombed out church: My grandfather’s only picture from Germany during his entire tour.
Today, it’s hard to imagine how amazing that experience must have been for both of them. Now, we’re all so utterly connected, and finding a friend in a crowd or even a foreign country is as easy a single text, an address and time. Maybe an email, if necessary.
It will probably always be exhilarating to get a taste of home when far away, true. But I’m fairly certain that feeling doesn’t hold a candle to his surprise and her delight at connecting a world away.
I hope everyone had a fine Veteran’s Day this week and got a chance to remember those who have served or are serving at this very moment.


  1. I was very lucky. My father, who was a combat infantryman during World War II, decided to write a memoir and asked me to help him with it. I learned a great deal about his experiences during the process. Until then I had heard only a few things about his experiences. What he had talked about were times when something funny had happened. I urge anyone with an older adult in the family to get a tape recorder and sit down with the person. I am so happy that my father decided to share stories that would otherwise be lost.

  2. Sarah, I had two uncles who fought in WWII. Neither one of them to my knowledge spoke of it. One of them parachuted in during the invasion of Normandy. The other one fought in Northern Africa and Italy. His best buddy in the army was killed while next to him. My father worked in a plant that had been converted to making shells for the army. He was a foreman with two young children, so because his job was considered important to the war effort, he was drafted. My uncles were single at the time, although the one was engaged. I remember going to movies as a young child and seeing the news shorts before the movie started of our airplanes shooting down the enemy planes and the audience cheering.

    One of the men I deliver Mobile Meals to, often recounts his story of how he joined the Navy, by eventually sneaking into the accepted line after he'd been turned down three times. He's 93 years old and proud of his Navy service.

  3. Sorry about that. My father was not drafted.

  4. What a wonderful and touching story, Sarah. Isn't it amazing that in a war torn country, your grandfather and cousin were able to find each other and have time to reunite as family. That is magnificent. Have you been able to hear the story from both sides? I am fairly sure your cousin's journey would be equally interesting as to how she managed to engineer the meet!

    My Dad was involved in the start-up of the aeronautical division at Otis Elevator. He had a deferment (and was probably 4-F as well due to a bout with osteomyelitis a few years before the war-but he never shared that information). My Uncle was on the USS Quincy when it went down at Savo Straits. At some point in time, he sent his cruise album home. He had wonderful photos, but that is the closest I have to first hand stories of the War. I tried to track down some of his cruise buddies, but since I know them only by the nicknames printed on the photos, I was unsuccessful. I thought it would be fun to hear the stories behind the pictures.

  5. I grew up surrounded by family members damaged by a war they would not talk about. The family tried to shield several uncles with what they then called shell shock, but what we now know as post traumatic stress. They were only able to do so much, and after years of misery the uncles died lonely deaths.

    One relative refused to get a drivers license--he'd driven a tank during the war, and all he'd say about it was, "You never know when you're going to realize too late there's a family of little kids under your treads."

    And yet, in the history of mankind, we haven't figured out a better way to deal with our differences. One of my daughters is mourning a friend who serviced in Iraq and came home with PTS. She was never able to deal with her experiences, and had difficulty getting any treatment from the VA. Ultimately, she was shot by the police in what was probably a suicide-by-cop.

  6. My father served during WWII. He was 6’1” and went into the army weighing 142 lbs. As he said, the Army fattened him up. He came out at 143 pounds. Having indeed been fattened up in between in basic and on post, and then lost it all and a lot more with a combination of dysentery followed by months of recovering from his wounds.

    Dad was one for stories with a twist. For example, asked in later years about his cruising experience, he bragged that his first cruise was aboard the Queen Mary and he was entitled to drink as much as he wanted. After a pause he would add that this was in 1944, the Queen Mary had been converted to a hospital ship, and because his jaw was wired shut and he was severely below weight, he was supposed to take lots of liquids.

    ~ Jim

  7. Isn't it amazing how we all have/had family members who served? It's so sad though that they all had such different (and sad) experiences.

    Kait, I would've loved to have heard it from both sides but Bob died by the time I was old enough to hear the story. She did give me several books, including Black Beauty. I loved that she always brought me books:)