I recently had the privilege of speaking at the World War II Museum in New Orleans as part of a panel on a captured German submarine, the U-505. I was on this panel because my father, through a weird brush with fate, guarded the captured prisoners from the U-505 at Camp Ruston and taught the Germans to play baseball. I share this story in my book, “Playing with the Enemy.”
As I met these few remaining veterans at the museum that stands today as testimony to their bravery and the resolve of our nation, I was struck by how our nation has changed. It has only been 72 years, but the change has been profound
I asked one of the veterans how he felt we’d respond as a nation today, and he said, “We are too politically correct to fight this kind of war today.”
I didn’t respond but continued to look at him, so he continued, “The fire-bombing of Dresden helped break the back of the Nazi war machine and the resolve of the German people, but today it is viewed as barbaric … and it was, but that is the nature of war. If you are going to fight, you have to be prepared to do what is necessary to get the job done.”
I shook his hand and thanked him for his service. He smiled and said, “Don’t ever let what we did be forgotten.”
My dad bought a home in Kankakee, Ill., in 1956. Home ownership for our family was only possible through the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” now known as the GI Bill. He paid $11,500 for a three-bedroom, pre-fab home with a spacious 790 square feet. The neighborhood was in some way associated with the GI Bill, as you had a to be a veteran to purchase there. My dad never spoke of the war. I never heard any of the neighbors talk about their experiences, but on the frequent neighborhood summer barbeques, the men would gather around the grill, beer in hand, and ask the most commonly asked question, “Where did you serve?”
They’d openly talk about their experiences while huddled together, but rarely if ever shared with their families what they did and endured. I look back and wonder about a few of them and the traits they exhibited that we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’d love to go back to those days and ask the questions I now carry in my heart for them, but I realize they’d never answer. If I could not answer the question, “Where’d you serve?” with the details of authentication required to prove I was one of them, my questions about their participation in the war would be met with a shrug, followed by silence.
Someday soon, this newspaper will print the headline, “Last Remaining WWII Vet Has Passed.” With their passing, the secrets they carried that were too precious and painful to share with their families will pass with them.
Brush with history
Former President Eisenhower visited Kankakee in 1962. My dad took me to the parade with my two younger sisters and mom. I remember Dad’s excitement. We parked downtown and stood on Court Street but could not get close enough to see the former president as he passed. My dad had read the parade ended at a newly constructed shopping center, so we headed that way to wait for his arrival. We waited for what seemed to be an eternity for an 8-year-old boy. My dad was questioning whether his information was correct, as no one else was there.
Then it happened. The motorcade turned the corner, and as we stood there alone Eisenhower’s convertible pulled into the parking lot. I remember my father standing in awe at the presence of his former president, but I suspect more important to him, as a veteran, was his rank as general and Supreme Allied Commander. Eisenhower waved us over and we slowly walked to his car. My dad saluted him and Eisenhower saluted him back and then, asked my dad the question.
“Son, where did you serve?”