I recently had the privilege of speaking at the World War Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a group of veterans and later as part of a panel on the captured German Submarine, the U-505. I was asked to be part of this panel because my father, through a weird brush with fate, guarded the captured prisoners from the U-505 at Camp Ruston in Louisiana 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 and toured the museum that stands today as a testimony to their bravery and the resolve of our nation, I was overwhelmed with the thought of how our country and world has changed since the end of the war in 1945. It has only been a short 72 years, but the change has been profound. Faced with the same circumstances today, as we were on Dec. 7, 1941, I am not sure how we’d respond and the level of our national resolve to bind together and defeat our foe may have changed.
I asked one of the veterans I met 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.”
I grew up among heroes. My dad bought a home in Cooper’s Hilcrest Subdivision on the far east side of Kankakee, Illinois, 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 and a carport. The neighborhood was in some way associated with the GI Bill, as you had a to be a veteran to purchase there. I didn’t realize it then, but it was a neighborhood of heroes. My dad never spoke of the war. I never heard any of the neighbors talk about their experiences, but on the frequent neighborhood summer barbecues, 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 (PTSD). 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.
Former President Eisenhower visited Kankakee on Sept. 14, 1962, and there was a parade in his honor, that began downtown and ended at the newly constructed shopping center. My dad picked me up at my grade school and took me to the parade with my two younger sisters and mom. I remember Dad’s excitement. I was just happy to be with my dad and out of school. We parked downtown and stood on Court Street in front of the Big Bear Food Store but could not get close enough to see the former President and General as he passed. My dad had read that the parade ended at a newly constructed shopping center, so we jumped in the car and 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?”