For the mothers who saw their children off to war,
And for those who keep the memory alive.
27th Infantry Division. Saipan, July 1944
An abandoned Japanese baby is adopted by front-line medical unit of the 27th Div.
Today Americans will celebrate Veterans Day, a day set aside to recognize the men and women who have served in the armed forces, whether during peacetime or wartime.
Established after the First World War as Armistice Day to commemorate the armistice signed on the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918 and effectively ending the war, President Dwight Eisenhower changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954.
The title of today’s post and the above dedication is from author Matthew A. Rozell’s five-volume oral history series on World War Two called The Things Our Fathers Saw.
In 1987, Rozell was a high school history teacher at his alma mater in upstate New York. Every spring, he would lecture about World War II. That year, he started his lecture by calling out for examples of grandparents who had served in the war, and all the students raised a hand—and when he asked for hands for other relatives who had served—two hands would often go up in the air.
He writes, “Every kid had a personal connection to the most cataclysmic event in the history of mankind—in the eighties, many of the soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors who came home from the war were still with us.” Yet, likely no one had ever spoken to their grandfathers and uncles about the war.
It is true that after our soldiers returned home, few were in the mood to talk about what they went through. How could anyone possibly understand what they saw in the war? They just wanted to put it all behind them, and family members became silent accomplices. No one wished their loved one to relive it.
After the war, G.I.s just got on with it. They knew they were the lucky ones, and they grabbed at life with both hands. They sought opportunities. Some took advantage of the G.I. Bill. Some joined the family business or took over the family farm. They had responsibilities. Many had wives at home, and some, like my own father, saw their son or daughter for the first time.
In the 1950s, I remember my dad watching old war movies on a Sunday afternoon, like To Hell And Back with Audie Murphy, Battle Cry, about US Marines and the battle of Guadalcanal, and Halls of Montezuma. I know the Marines’ Hymn by heart from watching that movie so many times. I always wondered what my dad thought when he watched those war films.
Rozelle writes that he and his students watched as the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attack. After that, there was the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings. The films Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan were released to critical acclaim.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors in April 1993. “These events signaled to those who had lived through World War II that it was okay to begin to talk about these things, that maybe people were finally ready to listen.”
“Building on that blossoming interest, I created a simple survey for students to interview family members….we produced themed seminars and veterans’ forums, and students were actively involved every step of the way.
We began to conduct videotaped interviews, inviting veterans into the classroom. Young people fanned out into the community and collected nearly 200 stories, bridging generational divides, bringing happiness and companionship to their elders. “
That is how Matthew Rozell’s oral histories of World War II took root. Over the years, he would write five masterful oral histories from the war titled The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories Of The World War II Generation From Hometown, USA. They can be read in any order.
Volume I: Voices Of The Pacific Theater.
Volume II: The War In The Air: From The Great Depression To Combat.
Volume III: The War In The Air: Combat, Captivity, Reunion.
Volume IV: Up The Bloody Boot: The War In Italy.
Volume V: D-Day And Beyond.
Here are some quotes from the series:
HOW DO YOU THINK YOU FEEL when you wake up in a hospital and find out you killed your own mother? — “I spent a lot of time in hospitals. I had a lot of trouble reconciling how my mother died after reading the telegram she opened, saying I was shot down and missing in action; I didn’t explain to her that ‘missing in action’ is not necessarily ‘killed in action’, you know? I didn’t even think about that. How do you think you feel when you find out you killed your own mother?” —B-24 bombardier, shot down, taken prisoner
JUST WHAT DO YOU DO in that moment when your plane’s been hit, and you are about to crash far from home? —“The German fighters picked us. I told the guys, ‘Keep your eyes open, we are about to be hit!’ I saw about six or eight feet go off my left wing. I rang the ‘bail-out’ signal, and I reached out and grabbed the co-pilot out of his seat. I felt the airplane climbing, and I thought to myself, ‘If this thing stalls out, and starts falling down backwards, no one is going to get out…'”—B-17 pilot
— “I was in the hospital with a flak wound. The next mission, the entire crew was killed. The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who was a replacement. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers.” —B-24 navigator
— “You flew with what I would call ‘controlled fear’. You were scared stiff, but it was controlled. My ball turret gunner—he couldn’t take it anymore… I guess he was right. He’s dead now. But he had lost control of the fear. He never got out of that ball turret; he died in that ball turret.” —B-24 bombardier
And, there is this quote from a Marine veteran of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima: “I hope you’ll never have to tell a story like this, when you get to be 87. I hope you’ll never have to do it.”
A reviewer writes: As we forge ahead as a nation, do we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for?
Most of our veterans from World War II have passed on; but thanks to Matthew Rozell’s oral history project, we can still listen to them. Read and REMEMBER how a generation of young Americans truly saved the world. Don’t let their sacrifices be in vain.
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
By Tim O’Brien
Turning now to the Vietnam War, the following is a quote from the frontispiece of Matt Rozell’s book.
(Susie Stephens-Harvey, Reflecting On Her Brother, Stephen J. Geist—MIA 9-26-1967 )
— Dying for freedom isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Being forgotten is.
I placed that quote in this war because it has particular relevance for those who fought and died in Vietnam, were wounded there, as well as those who came home with wounds unseen to an ungrateful nation, having been sent there by politicians who had no clear mission and no Will to win.
The U.S. Congress never declared war on Vietnam. The correct name is the Vietnam Conflict. It wasn’t even a real war that Americans were dying for. Over 58,000 American soldiers died there, though there is no official number.
Approximately 2,700,000 American men and women served in Vietnam. We arrived on March 8, 1965. We got in because the Viet Cong attacked U.S. Air Force bases in Da Nang. We got out when South Vietnam surrendered to the forces of the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, and Saigon fell.
It was the first war in which the U.S. failed to meet its objectives, which were nebulous at best. It was also the first time America failed to welcome its veterans back as heroes. Many were attacked personally by their fellow countrymen who opposed the war. Returning vets stopped wearing their uniforms in public.
Tim O’Brien was drafted in 1968 and served in Vietnam in Alpha Company until 1970. Drawing on his experiences there, he wrote a novel in 1990 called The Things They Carried, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The book is a collection of 22 loosely connected stories in the form of a novel. It is sometimes called a “novel of stories.” It chronicles the author’s recollections of his time as a soldier in the Vietnam “War.” Although O’Brien admits to often blurring the line between fact and fiction, the characters’ names in the book are those of real people.
The focus is on the infantrymen of Alpha Company and the things they carried with them day-to-day as they marched. Below are some excerpts from the book.
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity and because it was SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet, they carried jungle boots —2.1 pounds—and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated.
Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night, they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.
For all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.
O’Brien also writes of some of the intangible things they carried but had a weight of their own—fear, grief, pain, sadness, guilt, shame, a longing for home, heartache, and the anger and frustration of not knowing what the mission is; the sheer senselessness of it all. Removing their gear at the end of the day would lighten their physical burden, but the heaviness in their hearts and in their souls would, for many, remain a long time.
Shamefully, it has taken almost 50 years for the American people to bid our Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home and thank them for their service. We nearly waited too late to honor them. Most are in their 70s now, and many are already gone from us.
They never were the villains in that “Conflict.” It was not a noble cause they fought and died for. They were victims of a government run amok. They deserve our thanks and an apology, but our government owes them so much more.
My copy of The Patriot Post: America’s News Digest just dropped in my inbox.
There is an article about Vietnam War hero, Cobra helicopter pilot Larry Taylor, and how he rescued 4 Americans trapped in the middle of a rice paddy ringed by 60 enemy combatants, The Patriot Post, November 10, 2021.
“They were gonna die,” says Taylor. From the ground he heard: “God, we’re going to die out here.” Taylor: “Not on my watch!” He recounts in thrilling detail the rescue mission and how he got those 4 G.I.s out of that rice field. It was especially dangerous using a Cobra helicopter, which does not have internal troop transport capabilities. How would he get those guys to safety? Reading it gave me goose bumps!
Larry is being considered for the Medal of Honor Award, which a lot of military brass feel is long overdue. He is now battling cancer, so all of us hope they hurry it along.
Of his actions, Larry simply observed: “That is your job. That’s what you do. I told my men, ‘You never leave a man on the ground,’ and we never did, and I never lost a man. Not one. … I’d flown thousands of missions in Vietnam and saved countless lives. But none had meant so much to me as the four I’d saved that night, for life had never become so sweet as the night I became the angel of death … no man left behind.”
Hear that, Brandon? No man left behind. It’s not a new concept. Just ask Larry Taylor.
COWARD, TAKE MY COWARD’S HAND
The Brave Legacy of Chris Farlekas
By Maureen Swinger, Plough Quarterly Magazine
(Below is just an excerpt from this article highlighting the poem. Read the entire article in today’s issue of Plough Magazine.)
Chris grew up as the son of Greek immigrants and volunteered for the army in 1949. After boot camp, he shipped off to Korea in 1950 to join the Eleventh Medical Evacuation Hospital Unit.
By his own account, his first taste of combat nearly unhinged him. The enemy struck at night, and his only chance of identifying friend or foe was by the light of tracer fire. He held his ground and tried to reach one buddy, then another. But caught between so many cries for help, he lost his bearings. He sank to his knees and began to dig frantically in the bloody mud. Somewhere, a childhood memory was calling him back. He was maybe six years old, digging in his front yard, and a friendly neighbor was leaning over the fence chortling, “Young man, you dig so deep, you’re liable to get to China.” Perhaps now the tunnel could reach the other way.
His superior officer stumbled across him and roared at him to get up. “Farlekas, the men need you!” Chris kept digging. The lieutenant dragged him up and slapped him. “Get away!” shouted Chris. “I’m going home!” Then the lieutenant did something that threw Chris’s life onto a new track. He carried the young man over to a small tree, leaned him up against the trunk, and above the roar of battle, shouted the words of a poem into his ear.
Only we two, and yet our howling can
Encircle the world’s end.
Frightened, you are my only friend.
And frightened, we are everyone.
Someone must make a stand.
Coward, take my coward’s hand.
(from Eve Merriam, “The Coward”)
To all our veterans, Thank you for your service. We will always remember your sacrifice for our nation!
Thank you for reading to the end,