Old soldiers never die, but they do pass away. As the warriors and workers of the Greatest Generation fade into history, they have riches to bestow upon the generations of today and tomorrow — the cultural wealth and practical wisdom contained in their stories and memories. This wealth is still there for the asking, but only for a short while longer. Time, like a soldier, keeps marching along.
There has always been war. It’s easy to forget that fact, living in peaceful New Hampshire, even when the nightly news rolls out the sad drumbeat of the casualties in Iraq or tunes in to the sirens of mass bloodshed in Darfur.
In the part of Northwest Florida where I grew up, reminders of war were always present. Military bases were large and embedded amongst the towns and beaches. School children were warned about picking up objects that might be unexploded ammo, flares or firing caps dropped by military planes that had strayed from their test ranges. The Soviet menace was practically part of the school curriculum and, by high school age, the gunfire and bombs of Vietnam were increasingly audible threats.
But the battlegrounds of World War II were theaters for the imagination, fields of play for the war games of youth. Television shows like “Rat Patrol” and movies with John Wayne or James Coburn provided plenty of material. The images of Hitler decked out in mad Nazi regalia supplied a fantastic and colorful villain to defeat. One of my more twisted playmates constructed an elaborate “death camp” out of army sets and some cardboard and egg crates. We dutifully blew it up with firecrackers.
To young boys, back then, WWII was a bit like the Harry Potter books are to today’s generation. Tales filled with heroism and horror, real enough to keep you up at night with wonderment yet distant and fantastic. We never even thought of asking our parents about the war and for some reason they never brought it up. It seemed it was our war more than theirs.
The first time I realized who really owned that war was one day in the early 1960s. I was in junior high school and the fashion of the day was influenced by the California surfer style. A popular accessory was a black Maltese cross, a hip knockoff of the iron cross medallion worn by Nazis in the movies. I bought a cheap one at a souvenir shop and wore it to school proudly, but I was quickly taken aside by a teacher who insisted I remove it. These were days of school discipline and dress codes, so it wasn’t odd to be told what to wear, but the emotion of the teacher was intense. He seized the necklace and handled it as though it might be poisonous or radioactive.
That night, my father explained that the symbols of WWII were still powerful to people who had served in the military and fought against the Germans.
I nodded, took his explanation in stride and pretty much forgot all about it.
It never occurred to me until years later to ask my dad, “So, what did you do in the war?”
Such historical cluelessness in youngsters is still all too common. Even so, with the WWII generation dying fast and their children raising children and grandchildren of their own, that question is being asked more often and with a greater sense of urgency.
New Hampshire-based filmmaker Ken Burns said the growing ignorance of the facts and significance of that era was the main reason he embarked upon the creation of his latest epic film series, “The War” (which begins airing on the Public Broadcasting System on September 23). Burns says he remembers reading a statistic that a high percentage of American high school students think that the U.S. teamed up with Germany to fight Russia in World War II. That unnerving detail convinced him that the story of the world’s biggest war, one which seems so familiar to so many, had to be retold for a new generation.
Burns, who relies upon the vitality of historical records and resources for his raw material, would be the first to admit that this mission is one that was well under way when he joined up. Protecting historic resources often falls to a legion of dedicated souls who rarely attract the glare of TV cameras lights. Historical societies, privately maintained Web sites, libraries, oral history projects and veterans groups form a sprawling network, a resistance movement against the erosion of history.
Some war-related museums protect their historic treasures in anonymous villages that haven’t changed all that much since the 1940s. Others situate in vacations spots where the traffic and the leisure of tourism draw crowds.
Wolfeboro, billed as America’s Oldest Resort Community, has plenty of tourism. It also has the Wright Museum, a colorful and growing shrine to the WWII era and one of the best World War II museums in the Northeast.
Uniforms, tanks and machine guns are on display there — a light M3 tank is given a star role, whimsically “bursting” through the front wall onto the street — but the focus of the museum is not so much on the battlefields where men fought and died as it is on the homefront — the place they were dying to get back to.
Mark Foynes is 37 but looks a decade younger. With his mop of red hair and his boyish smile he could have stepped out of an Andy Hardy film shot in Technicolor.
He took over as director of the Wright Museum this year after a seven-year stint as director of education for the New Hampshire Historical Society and delights in giving tours of the museum, though the place is designed to require no docent. Its openness keeps visitors moving and discovering its many offerings, inviting passage through a “time tunnel” lined with images and ephemera of America in the years from 1939 to 1944.
Many visitors are WWII vets and their families. Foynes notes that a look at the 1940s kitchen exhibit or the restored soda fountain has a tendency to awaken deep memories in those who lived through the war. These can build a conversational bridge to darker memories.
He makes it a point to spend time in the exhibits as people come through. Here, a normally taciturn veteran feels free to talk and stories, long tied up in memory, are set free, often for the first time. Often he is there to hear them.
“It happens daily,” says Foynes.
“This place is a tremendous catalyst for people recalling their own historical narratives. That’s true whether they were fighting in the Pacific theater or at Guadal Canal, or whether they were just kids on the homefront, listening to updates from FDR and taking the bacon fat back to the meat dealer to recycle it into nitro glycerin for the war effort.”
Foynes says that veterans he meets are not looking for praise or recognition. “It was just something they were asked to do and they did it. But every story is unique and everyone comes to terms with his own experiences in his own unique way.” The philosophy behind the Wright Museum, and the Ken Burns film series, is that it’s not just the veterans who are still coming to terms with that era. “The Second World War was the defining event of American history,” says Foynes. “Historians describe the modern world in terms of prewar and postwar. Even now, some 60 years after the fact, it’s still the touchstone.”
No time in history was more violent or divisive, and yet it is now the common denominator for the nations of the world and the families of our country. It was a time of near-universal sacrifice, where people did without luxuries and scrimped on necessities. When it was over, the hard work and savings began to pay off, the industrial expansion transformed commerce and the investment in war bonds by average citizens turned into a windfall. Add to that the G.I. Bill, which sent the sons of poor farmers, bricklayers and cobblers off to college, and the social transformation was complete.
Foynes says the primary message from that era to today is one of hope. “The achievements of that generation are a testament to what can be accomplished when everyone agrees to the same set of goals,” he explains. So every exhibit, every tattered letter from the front, every curled photograph is actually a small piece of that one big message: The world has fallen apart before, but we survived to rebuild it, or we died to make sure that others could.
Sometimes it’s the objects that don’t easily fit into the big picture that lead to the most compelling stories, says Foynes. He produces an artifact he has tucked away in the archives of the museum: a replica ship made entirely of matchsticks. It’s a stunning work of great detail and still in near-perfect condition. When it was donated by Mabel Richardson, Foynes began to research the item.
Mabel Richardson’s family summered every year on a farm in Temple, N.H. In the years before Pearl Harbor, the U.S was already providing aid and assistance to the British, and the battleship HMS Rodney, fresh from the sinking of the German uber-warship Bismarck, was docked in Boston Harbor for repairs. The British Royal Marines onboard had been furloughed to nearby communities during the overhaul and two of them were hitchhiking through Temple when Mabel’s father drove by. He picked them up and invited them to the farm. One of the sailors, Lloyd Badman, and Mabel paired off and were soon inseparable. Inevitably, the Rodney sailed away, taking Lloyd with it. Years later he married a British girl and years after that he gave Mabel the scale model of the ship that had brought them together in that summer long ago. Mabel never married.
The ship itself tells the story of the abundant time that sailors had while underway. Raw materials were rationed and not for “frivolous” uses, but matches were plentiful and disposable. But what of the personal story behind it? Was there unrequited love? Were there regrets?
With assistance from Mark Foynes, I contact Mabel, still well and bright as a button, living in Massachusetts.
“Of course it was a little bit romantic,” she recalls. “We really hit it off.” No, she says, there were no regrets, just a friendship forged during remarkable times. True, Mabel first heard about Lloyd’s marriage through his uncle, but she visited the couple in England and again when they moved to New Brunswick, Canada. It was on one of those visits that Lloyd give her the model ship — a memento of a special summer spent in New Hampshire.
“Yes, the summer of 1941 was a busy one,” she recalls. “That’s when I saw the most of Lloyd. And Murray, too.”
“Murray MacLellan Day,” she says. “He was just a friend, a special friend.”
Her voice grows more solemn.
“He was a young man I knew who went to the Philippines during the war. He was captured when the Japanese invaded his camp in Mindanao,” she explains. “When the Japanese had to abandon the Philippines, they put the prisoners on unmarked ships to take them to Japan. The U.S. Army Air Corp sank the ship he was on.”
Mabel offers some details: Murray was a resident of Temple who attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Princeton before the war. I contacted both schools to learn more.
Alumni records on Murray Day included photos and a letter from the War Department to his family. He was a lieutenant in the field artillery stationed in Manila under Gen. MacArthur prior to his capture. During the Japanese retreat they loaded him and 1,618 other survivors of the Bataan Death March, Corregidor and other battles onto a converted former luxury ship named the Oryoko Maru. The less euphonic name that survivors gave to it and the other vessels used for this transport was “the Hell Ships.”
Murray Day was one of 318 who died in Subic Bay when the ship went down. From reports of survivors, the sinking could be considered an act of mercy. Prisoners were crammed into the holds of the Hell Ships with little air, food or water for weeks at a time.
One colonel, in his official report of the Oryoko Maru incident, wrote: Many men lost their minds and crawled about in the absolute darkness armed with knives, attempting to kill people in order to drink their blood or armed with canteens filled with urine and swinging them in the dark. The hold was so crowded and everyone so interlocked with one another that the only movement possible was over the heads and bodies of others.
Sadly, such horrors are all too common in every war and the gruesomeness of the action is often forgotten when the fighting ends — except by those who were there, and those who loved them.
The first World War was named the War to End All Wars. No such conceit existed regarding WWII, but the nuclear flash that ended that conflict between civilizations made it apparent that the world would not survive another one like it.
There has always been war. Throughout history, adults have studied it to better wage it and children have played it in games to prepare for the day when war would call them to action. Today, the games of war and the battlefield museums might have a different mission: to claim war for their own, to reduce it at last to exhibits and computer simulations, to draw its deadly fire out of the future and preserve it safely in stories of the past.
It may seem like an impossible challenge, but the message hidden in the hearts and recollections of the World War II generation is that what seems impossible can be accomplished if everyone agrees to a common goal.
And if the world should fall apart again, the heroic promise of the Greatest Generation remains: We’ll survive and rebuild — or die to make sure others can. NH
Rene Gagnon: Raising the Standard
Twenty years passed between Rene Gagnon’s first and second ascent of Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi. On Feb. 23, 1945, the Manchester native was one of six Americans who raised Old Glory atop “Pipe Mountain.”
Two decades later, Gagnon returned to honor those who died in combat. Gagnon also served as something of an unofficial goodwill ambassador whose visit was a symbolic step toward reconciliation with Japan.
During the battle, the flag-raising was a much-needed morale boost since the Stars and Stripes were visible from all points on the island. However, the event by no means marked the bloody battle’s conclusion. Fighting on Iwo Jima continued for weeks and resulted in a total of 6,821 American deaths.
Gagnon considered himself lucky to survive and always maintained that the real heroes were those who never made it back. Among those who made the ultimate sacrifice were three of the six men captured in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo. “Dad always felt that his place should’ve been back there on Iwo and not here at home being celebrated as a hero,” says Gagnon’s son, Rene Gagnon Jr. “For him, the heroes were the guys who stayed behind — many of them not returning at all.”
Twenty years later, Gagnon would return to Iwo with his wife Pauline and son Rene. The family was greeted by a large Japanese press contingent, eager to capture photos and ask questions of the returning Marine.
“When we got there, I wasn’t sure what to think,” said Gagnon’s son, who was 17 in 1965. “Are they going to shoot at us? Would they be hostile towards us and still be bitter about war’s outcome? Actually, they made us feel welcome. There was an honor in their defeat. The Japanese are a proud people.”
Among the events that filled the family’s agenda were a tour of the Honda plant (his son was, in Gagnon Sr.’s own words, an “avid Honda motorcycle fan”) and a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.S. Iwo Jima monument.
The Gagnon family also met over dinner with retired Japanese Army Captain Kikuzo Musashino. Through an interpreter, the two former enemies sat side-by-side on a straw matted floor and spoke for two hours.
“After three or four days we knew it was lost,” Musashino says. “It was a matter of reinforcements. Even before the landings, the Americans had taken control of the sea and air.”
The returning Marine recalled how effective the Japanese snipers were, “You played a rough game for the next month even though you knew you were losing. Out of our company of 250 men, only 12 walked off the island.”
At the meeting’s end, the former foes shook hands and wished each other well.
Gagnon’s son, like his father, is mindful of the flag-raising’s enduring significance as an important visual touchstone. Still, he concedes, “My dad was there at the right place at the right time with the photographer getting just the right perspective. What it really came down to was that he was asked to do a job and he did it.” NH
Above: Stark work crew and their American foreman (front row, 2nd from right)A Tale of Two Camps: Stark and Simon
While World War II raged across the globe, America remained a peaceful place for the most part, but the conflict had some unusual and unexpected effects in New Hampshire.
A Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the tiny town of Stark became home to about 250 German military prisoners in the final years of WWII. There were tensions with townsfolk, and the Germans suffered from the displacement, the hard labor and the demoralization of the war, but the locals and the Germans bonded so well that years later, representatives of both the town and prison camp remember the time as a highlight of their lives. A 40-year reunion in 1986 gained national attention for this little-known aspect of the war that was uncovered by Dartmouth Professor Allen Koop and chronicled in his book “Stark Decency.”
Meanwhile another CCC forestry camp in Warner was home to a different kind of prisoner. Seventy-five “prisoners of conscience” or conscientious objectors spent the war under the auspices of the Selective Service System in isolation from the world and bearing the stigmas of cowardice or treason. They were mostly Catholic in faith, though separated by various strains of ideology and temperament. They called the place Camp Simon, an allusion to Simon the Cyrene who, in the Bible, was conscripted to bear the cross for Christ on the way to Golgotha. “Another Part of the War,” by Gordon Zahn, a Catholic pacifist who lived at Camp Simon, tells the remarkable story and details its aftermath.
World War II Historical Resources:
Strawbery Banke features the Marden-Abbott House, a WWII-era home and family-run grocery store (above). www.strawberybanke.org
Union Leader columnist John Clayton compiles dozens of remarkable interviews with veterans and survivors of war in his book “New Hampshire: War and Peace.”
NH filmmakers Brad Branch and Bill Humphreys movie “On the Wing” is a look back at one of the shortest and most intensive air battles over European airspace. Interviews include former B24 pilot Senator George McGovern.
Along with artifacts and exhibits, the Wright Museum in Wolfeboro offers a variety of educational programs from May 1 to October 31 (below). www.wrightmuseum.org
Preserving His or Her Story
If you have a friend or family member who lived through the war, you can bring a piece of history to life for future generations. Here are a few suggestions for how to create an oral history:
1. Do your own research. It’s easier to draw out details if you know something about the period and circumstances you will be discussing.
2. Stay focused. Memories will wander to other times and places; keep returning to where you started until the whole story is told. You can follow the other leads later.
3. Ask open ended questions. Asking how and why something happened will get better answers than simply asking what happened. And listen; new questions will arise.
4. Get out the photo albums. If there are any pictures or documents that could spur memories, now is the time to get them labeled.
5. Be respectful, but don’t be shy. Your subject will let you know if you are digging too deep, but many stories go untold because awkward or personal questions don’t get asked.
This article appears in the March 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine