Memorial Day Reflections - Including Remembering those who were Part of "The Greatest Generation"
A banner similar to this one which I photographed at the Nevada State Museum last month hung in the Ranch House of my Paternal Grandparents. The one that hung there though had five stars representing their five sons who were serving in World War II. The following narrative includes accounts of their military service.
Just before COVID I was in Japan volunteer teaching at an International College to Japanese students that had an interest in continuing their studies in the United States. In the course of that instruction i put together a series of lessons on the subject of the impact of World War II. Here are excerpts from several of those lessons that perhaps some of you will find of interest as we reflect on the service of those who have gone before us this Memorial Day.
Legacies of World War II
In our learning about United States History as it related to World War II we discussed the personal impact upon a young Japanese medical corpsman who was in charge of the field hospital on Japanese occupied Attu Island in Alaska. Today I will share how the legacy of World War II has impacted my own family.
In 2004 I had the opportunity to attend the commencement of one of our sons at his graduation from Northwestern University just outside of Chicago. Speaking at the Commencement was Tom Brokaw, the NBC news anchor, who had just completed his book, “The Greatest Generation” in which he wrote of those who served in World War II. In his remarks he paid tribute to the young men and women who had 60 years earlier fought for freedom in that war and challenged the graduates before him to become the next “greatest generation.” My own father and four of his brothers were among those members of “The Greatest Generation” that Tom Brokaw referenced as having served their country in World War II.
I would like to share some experiences from several of the life stories of those five brothers with regard to their service for their country. The five brothers served in the following branches of the United States military during World War II: Harold, my father, in the Navy; Paul in the Air Force; William (“Bill’) in the infantry to include the Alaska National Guard and the Army; Gerald, the Coast Guard; and Roy in the Army artillery. As one of them stated, they “all came home in one piece.” Even though several did receive wounds of varying degrees, all were able to return, raise families, contribute to society, and enjoy eventful lives.
Recently I acquired a copy of a book titled, “Alaska National Guard, 297th Infantry Battalion WWII: In the Defense of Alaska” authored by John H. Grainger who served with the battalion. In the preface my father’s oldest brother - my uncle William is quoted. The narrative reads:
“Lieutenant Colonel [my Uncle William], Commanding Officer of the 297th Infantry wrote:
“The 297th Infantry saw more of Alaska than any other group of soldiers during World War II. ‘When the 297th was not being used for guard duty, it unloaded ships, helped build military bases, fished for the Army, operated boats, tested equipment, and trained soldiers. It performed search and rescue missions and carried out hundreds of other vital military assignments.
“The men of the 297th were especially talented, self-reliant and innovative, able to do anything required of them. Outstanding personalities and characters? The battalion was full of them.”
In the body of the book itself there is an account contained in Chapter 16 describing an expedition that took place from December 1943 to March of 1944 that my uncle headed. Here are a few excerpts from the book:
“Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel [my Uncle William], Commanding Officer of the 297th Infantry, Battalion (Separate), 300 troops from units at Fort Richardson volunteered for winter maneuvers to test winter warfare equipment. The maneuvers extended over eight weeks, and entailed a march of 140 miles in deep snow with temperatures well below zero, and over some of the roughest terrain in Alaska.
“December 21 – Talkeetna to Mt. McKinley. Lieutenant Colonel [my uncle] talked to us yesterday about the expedition. ‘We will be entrained at Fort Richardson for Talkeetna, then march from Talkeetna up the Susitna River Valley and overland to Mt. McKinley Park.’ The maneuver is unprecedented in number of men, time and distance covered under winter conditions.
“Volunteers Challenged. Parties of the Alaska Scouts have just returned from a preliminary survey of our route. Three are hospitalized for frostbite. They state flatly ‘that we will never make it.’ In eight weeks on the march in the mountains we will experience Alaska weather at its worst a number of times.”
After detailed descriptions of the events of the expedition as it progressed the chapter concludes with a reporting on the success of the maneuvers reporting that although at the outset 20% casualties were expected, and although none of the Sno-cats or tractors completed the trip, the troops made it with a casualty list of less than 1%. The narrative concludes:
“As mentioned before LTC [my uncle], CO of the expedition worked the hardest and suffered the most. He traveled alone with his pack. Prior to the war he had been a mining engineer and foreman in a gold mine at Juneau. He was an expert woodsman as well as a dabbler in wrestling. He was older than any of us at age 39. He built snow caves to sleep in at night and was one of our casualties [suffering a bout of snow blindness.] ”
From reading this account it is evident that my Uncle Bill was the type of leader who wouldn’t ask his men to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. After his time in Alaska he went on to participate in the occupation of Japan. On a personal note, I recall our family taking him and his wife to Portage Glacier here in Alaska on a return visit just before he died. He pointed out where he and his men had walked over the glacier ice from Valdez to Portage and how the now existent lake fronting the Visitor Center had been glacial ice on which they marched. He left to my family an artifact which we continue to treasure that incorporates turn-of-the-century trading beads and a medallion as made by Japan’s indigenous Ainu people and which is called a shitoki. It had been given to him by the Japanese people in gratitude for his kindness and just and fair treatment of them as he administered the United States military’s occupation in Hokkaido, the northern part of Japan.
I would like to also share the experiences of another of those five brothers whose service to their country was represented by the cloth stars that once hung within my grandparents’ home in Nevada. While the oldest brother was involved with the war time effort in Alaska, a younger brother was landing on the beaches of Normandy.
My Uncle Paul was the last of the five to survive. I vividly remember him telling me about being one of the first Americans to greet the prisoners of Buchenwald Concentration Camp as their Nazi guards had fled and how he offered sips of water from his canteen and what food he had to those starving there as the cremation ovens continued to burn. His obituary read in part, “Paul passed away September 7, 2012, from the accumulated wear of a well-lived life of 95 years, enjoying the landscape and people of Northeastern, Nevada. He served in the Air Force Communications Branch, 9th Air Force, 8th Tactical Communications Squadron. His communications group landed in Normandy the morning of June 7 (D Day 2) and was on the move with the Army across France, Belgium, and Germany.” In the time remaining I will share one additional of his experiences:
The United States Army had advanced within 50 miles of Paris and were encamped. With nothing else to do, my Uncle and his sergeant used their jeep to go get water and had time available to explore the nearby countryside. As the sergeant drove, my Uncle noted that the river they encountered was named the Seine. Looking on his map he told his companion that it looked like they were approaching Paris. The sergeant said, “Oh no, that can’t be as Paris still has not been taken.” Shortly thereafter they encountered a 14 year old boy who spoke some English and offered to show them around. He joined them and soon after crowds began to surround the jeep and someone handed the boy an American flag which he began waving from the jeep. People began cheering and soon they saw that they were in fact in Paris as the Eifel Tower loomed in the distance. They then encountered a small caravan of cars which they were requested to follow. The vehicles stopped when they reached Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. The two U.S. Soldiers were requested to stand at attention as dignitaries stepped out of the cars. They stood and saluted as the the eternal flame on the memorial to the unknown soldier there at the Arc de Triomphe was being lit for the first time since it had been extinguished as a consequence of the German occupation of Paris.
Later after returning to camp, the commanding officer asked where they had been. When he heard that they had been to Paris he first responded that no one was supposed to go on into Paris as the Americans were waiting for France’s de Gaulle to arrive so he could go in and be given credit for the liberating of Paris. He then added, “Why didn’t you take me with you?” Of course no one had previously shared this information with my Uncle or his sergeant, so they ended up liberating Paris two days earlier than what the history books show! (As a footnote, when my Uncle told me this account directly he noted that while there were lots of pictures being taken of them at the time, he has never seen one that was allowed to be published after the fact.)