Why we need war stories

I had the terrific opportunity to be the speaker Oct. 14 at the 10th annual Iron Hill Charity Golf Open at the Club at Morgan Hill in Williams Township, near Easton. The event, sponsored by Petrucci Development and Iron Hill Construction Management, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council and the New Jersey National Guard Family Foundation. My talk came right before dinner, for an audience of 125. Here’s the text of my speech:

My dad used to tell this story about how, when he graduated from Coast Guard radio operator school during World War II, he had a choice of postings. He wanted to go where it was warm, so he volunteered for Argentia.

But Argentia is not Argentina. Argentia is a port in Newfoundland, and so he missed out on South America and instead spent 1945 in the North Atlantic on patrol frigates off Greenland and Iceland.

That’s the only story I know from Dad, because I never asked him about his experiences. What was I thinking? I know he never saw a shot fired in anger, but he still would have had stories to tell. By the 1990s, when I was finally interested, it was too late. He had slipped deep into the fog of Alzheimer’s. He died in a veterans home in 2004.

Like so many others, Dad had put on a uniform when the country called him and he did what had to be done. And when it was over, he came home and got on with his life.

When I was a kid, World War II was the stuff of movies. We went to the drive-in to see P.T. 109 and The Great Escape. But it was hard to connect heroic movie stars with people like my dad, people in real life.

Many years later, I got interested in my cousin Nicky, who was killed in Vietnam. When I asked my uncles about him, they not only told me about him, they told me their own stories. It was a revelation. Here I had a whole parade of uncles and even an aunt who had served all over the world — the Aleutian Islands, Panama, North Africa, England, the Pacific. One of them died of a war injury five years after the war ended.

That was Sam, my Uncle Sam. He would have violent seizures and just conk out and then come to. But nobody in my family could say how he got that way. A thick file I got from the VA had the answer.

Uncle Sam was with the Army Coast Artillery on Bora Bora island in the Pacific. He was on a demolition squad blasting coral 16 hours a day to build harbors. One day the seizures started. He was sent home and hospitalized. Doctors believed he’d had epilepsy and the repeated concussions from the blasting further damaged his brain.

Sam said he was afraid that someday he might pass out and not regain consciousness. And that’s exactly what happened one night in 1950. He came home from a ballgame in Philly, got into bed, cried out in the darkness and died. He was 32.

Mom says Uncle Sam was the nicest man you could ever meet, but I would never have that opportunity. He was gone before I was born.

My cousin Nicky who went to Vietnam, I hardly knew him. He was five years older, we came from a big Italian family, we lived in different towns.

He was a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot when he went to Vietnam in the summer of 1969 and he was dead in 11 days.

His first week in Vietnam was orientation. He attended a classroom lecture on grenade safety. The instructor, as part of his routine, rolled a grenade at the class. It was a gimmick to see how the new guys would react. You have 5 seconds! The grenade was not supposed to be live. It went under the table where Nicky was sitting and went off. Nicky got it bad. He lost a leg, he hung on for a few days, and then he died at a hospital on the base.

In my research for a book about Nicky, I found the Army nurse who tended to him in his last days. I didn’t have to look far. She lives in my neighborhood in Allentown. She doesn’t remember Nicky or recognize his face. But she would have been close to him, might have touched him, might have whispered words of comfort.

So my cousin Nicky, my dad, my Uncle Sam, my other uncles, they were ordinary people who had seen and done extraordinary things, who had played a role on the world stage at critical times. Folks just like them are all around us – strangers on the street, neighbors down the block, our parents and grandparents.

And we’re losing them. Many are taking their stories with them to the grave, to be lost to the ages. You’ve seen the obituaries on any given day: So-and-so served honorably in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines in World War II or Korea or Vietnam. That’s it? That’s all there is?

Fourteen years ago, I made it my mission to interview veterans so their personal recollections could be preserved for future generations. I’ve done about a hundred of these stories of sacrifice and courage. They have a permanent home in the Library of Congress and the National World War II Museum as well as on The Morning Call’s website.

The Call published a collection of them in a book, War Stories in Their Own Words. Most are from the Second World War, but there are also stories from the World War I era, the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam wars. To give you an idea of how important this work is, about half of the 34 veterans in the book are gone. One of them was Olaf Marthinson of Allentown, who took part in the hunt for Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa in 1916. Olaf was 102 when I met with him.

A veteran in the book who is still living fought on the other side in World War II. Eddie Sakasitz was born in Nazareth, but while he was still a baby, his mother took him back to her native Austria. And while still a teenager, he was drafted into the German army. He served in an antitank battalion outside frozen Leningrad, on Crete and finally in Italy.

Eddie found the war in Italy much worse than being on the Eastern Front. Here’s what he said: “The American artillery and bombers made life for us almost impossible. … Our artillery would fire 20 to 25 shells at the American positions and get 20,000 shells in return.”

Riding a motorcycle one day, he was machine-gunned in the legs, and that was the end of the war for him. He’s 93 now. We had breakfast together last week, and he reminded me for the umpteenth time how grateful he is to have lived a full life.

Not all of the stories have blood and guts. Chris Showalter painted sharks’ mouths on fighter planes in China. Jerry Webre, who was a Navy cargo pilot, flew the tail section of the Hiroshima bomb across the Pacific. Bob Hutchings was a clerk for Eisenhower – he said his weapons were a typewriter and a pen.

Florence Michaels was an Army nurse on the Ledo Road in India and Burma. “You could hear the natives beating their drums,” she said. “The headhunters knew us, so they left us alone.”

The most heartrending stories, of course, are the ones about loss. Some veterans I spoke with were still deeply affected, even traumatized, by the killing that happened around them decades earlier.

Don Miller from Emmaus was a flight engineer on a B-17 bomber and couldn’t go on his crew’s 12th mission because he was sick.

“That day,” he said, “I lost my crew. I watched the sky as our squadron came back and didn’t see them. They were the one plane missing. They’d gone down over the target and all aboard were killed. It was one of the saddest days of my life.

“I should have been with them.”

A few years ago I took Don to see a B-17 that flew into Lehigh Valley International Airport. He gave me a tour of the inside. Afterward when I was driving him home, he said he’d been leery about accepting my invitation to see the plane. He was afraid that when he was in it, he would see the faces of his lost crewmates at their stations.

He did see them, he told me, but it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.

Dan Curatola from Bethlehem hit Omaha Beach on D-Day in the first wave. Think Saving Private Ryan. The night before, Dan was on a ship in the English Channel.

“We had nothing else to do,” he said, “so we played cards. About six of us were playing blackjack. Not a single one of those guys lived. One night I’m playing cards with them, and the next night they were all dead.”

When Dan reached the shore, a shell exploded and he hit the dirt. He tapped a corporal in front of him and said, “Boy, that was close, wasn’t it?” But the corporal didn’t answer. He was dead.

Dan went on: “I had seen dead men before, in Africa and Sicily. But some of the younger troops who hadn’t seen action just went out of their minds. You’d see them screaming and running the wrong way.”

The saddest story came from Horace Rehrig, who grew up in West Bowmanstown. He was on the carrier Ticonderoga when two kamikazes crashed into it. He found his cousin injured on the fantail and helped carry him down to sick bay. On the way he saw a familiar sailor lying on the floor of the hangar deck. It was his good friend Bob Selby. Horace got his cousin to the hospital area and ran back up to the hangar deck to Selby.

“He was really bleeding bad,” Horace told me. “His right arm was completely severed at the shoulder, blown off, but he was conscious. He looked like he was flash-burned from the thousand-pound bomb that exploded on the hangar deck. I quick took some packing and held it on his wound and put his head in my lap and tried to comfort him. ‘Hang in there, I’ll take care of you.’ He was crying, he kept saying, ‘I’ll never make it.’ I said, ‘Don’t talk like that. You’ll pull through this.’

“But I knew it was a critical wound – he had lost too much blood.

“I kept yelling for help, and finally we put Selby on a stretcher and got him down to sick bay. The doctors put him right on an operating table, and I stood there waiting. He had his knees up and was waving them back and forth.

“And then they just stopped.

“It just plays hell with you when you see stuff like that,” Horace said. “I felt so bad about it that I just can’t ever forget it.”

For the record, I am not a war buff or a World War II wannabe, nothing of the sort. And I am not a veteran. The closest I came was Vietnam, and our ground troops were pulling out of there the year I got out of high school. So for me this mission to preserve personal accounts, to convey the experience of war through the magic of storytelling, is all about payback.

It’s my way of saying what I never told my dad: Thank you for serving our country.

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