Veterans’ Unspoken Stories Surface in Photos, Letters

My Dad, like so many other veterans of war, didn’t talk about his experiences as a soldier in World War II when I was kid growing up. My brother Richard and I played ‘army’ with his canteen, his backpack and some of his hats, but we never asked him, nor did he volunteer, to tell us how he had carried or worn those things during his four years of service with the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion.  He kept those stories to himself until my younger brother, Brad, when writing a paper for his eighth grade American history class, coaxed some out of him. Until then, we knew little about those years of his life.

My Dad cut a striking figure in his army uniform but he rarely spoke about his miliatry experience when we were kids. You can see the insignia of the Red Dragons on his scarf in this picture.
My Dad cut a striking figure in his army uniform but he rarely spoke about his military experience when we were kids. You can see the insignia of the Red Dragons on his scarf in this picture.

But I remember as a kid, stumbling across some small black and white prints that had been stuffed away into a drawer. I quietly leafed through the pictures. The images were unreal. I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing but it made my stomach turn. What were these? Where did they come from? And why were they tucked back into a drawer that was rarely opened?  Feeling as if I had accidentally come upon someone’s dark secret, I carefully placed the photos back into the drawer just as I found so as not to reveal that they had been disturbed.

As far as I know, those photos remained there for a very long time, long after I had gone off to college and moved away. Frankly, I didn’t care if I ever saw them again but it didn’t matter because those stark, unedited black and whites were stamped indelibly into my mind. Only after my brother started the conversation with my Dad about his service during the War did we begin to learn the full details of those pictures and how they came to be.

The flag of the 2nd Chemcial Mortar Battalion was proudly displayed at the last battalion reunions my father attended,
The flag of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion was proudly displayed at the last battalion reunions my father attended,

My father’s unit was a special unit, assigned to many different divisions during the course of the War, depending where they were needed. When other units would finish up a mission and be sent home for some R&R or discharge, my father’s would move on to the next.  By the end of the War, his outfit had seen 511 days of combat, more than any other, except for one, in the European theatre. His introduction to war started in North Africa, moved up through Sicily and Italy, into France and finally into Germany during the final days of the War.  There, shortly after Munich fell (where my Dad also was), he and some men of his unit walked into the nightmare we now know as Dachau.

The main gate to Dachau through which my father entered with the men in his unit.
The main gate to Dachau through which my father entered with the men in his unit.

What they saw could not be described, or, if it was, would not be believed. Perhaps realizing that this would be the case, my Dad reached for the camera he carried and took as many photos as he could probably handle before stashing it safely back into his pack. If anyone doubted his eyewitness account to this camp of death, my Dad would have something to prove what he was saying was true. Those were the photos I found.

Who knows how long those photos remained as negatives or when he finally brought himself to turn them into prints.  My Dad finally did begin to share that experience, especially during his later years with my sons.

Coincidentally, just hours before my Dad was in Dachau, another American soldier and his men were in a jeep pulling up to the gates on the opposite side of the camp. He saw before him a German officer wearing an armband with the Red Cross on it and carrying a white flag. The American in the jeep was Lt. William Cowling, who, like my Dad was from Kansas. Although the two did not know each other then, Cowling later married a girl from my Dad’s hometown and became the father of one of my best friends from high school. Like myself, she knew only a little about her father’s wartime career until the later years of his life. Her father had written an emotional letter home to his family the day after the liberation of the concentration camp recounting the details of that day. Cowling also had filed an official report for the Army, but it was detached and distant, devoid of the emotions he revealed to his parents. After he returned home, he seldom spoke about that day until, as my friend said, late in his life.

U.S. Army officers from the 42nd Division meet German officers who surrendered to Lt. William Cowling in this photo taken by Cowling.
U.S. Army officers from the 42nd Division meet German officers who surrendered to Lt. William Cowling in this photo taken by Cowling.

There are many more stories like this one, of old soldiers keeping their terrible memories of the War to themselves, or putting them on paper only to be put away somewhere until years later. I was reminded of all this, and of my Dad’s own story about Dachau, just recently by the teacher of my French class. She began the class that evening telling us, in French, how she had just been given a letter written by her father from the War. It was something she had never seen before, she said. In it, he detailed how his unit had been positioned outside Dachau and told what that had been like. I followed her story as closely as I could (my French isn’t yet fluent) but when she began to talk about Dachau, I listened even more intently. After she concluded her story, I recalled to her my own Dad’s experience at Dachau and then also told the group about my friend’s father, Lt. Cowling.

My Dad share a story from his World War II military service with my son as they look through photos on display at one of my Dad's army reunions.
My Dad share a story from his World War II military service with my son as they look through photos on display at one of my Dad’s army reunions.

It seemed so random to me, that we could be sitting in the same room, after both our father’s had passed on, and discover that we were in some way linked by the history of our respective fathers’ military service.  Just like that between my high school friend and myself. (Or my husband and myself as I wrote in my November, 2013 post) I suspect that happens more often than many of us know. It points out to me that war brings people together in strange ways, long after the shooting has ended and for generations to come. But the stories disappear as those who know them pass on. That’s one reason why it’s important, on Veteran’s Day or any other day, to honor these people, to listen while you can to their stories, to ask about the photo and to thank them for surviving.

To read more about my Dad’s military service click here. This one was built by my brother, Brad. You can create a tribute ”shadow box’ for your own family member here. You can also learn more about the ‘Red Dragons’ of World War II in the book ‘Finding My Father’s War’ by Walt Eldridge.

Small Town Salutes American Vets

In small towns all across the United States, Americans will be celebrating our Veterans’ Day holiday on Tuesday, November 11.  For schoolchildren, it will be mean a day off from classes. For federal employees it will be day off from work.  Mail doesn’t move. Banks are closed but the stock markets are open. And sadly, major retailers have turned the day into one of the major shopping sale days of the year. I think that’s hardly what President Woodrow Wilson, who first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, or President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, expanded the holiday as a day to honor all military veterans, had in mind when they made the holiday an official American observance.

American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.
American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.

But in small towns all across the United States, the original intention of the holiday–to celebrate and recognize all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces–is carried out in parades, ceremonies, flag-flying, grave decorating, speeches, band concerts, patriotic performances and special dinners for veterans.  In my small, hometown of Parsons, KS., (population 10,164), the local Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, hosts a simple, but moving program for anyone who wants to attend.  I happened to be visiting my father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, on two recent Veterans’ Days–in 2011 and 2013–and accompanied him to the program.  At the time, I didn’t know that the 2013 program would be his last.  Now, the memories and photographs I took on that day, hold even more significance for me.

The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 55 a day.  Of the 16 million who served in World War II, only a little more than a million survive. My Dad was among a handful of them in attendance at the 2013 VFW ceremony. Those who were there that day, proudly rose to their feet when the VFW’s color guard strode in with the American flag.  I was surprised at how touched I was to watch some of these old soldiers and sailors struggle to push themselves up from their chairs to stand and salute the flag.  I could tell that my own father was saddened that he could not join them because he was seated in a wheelchair and not strong enough at the time to stand up.  But he removed his cap and placed his hand over his heart as the flag passed by.  And again, when each branch of the military’s own flag was introduced and carried into the room, the veterans, young and old representing that branch, proudly arose to be recognized by the others in the audience.

Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2013. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.
Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2011. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.

The program was appropriately patriotic but not war-mongering.  No one among these assembled veterans, I think was a fan of war.  I know my own Dad certainly wasn’t. He felt great concern for the safety of the young troops serving in our country’s current conflicts.  He believed that no one should have to experience what they, as veterans, had to endure. Interestingly, at the reunions I attended with my father for his Army outfit, the young soldiers who came to meet their predecessors expressed the opinion that my Dad’s generation went through much more than they, as modern-day soldiers, have ever had to face, even if deployed overseas.

My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.

At the Parsons program, the local post commander, dressed in full military uniform introduced the day’s speaker, neither of whom I really remember. Their speeches came nowhere close to being as stirring as sitting and talking and acknowledging the veteran’s who were in the room that day.  The local high school band played a few selections, a little off-pitch, of familiar patriotic music before and during the program.  They struck up Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” by as everyone filed out to the parking lot outside for the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of the plaintive tune, ‘Taps.’

The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.
The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.

On both the Veterans’ Days when I was present, the red, white and blue of the American flags flying on the poles lining the gravel lot, flapped in the wind and stood out dramatically against the bright blue of the sky. Many of the flags flying that day at the post had been donated by local families who had received them upon their own veteran’s death.  I now own one of  those flags.  And while I haven’t yet the heart to part with it, I think that it may one day fly with those flags in a private salute to my Dad who, during his own 92-year lifetime, saluted so many others.

My Dad's favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad’s favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran on the front side, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.

 

Saluting Our Veterans

Veterans Day in the United States occurs on November 11 and was proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to mark the anniversary of the end of World War I.  Later, in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law that established that day as Veterans Day to honor all those who have served in this country’s military.  On this day, there are many events celebrating the holiday and saluting our country’s veterans.  Parades, concerts, ceremonies with special speakers, dinners fill the day, all to recognize the women and men who are or were in the country’s armed forces.

My own father was a G.I. during World War II who enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor, became a First Sergeant and shipped out to Europe where he made three separate landings, two in Italy and one in France.  He was assigned to the 2nd Chemical Warfare Battalion attached to the Fifth Army. His unit spent more time on the front line–511 days–than any American unit, except for one other,  in the European theater.

This studio portrait of my Dad in uniform was taken in a studio in Germany in 1945.  Originally a black and white portrait, it was later colorized by my brother, Brad Crooks, also a photographer.
This studio portrait of my Dad in uniform was taken in a studio in Germany in 1945. Originally a black and white portrait, it was later colorized by my brother, Brad Crooks, also a photographer.

He was in the Battle of Monte Cassino, at the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau and during a search in Munich discovered Hitler’s quarters in the Hofbrauhaus.  His war experiences were not something he ever talked about until well into his 60s when my youngest brother asked him about the War in order to write a paper for his high school history class.

And while my Dad was fighting on the front, my future Mother-in-law, was in the field hospital at the rear of the very same 5th Army division as a lieutenant nurse, treating wounded and sick soldiers.  My mother-in-law had recently finished her nurse’s training at Kansas State University when War broke out. Knowing that there would be a great need for medical personnel, she signed on to become an Army nurse.

Only in her early 20s, my mother-in-law served as an Army nurse in Europe during World War II.
Only in her early 20s, my mother-in-law served as an Army nurse in Europe during World War II.

A young woman who had seen little outside of the farm and state of Kansas where she had grown up, she soon found herself sailing on board the U.S.S. Harry Lee as part of the largest trans-Atlantic convoy ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  It was the very same ship on which my Dad was headed to war.

Though their paths never crossed during those war years, they were in many of the same places at nearly the same time. It wasn’t until after my husband and I were married that they discovered that they both had served in the same division of the Army during the War. They shared stories and compared notes establishing a common bond through the years. The experiences that they both had lived through changed their lives forever.

I have photographs of them both from those memorable years.  Snapshots taken while on leave or between battles on the field; portraits in their dress and combat uniforms made in the studios of photographers in the foreign cities where they passed through, on their way to their next military assignment.  These pictures are priceless and provide my family with an insight into their young lives and a time that the world must never forget.  I hope that you too have photos, if you  had family members who served in this or other conflicts, because they are important visual records not only a life special to you but of history itself.

The winter of 1944-45 was one of the most brutal of the 20th century and left soldiers, like my father, doing all they could to keep warm by sleeping in foxholes and covered with only a wool blanket. Many soldiers suffered from 'trench foot' and were, undoubtedly treated by nurses like my mother-in-law.
The winter of 1944-45 was one of the most brutal of the 20th century and left soldiers, like my father, doing all they could to keep warm by sleeping in foxholes and covered with only a wool blanket. Many soldiers suffered from ‘trench foot’ and were, undoubtedly treated by nurses like my mother-in-law.

These young Americans left behind family, friends and all that was familiar to ship off to war and fight, to help those who fought and to risk never returning.  It is them, and all others like them, who don the uniform of their country in both war and peace times whom we honor on this country’s Veterans Day.

We salute them.