JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Fishing On D-Day With An American Hero

D-Day. June 6, 1944.

Seventy-four years ago today, my father-in-law, Garland Crook, got his feet wet — literally and figuratively — entering combat in World War II by going ashore on Normandy Beach.

Today, Jeff and I are going to try to keep him from getting his feet wet as we help him into the boat on the Missouri River. We’re going fishing.

Garland’s an American hero, and there aren’t many left who participated in that fateful day. I’ve asked him about it, and he’s talked about it from time to time, but he’s not eager to bring it up. Today, though, in a boat, like he was June 6, 1944, maybe he’ll feel like talking. Last time I asked him, he just said “Jim, we were a bunch of scared kids.”

Garland was 19 years old that day. He survived Normandy Beach and became a career soldier. He spent his working life in the U.S. Army, serving during three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He retired to a farm in North Dakota, then retired from farming and now lives not far from his daughter, Lillian, and me in Bismarck.

Garland loves to fish. Every summer for the past four or five years since he moved to Bismarck, we’ve gotten him in the boat. It’s not easy, for us or for him.  Every winter, over supper, I tell him we can’t wait to get him out in the boat again next summer. Every winter he says, “Jim, I’m afraid my fishing days are over.”

Then summer comes, and I call him and say, “Garland, are you interested in fishing tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’m interested,” he’ll respond, “but I’m not sure I can do it. Let me get back to you.”

The “get back to you” part takes about 15 minutes — a little longer this year because it took him longer to get out to the garage, either in his wheelchair or using his walker, to check to make sure his rods and reels and tackle box made it through another winter.

Then my phone rings and he says, “What time?”

10 a.m. today. I’ll report in.

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Sinking Of The Indianapolis

I can’t resist a used bookstore. On Saturday, I picked up a volume that tells the story of the cruiser U.S.S. Indiana, sunk by the Japanese in World War II after delivering the atomic bomb that would end the conflict.

The book, “In Harm’s Way,” reminded me of the description of the disaster that the character “Quint” (Robert Shaw) provided in the 1975 movie “Jaws,” still one of the most popular films ever made.

Here, slightly edited, is how Quint described what happened.

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. Our ship was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.

“Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer.

“You know how you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.

“Very first light, chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups.

“You know it’s kinda like ol’ squares in battle like you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away.

“Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.

“Y’know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour.

“On Thursday mornin’ I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top.

“Up ended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper in a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low. He’s a young pilot, and anyway he saw us and come in low.

“And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.

“So, 1,100 men went in the water, 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — A War Story

Friends know I enjoy used bookstores. There are many within easy driving distance of our place in Bloomington, Minn.

I recently purchased the above book for $1.50 at a Salvation Army resale outlet near the place that sells me Starbucks Italian Bold coffee.

“What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?” was self-published by Gordon C. Krantz, who like Dorette and me is (or was) a resident of Bloomington, Minn. It is subtitled “The Reminiscences of an Ordinary Draftee in World War II.”

Krantz was a member of the 537th engineering company, involved in combat during 1944 and 1945 after shipping to Europe aboard the passenger liner “Queen Elizabeth.”

The book describes his wartime experiences (as well as a tour of the battlefields he took with his wife many years after the war).

Here’s a brief excerpt, apparently from his diary:

“I don’t expect to come back. In a war you get killed. The ways things are going in Europe, we are in for a grim time. We know how to kill the other guy and he knows how to kill us. I may be alone in this expectation of getting killed, but I don’t think so. We have a song, a parody of the WWI song “over there.” It ends with ‘We’ll be over, we’re going over, and we’re all coming back in wooden underwear.’ Wooden underwear is a pine box.”

The 16.1 million veterans of World War II are rapidly disappearing. Only about 3.4 percent of those who served are still alive.

The book has a warning notice on its title page: “This version is a private publication for family use only — Not for sale.”

If my calculation is correct, Krantz would be 93 years old. Not impossible, of course.

But given the fact his request that the book not be sold was ultimately ignored (recall that I bought it used at the resale store), Krantz may have crossed to the other side.

Dead or alive, I salute you.

RON SCHALOW: The White Nationalist Next Door

Several days after my birth, we were driving home, up the big Third Street hill in Minot, and I was listening to Eisenhower speechify on the radio. It was a bit staticy, but I remember it like it was just several minutes ago. Frankly, he was boring.

President Ike was still in his first term and pledged to remain ever steamed at the Nazis, until flowers bloomed on the moon, at minimum. He was in the business of killing them not many years before becoming president, so Eisenhower didn’t have mixed feelings about Nazis. They were always bad. NOBODY compared. Over 400,000 Americans died in that war.

“During World War II, we we rushed to develop nuclear weapons because we were trying to defeat the Nazis, who, fun fact, pretty much all Americans thought were bad at the time.” — John Oliver

We liked Ike. He was stable, sane and looked better than fat@$$ Don in a golf outfit.  Eisenhower never tweeted and didn’t lie every 15 minutes. At the time, we had no idea that Dwight WASN’T getting up in the middle of the night to cuss out various people and talk smack on the White House party line. He behaved normally, to my recollection, and the clincher for me, Ike and I, looked liked twins when I was 3 days old. Bald as a Brunswick bowling ball and a pate as smooth as a newborn goat. My eyesight wasn’t fully operative, yet.

In 1957, the former general sent the National Guard into Arkansas, backed up by Fargo’s Judge Ronald Davies, to enable the Little Rock Nine, black youths, to safely attend school with the white kids. Dwight stepped up and did the right thing. Many whites weren’t happy. Too many still aren’t.

Dwight had dignity, and he was a tough SOB. Had Eisenhower witnessed the spectacle of Donald Trumps’s bat$#!* insane hee-haw tribalist airing of grievances for 77 minutes (all that was missing was the Festivus pole and the feats of strength) in Arizona, he would have latched onto Donnie John’s testicles with a pair of needle nose pliers and squeezed until 45 coughed up the keys to the country.

And if he knew that Trump was pandering to the tiki tots and their ideological inbred cousins, providing aid and comfort to the enemy, Ike would have done cool things, not approved by the Geneva Conventions, to Donnie with his two iron.

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.” — D. Trump

Nobody who stands up to heavily armed white supremacists is on any other side except good, but the alt-right knew how to interpret the president’s words. Fifty percent is a win for these @$$holes.

Many tried to convince us that hundreds were just there to to gaze into the bronze nostrils of Gen. Lee’s horse, Traveller, just one more time. Such malarkey.

And there are those like Fargo’s Scott Hennen, the frothing radio voice of the tattered fringe right over several blocks in downtown Fargo, who thought the sight of a marching herd of Nazis carrying kitschy Polynesian style torches and chanting racist favorites in an American city was a partisan issue. Maybe to his listeners, and Hennen’s twisted mind, but I would still like to think that most Republicans are anti-white supremacy. And certainly they are against a terrorist attacks, even if the perpetrator isn’t Muslim. Aren’t they?

Unfortunately, in North Dakota, Republican politicians are inclined to attach their campaigns to the mad king. Evidently, the Trumpster fire is still a popular figure with the N.D. GOP and its voters. And it boils to white identity politics, which isn’t new but was relegated to damp rock undersides with the other slimy critters.

Generally, being a racist wasn’t something you wanted to advertise. At least not in this state.

Then along comes the Trump idiot, hitting all of the right notes, for a range of bigots on the spectrum.

Mexicans are rapists, we’re going to build the best wall to keep them out. We’re going to make it so that an immigrant has to have a Nobel prize and be a gold medal Olympic pole vaulter in order to meet the new requirements for entry. The Muslim ban, that made no sense. Birtherism, that was a racial lie. Refugees can wait a few more years because the numbers to be allowed in have been greatly reduced. Transgender people can no longer serve in the military. A stone cold racist and cruel dick is given a presidential pardon. The dip praises a CNN pundit who was fired for tweeting a Nazi slogan. Donnie uses Pocahontas as a slur.  He’s currently screwing with the Dreamers. And then the equivocation on Nazis.

“Jews will not replace us, blood and soil, heil Trump, one people, one nation, end immigration, White Lives Matter, f**k you, fa**ots, and “Go the f**k back to Africa.” Some right-wing demonstrators called specific people “ni**ers” or “fa**ots.” Yes, good people.

“This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal ni**ers,” one @$$hole told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve.

“As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semiautomatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building when they were done praying.” — Reform Judaism

“For my part, if I should ever get the chance to confront Richard Spencer (white supremacist honcho), I think I’d conclude my cross-examination with the proposition that by his views and actions he had implicitly renounced his American citizenship and should therefore be deported.” — Steven Hayward, libertarian and conservative author

So, our North Dakota Republicans aren’t running away from this racist in the Oval Office and some who have called for ethnic cleansing. Their constituents evidently find Trump just swell. But, don’t believe me. Forum Communications employs a shill boy blogger, who carries vast amount of oil for his legislative pals, and was responsible for this headline:

“Port: ND politicos are treating Trump like an election year asset”

“Maybe Trump isn’t the political liability some would like us to think. Some will say otherwise, but how the politicians place their bets speaks louder than words,” Port wrote.

Sounds about right. We’ve been hearing the high-pitched squeals, only audible to beagles, complaining about migrant workers, refugees, Native Americans and the LGBT community for years, and someone has been reassuring those with concerns about keeping these groups in check. Some descendants of Europeans feel that white Christian identity is being threatened by ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.

Here’s what Port had to say before the election and prior to his forced Trump brand blood transfusion:

  • “While the left overplays the race card, Trump seems content to pander to actual paranoid racists.”
  • “Trump knows exactly how dumb his supporters are and has manipulated their ignorance to great effect.”
  • “The 2016 election for president now looks to be a competition between corrupt, bought off Clintonism and the former host of “Celebrity Apprentice” whose “America first” campaign has taken on the overtones of a modern sort of fascism.”

Perhaps the next time a legislative candidate knocks on your door, be sure to look through peephole and if you see a torch, latch the deadbolt.

“Since my boyhood, I had accepted without qualification the right to equality before the law of all citizens of this country, whatever their race or color or creed. In World War II, I had affirmed my belief in this principle through orders desegregating many Red Cross clubs, while during some stages of the fighting, I had sent into previous all-white units Negro replacements who not only fought well but also encountered little or no resentment from their comrades.” — D.D. Eisenhower

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Garland Crook On D-Day

Somewhere on the coast of the English Channel, 73 years ago today, was my father, Garland Crook, a 19-year-old from the piney hills of Mississippi.

He joined the U.S. Army at 17, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His mother had to sign a document to allow him to join up at so young an age. Eventually, he was sent to England, and on the night of June 5, 1944, was boarding a ship as a soldier in the largest coastal invasion in history, Operation Overlord. He was one of those you see in the films, on Omaha Beach the next day, June 6. He survived.

This photo was taken later in France, made into a postcard and sent to his Ma and Papa Crook (Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Asberry Crook, known to all in Attalla County (Miss.) and environs as Miss Sally and Mr. “Berry”). I have that postcard and the back of the postcard reads: “To Ma + Papa, Love Garland, Somewhere in France, 160 pounds.” This was, of course, all that he could tell them. He was the eldest of nine children, and my aunts and uncles have told me they remember when that postcard arrived at their home in Mississippi, likely the first word they had that he was alive.

About a month after he survived Omaha Beach, he and a buddy were in a convoy of supply trucks, and knowing that a passing German plane had spotted them, they ran for cover before the German plane dropped a bomb. But they didn’t get very far. More or less, no trace of his buddy could be found.

Daddy recovered and was then assigned to drive the car of General John C. H. Lee (lieutenant general in charge of Theater Service Forces, European Theater), and thus Daddy was witness to much more history from that day until the German surrender.

With the general, he had Christmas dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor somewhere in France. And with the general, he attended the funeral of Gen.  George Patton, who died in Germany in a car accident.

Then, World War II was over, and he went home to Mississippi, returning to the Army shortly thereafter for a career, which included service in Korea — twice, once for the conflict and once in the late 1960s — and Okinawa during the Vietnam War — where he was allowed to bring his young family for a great adventure.

We occasionally talked about going back to France with him, but careers, houses, children and well, just life, you know, got in the way. We never have stopped honoring him, and when attending parades and the like, we always stand up when the color guard comes by, saddened by those around us who cannot be bothered to do so or have not been taught. I am old enough that I remember honoring the veterans of World War I in the color guard, the “war to end all wars.”

During the 50th anniversary events of D-Day, much as so many of that generation did, my father finally started to tell me these stories, as I, the history geek, began to find time to read books like “D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II” by Stephen Ambrose. So it was that Daddy’s oral history of this time is in my files.

He lives in my town and we are blessed to have had him so very long in our lives.

This is my homage — to all who were there that day, to all who were home doing everything they could to support them, to my Mom and her North Dakota Victory garden, to rationing, to doing completely without and to all the lost souls of the wars.

This is for the generations after, so they know these stories. If you are interested in learning more about D-Day, this is an excellent website by the U.S. Army.

JEFF OLSON: Photo Gallery — Remembering Pearl Harbor

Seventy-five years ago today, the United States was thrust into World War II with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Alexandria, Va., photographer Jeff Olson stopped by the he World War II Memorial to “touch the words” of the memorial that honors the 16 million who served in the Armed Forces of the U.S., the more than 400,000 who died and all who supported the war effort from home, including those whose deaths on Dec. 7, 1941, marked the beginning of the U.S. war involvement in the Pacific.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Pain Of War Doesn’t End For Some

I sat in the suburban Dallas living room of Earl Crumby as the old soldier quietly wept. His wife had died a few years before, but Crumby said his tears that day weren’t for her. “As dearly as I loved that woman, her death didn’t affect me near as much as it does to sit down here and talk to you about seeing those young boys butchered during the war,” said the white-haired World War II veteran, who was 71 on that day in 1997. “It was nothing but arms and legs, heads and guts.”

“You’d think you could forget something like that,” said Crumby, whose own war ended with a shrapnel wound in the Battle of the Bulge. “But you can’t.”

There were also guys named Otis Mackey and George Swinney, and a half-dozen other vets who inspired my novel (“Every Common Sight”) of the Greatest Generation that was published this spring. Each had survived Omaha Beach, the Ardennes Forest or the Pacific Islands, only to have the psychic residue of combat shatter their golden years.

They talked of night terrors, heavy drinking, survivor’s guilt, depression, exaggerated startle responses, profound and lingering sadness. The symptoms were familiar to the world by then, but post-traumatic stress disorder, the diagnosis that came into being in 1980, was widely assumed to be unique to veterans of Vietnam. “Bad war, bad outcome, bad aftereffects,” is the way historian Thomas Childers put it.

Those of age in the late 1940s would have known differently. Though it was referred to by other names (shell shock, combat fatigue, neuropsychiatric disorders) the emotional toll of World War II was hard to miss in the immediate postwar years; military psychiatric hospitals across the nation were full of afflicted soldiers, and the press was full of woeful tales. But with the passage of time and the prevailing male ethos — the strong, silent type — World War II was soon overshadowed by the Cold War and eventually Vietnam. By the 1990s, amid the mythology of the Greatest Generation, the psychological costs of the last “good war” had been forgotten.

Yet those costs, as hard as the nation tried to ignore them, did not go away. The soldiers I interviewed nearly two decades ago, and tens of thousands of others like them, were painful and often poignant proof of that. Though the reverential books of Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose glossed over it, the hidden anguish of the Greatest Generation has always been there. “Our conceptualization of the Greatest Generation is that [the soldiers] came home and got to work,” said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the National Center for PTSD, who has worked with World War II veterans since the 1990s. “Many of them looked OK because they went to work, got married, they raised families — but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have PTSD.”

Of all the men and women who served in the armed forces during World War II, less than 6 percent, about 850,000, are still alive, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. World War II vets die at the rate of 492 a day. Before it’s too late, we ought to reach beyond the nostalgia and myth and embrace the truth of war and the Greatest Generation. Bad war, good war — for those who fight, it’s all the same — means death, disfigurement and horrors no human heart is equipped to bear.

‘When we got out, you couldn’t talk about things like that,” Otis Mackey told me in his East Texas living room. “You held it all in. I didn’t want to take it to my family. If you’d say anything, people wouldn’t believe half of what you say, anyway.”

He was rocking furiously, faster and faster, speaking of his first day in combat, when his best friend was shot through the neck and killed, and the day he watched fellow soldiers dismembered by land mines. “The leg with the combat boot and all … I had to duck,” he told me. “I seen it coming at me. I just ducked, and McGhee’s leg went flying right by my head. That has been one of my guilty points, because I was right there ready to step on that mine. I never could figure out why it was him and not me.”

Mackey drank heavily when he returned to Texas and worked three jobs as a machinist, so he was too tired to remember his dreams at night. “I don’t know why my wife even stayed with me,” he said.

By the time we talked, Mackey had been in group therapy for several months with Earl Crumby and a few other World War II vets at the Dallas VA hospital. By that time in the 1990s, thousands of old soldiers had been finding their way to PTSD treatment.

“Most of the World War II men that I worked with came to me in their 70s or 80s, after retirement or the death of a spouse,” said Joan Cook, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and a PTSD researcher for Veterans Affairs. “Their symptoms seemed to be increasing, and those events seemed to act as a floodgate.”

For so many veterans, that was when they finally learned they were not crazy or weak. “Pretty much to a person, for them, learning about PTSD and understanding that people were researching it in World War II veterans was a real relief,” Schnurr said. “Many people felt isolated and crazy, and they thought it was just them. And they didn’t talk about it.”

Mackey told me that he generally felt better after VA therapy sessions with other haunted World War II vets. But there were still days when “I get that empty feeling, just deep down, and I don’t care whether I live or die.”

Seated on a sofa a few feet away, Mackey’s wife, Helen, began to cry. “He has not told me this,” she said, “that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.”

Similar dramas have played out across the centuries, of course, a part of the literature of war going back to the Iliad. The psychic toll of war has been variously described as nostalgia, soldier’s heart, shell shock, war neuroses or simply exhaustion, and there have always been skeptics. Among them was Gen. George Patton, who in 1943 famously slapped two soldiers being treated for combat-related neuroses, calling one a “yellow bastard.” Patton was sternly reprimanded by Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

The reality was that of the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II, fewer than half saw combat. Of those who did, more than 1 million were discharged for combat-related neuroses, according to military statistics. In the summer of 1945, Newsweek reported that “10,000 returning veterans per month … develop some kind of psychoneurotic disorder. Last year, there were more than 300,000 of them — and with fewer than 3,000 American psychiatrists and only 30 VA neuropsychiatric hospitals to attend to their painful needs.”

One of those hospitals was the subject of John Huston’s 1946 documentary, “Let There Be Light,” which said that “20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” The film followed the treatment, mostly with talk therapy, drugs and hypnosis, of “men who tremble, men who cannot sleep, men with pains that are no less real because they are of a mental origin.” Huston’s movie was confiscated by the Army just minutes before its premiere in 1946 and was not allowed to be shown in public until 1981. The government rationale at the time was protecting the privacy of the soldiers depicted, though Huston maintained all had signed waivers..

It’s true that millions of servicemen returned home and did exactly what Tom Brokaw described in his seminal 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation.” Through hard work and force of will, they created modern America. But in 1947, nearly half of the beds in every VA hospital in the nation were still occupied by soldiers with no visible wounds. While there were no reliable statistics on the topic, the epidemic of alcohol abuse was widely known. The country was also experiencing a divorce boom: In 1941, 293,000 American couples divorced, a rate of 2.2 per 1,000 people. That number doubled to 610,000 in 1946, 4.3 divorces per 1,000. It was the highest divorce rate in U.S. history until 1972, according to government statistics.

There was ubiquitous public discussion and concern for the complex issues facing the returning soldiers. Popular magazines such as Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal and Life were full of articles about how to find a job, use the GI bill or deal with a vet who suffered from nightmares, sudden rages and debilitating sadness. The film “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the story of the troubled homecoming of three World War II vets, won the 1947 Academy Award for best picture.

Yet that discussion was short-lived, and cultural amnesia set in. The economy recovered, and jobs were suddenly plentiful. The Cold War began. Through the 1950s, the troubled vet routinely surfaced as a character in film noir, often as the villain. But the lingering horrors of war otherwise retreated from the public conversation, often overshadowed by communism.

Yet as they went on with their lives, many struggling soldiers would not have recognized themselves in Brokaw’s eventual rendering: “Mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices. … They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”

The Greatest Generation certainly deserved every accolade bestowed on them, Childers says, “but there is nothing to suggest how complicated those years were.” Or how difficult they continued to be. A 2010 California study showed that aging World War II veterans were four times more likely to commit suicide than those their age who had not served in the military.

Arthur “Dutch” Schultz, a hero of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, went on to become a poster boy of sorts for the Greatest Generation, the basis of a character in the 1962 war movie “The Longest Day” and prominently featured in other World War II books. But there was much more to his story, including a long battle with alcoholism and two rocky marriages.

His daughter, Carol Schultz Vento, described his struggles in her 2011 book, “The Hidden Legacy of World War II.” She recently told me of the time she persuaded her suicidal father to put down his gun. “For all his bravado and success, dad had returned home from the war a shattered and broken man,” Schultz Vento wrote. Dutch Schultz managed to mostly conquer the demons of war before his death in 2005, but it took him half a century and, his daughter believes, required as much courage as anything he faced on the battlefield.

She and so many others of her generation also suffered quietly, not understanding the tension in their households because the ghosts of the war rarely revealed themselves. This year, I published a novel that featured a struggling World War II hero as the main character. I wondered about the book’s relevance today, until I started hearing from readers across the nation who described the night terrors, depression, heavy drinking and silent pain of their fathers. A story about the hidden toll of the war helped them make sense of their childhoods. But those stories of the Greatest Generation remain mostly untold.

Earl Crumby and his fellow soldiers knew too well that when it comes to the human toll, war does not discriminate. A piece of a German shell tore through his shoulder, “but the deepest wound was right here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Lord, some nights I have nightmares, and I can still hear that shell going off in my head. There are just so many of us out there. I know they’ve got to be having the same problems I have.”

“If you get to digging,” he told me, “you’ll find that soldiers of all wars, they’re bothered with it, too.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Confrontation

The last battle of World War II was fought 70 years ago next month, but for tens of thousands of American servicemen — and women — the battles continued at home. Only then, the soldiers didn’t have their buddies next to them in the foxhole.

This war — waged with horrible memories, nightmares and survivor’s guilt — had to be fought completely alone. It was a time before post-traumatic stress, before therapy, before men were encouraged to reach out. The World War II vet was thus unable or unwilling to talk about why he sat up screaming in the night, or drank too much or worked three jobs so he would be too tired to dream.

 

“You couldn’t talk about that stuff. No one would have believed it anyway,” one old soldier told me in the mid-1990s.

So, countless American families live with the pain of the war after the war. That is the untold story of the Greatest Generation. It is the story of my novel, “Every Common Sight.” Since the book was published a few months ago, I’ve heard from so many children of World War II vets, who speak in such poignant ways of how the war is still very much a part of their lives.

What follows is a scene from the book, a version of which was played out in so many households over the decades. Selma is the loving and patient wife of Wendell Smith, a tortured hero of the Battle of the Bulge. But something happens in the dead of night and Selma can be patient no more.

* * *

On that November evening in 1956, I drove down our road with the windows wide open, the smell of roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy drifting out from tin foil-covered plates that were in the back seat. I guess you never fully appreciate anything until you face the prospect of losing it, so I loved our little road more than ever that night, stopping halfway down to listen to the rustle of the branches above me, and to feel the cool of autumn on my face. How many more times would I drive on this beautiful little road?

Wendell was waiting out front.

“I fed William and asked Judy Springer to watch him. We needed to talk alone tonight.’’

“I guess so,’’ Wendell said.

“Help me carry,’’ I said.

I opened the Studebaker’s back door and bent to retrieve the two plates, handing them to him. I took a grocery bag from the seat and shut the door with my hip. Wendell’s desk was in a small office in the rear. I put the bag on a chair and moved his paperwork, making room for two wicker place mats that I took from the sack. Wendell set out the plates and removed the foil. Steam billowed.

I brushed strands of curly hair away from his eyes. His face was ghostly pale and felt feverish.

“Eat, Wendell, before the food gets cold,’’ I said.

Each of us took a few half-hearted bites. I set my fork and knife on his desk.

“William told me that he talked to you this morning,’’ I said. “He said that you told him he must have been dreaming when he heard me cry.’’

The trembling in Wendell’s hands intensified. He set his fork down and stared at his plate.

“That’s what I told him,’’ Wendell said.

“The boy’s nearly 8 years old,’’ I said. “Lying to him will only make it worse.’’

“I didn’t know what else to say, just like now.’’

“How I wish it was just another one of your nightmares,’’ I said.

“I’m sorry,’’ he said.

“Let me see your arm,’’ I said.

“No,’’ he said.

“Show me your arm or I’ll leave this minute,” I said.

He rolled the sleeve up his left arm to his elbow. A fresh, angry wound ran from just below his elbow to almost his wrist, and was starting to scab over.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry? Jesus Christ, Selma.”

He looked over at me.

“Show me your neck,’’ he said.

I had worn a turtleneck sweater.

“There’s no need,” I said. “We both know what happened. And it’s not my neck that’s hurting.’’

“I’m hurting, too,’’ Wendell said.

When I think of what happened next, it’s as if I’m watching another woman, a stranger who came flying out of her chair, sweeping her full plate of food from the desk, sending it crashing onto the tile. Gobs of meat, mashed potatoes, gravy and cream corn were everywhere.

“Then why won’t you talk to me?’’ I screamed.

Wendell rocked back, stunned. I slumped back down to my chair and covered my face with my hands. Sobbing consumed me for several frightening seconds. Wendell started from his chair, but I finally got a gasp of air and I waved him off.

Wendell walked to the bathroom and came back with a handful of tissue.

“Thank you,” I said after blowing my nose. “I’m sorry. That was no way to act.’’

“You have every right,’’ Wendell said.

“Well, maybe I do,’’ I said. “Do you know what it’s been like for me the last few years?’’

I blew my nose again.

“But I couldn’t erase the memories of what it used to be like,’’ I said.

“I’m sorry, Selma,’’ Wendell said. “You deserve better.’’

ww2“I’m not sure you’re entitled to feel sorry for yourself,” I said. “I’ve tried every way I know to get you to talk to me. But you were always too busy or too tired. Well, to hell with that. In some ways, I think you enjoy your anguish. It gives you an excuse to disappear into that dark little world of yours. But I’ve had it. Like I said, spare me the self-pity.’’

I had never seen Wendell look so sad, but that night I realized that he had controlled me with that mournful look, manipulated me.

“So last night I wake up with my husband’s hands around my throat.’’

“I don’t know what happened,’’ Wendell said.

“Of course you don’t, Wendell,’’ I said. “It was a dream. Only this time the dream spilled over. Only this time it wasn’t enough to swear and scream and sweat and thrash beneath the covers. Who was I supposed to be, some German?’’

“I don’t know,’’ Wendell said.

“What if I hadn’t been able to wake you up?’’ I asked.

He rolled his sleeve back down to his wrist.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking today, Wendell,’’ I said, straightening in my chair, dabbing my eyes with the soggy tissue. “You know one of the scariest parts? I’m not even surprised. Whatever it was that you have been running from over here at the lumberyard was bound to catch you some day at home.”

I swallowed hard against another sob.

“I probably would have been willing to wait until the day I died for you to come back to me,’’ I said. “But I can’t live wondering when you’ll finish what you started last night. I can’t let William live in a place where that might happen. Our son has to come first.’’

“He’s always come first,’’ he said.

“You’d never know from the last two years,” I said.

He didn’t reply.

“My mother will be here in an hour or so,’’ I said. “I called this morning.’’

It was like he expected what I would say next.

“I’m leaving with William tomorrow, taking him out of school for a week and going back to San Antonio with my mother, at least until after Thanksgiving,’’ I said. “I need some time away to think.’’

I wondered if he had heard me.

“Is there anything you’d like to say?’’ I asked.

“There’s nothing to say,’’ he whispered. “Other than I’m sorry.’’

“I know you are, Wendell,’’ I said. “I’m sorry, too.”

“Things just aren’t that simple,’’ Wendell said.

“I don’t suppose they are. But what does that change?’’

A few hours later, I felt Wendell’s touch on my shoulder, then his weight settle onto the side of our bed. I turned to face him.

“Don’t go,’’ he said.

“I need to, Wendell,’’ I said.

“Will you stay if I talk?’’ he asked. “I’ll talk until my dying breath.’’

“It might be too late, Wendell,’’ I said.

“I’ll sleep at the lumberyard until things are better,’’ he said.

“Let’s talk in the morning,’’ I said. “Lie down.’’

He swung his legs up. I rolled toward him and tucked my head onto his shoulder. We were both asleep in a few deep, exhausted breaths. My mother found us that way when she peeked in at first light.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Finally, At The End, A Son’s Glimpse Into A Father’s Life At War

Last March, I wrote here about my friends Harley and Peggy Stahlecker, from my hometown of Crookston, Minn. Both had lost older brothers in World War II. Another brother of Harley’s, Milton Stahlecker, survived combat in the Pacific but came back a changed man.

When we talked this spring, neither Peggy or Harley had yet read my new novel, “Every Common Sight.” The main character is a World War II vet named Wendell Smith, a hero of the Battle of the Bulge, who brought back horrible memories of the battleground and a secret, the one thing about the war he could not share with his wife. It was a time before therapy and the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress when vets and their families were left to try and blindly cope with the aftermath of the gore and horror of what was celebrated as the Good War. That, essentially, is the story of the novel.

Milt Stahlecker.
Milt Stahlecker.

In early June I returned to Crookston for a wonderful event in the local public library. After my lecture, Harley came up as I was signing books. He shook my hand.

“There was a lot of Milton in your novel,” he said.

But it wasn’t so much what he said as much as the way he said it. Harley is now in his 80s. His eyes had clouded over, and he could barely get the words out through the emotion. Then he walked off into the night.

“Every Common Sight” is most often classified as historical fiction, and I had wondered about its relevance today, 70 years after the last battle of World War II was fought. I wonder no longer. Since the book was published this spring, I’ve heard from so many like the Stahleckers, for whom the war remains a real presence in their minds and hearts.

“Just finished it,” one reader wrote a while back. “Best compliment I can pay is I couldn’t stop thinking of my Dad. WWII and Korean War vet. He was quiet and humble like Wendell. I got teary eyed reading it. You did a marvelous job of being them to life. Thank you.”

In subsequent note he said: “Met with my mom this evening. Mentioned your book. She said Dad used to wake up screaming for first couple of years when he got back.”

Another guy wrote: “Just wanted to tell you I enjoyed “Every Common Sight.” My Dad fought in Europe during WW II, and I’m sure it was a cause of his struggles with alcohol and depression. So Wendell was a meaningful character for me, well-drawn and authentic.”

 

timbookLast week, after talking to a group of English teachers about the novel, one of them said her father, another veteran of the Pacific, essentially drank and worked himself to death by the age of 50. When she was young, the teacher said, her father would tell her stories of combat, typically when he had too much to drink.

Gary Sullivan, a radio personality from Cincinnati, has been particularly supportive of “Every Common Sight,” saying on his Facebook posts that he was one who grew up under “the watchful eye of a World War II veteran.”

I asked Gary to tell me more about his father. I’m glad I did.

***

His name was Richard Sullivan, an accountant by trade.

“My dad was a great man, but I always felt I never knew much about his life during the war,” Gary wrote to me last week. “Like many in that generation a hug, a kiss and encouragement didn’t come from him. He was a great provider and was always doing his duty.”

Richard Sullivan.
Richard Sullivan.

Richard was 88 years old when he died from a brain tumor two years ago. When told of his diagnosis, the old soldier said, “Well, game over then.” His doctor told Gary that World War II vets often dealt with that kind of news with the same stoicism.

“I had five months with him before his death,” Gary said. “He was uncomfortable with me hugging and kissing him each time I visited.”

But the son finally got a glimpse into his father’s life at war. A man in Richard’s nursing home, a naval flight surgeon in his 60s, had been working to capture the stories of veterans and convinced Gary’s father to tell his. The son listened in.

“On the first day overseas, he was in a fox hole that was hit by a mortar and his buddy died,” Gary said. “My dad lost half his hearing.”

Just a month before he died, Richard told this story. He and eight other American soldiers were walking through a bomb-ravaged town when Richard asked to take the lead because he carried the only machine gun.

Gary and Richard Sullivan.
Gary and Richard Sullivan.

“Five minutes later they were ambushed and he took out all the attackers,” Gary said. “He began to cry (which I never saw happen in my whole life) as he told this story. I said, ‘Well, I guess you saved the lives of all of your buddies.’ He looked at me with peace in his heart and simply said, ‘I guess I did.’

“He told the story and quickly went back to his quiet self … A very quiet tear, a shrug, and then we moved on. It was like hearing a confession. I think he always concentrated on the act of killing … rather than saving his buddies. I don’t think he was sorry for it but I think it was always eating at him.

“I felt happy for him and privileged (to hear the story). I think it was hidden deep inside and was a relief to tell it. My dad said many times that he was just doing his job … that he was no hero and other people really suffered. During the novel I was thinking that is so much the way that generation approached life. The ending stunned me. Hope this makes sense.”

It does Gary. It does.

(I would love to hear your stories, either from World War II vets themselves or family members. You can write to me at tsmadigan11@gmail.com)

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Brothers Barely Remembered, And The Horrible Realities Of War

I’ve known Harley Stahlecker and his wife, Peggy, pretty much my whole life. Harley was a legendary teacher, coach and referee in the little town where I grew up, Crookston, Minn. Peggy was the mother of the Stahlecker boys, who in the 1970s and ’80s were teammates of the Madigan boys in hockey and baseball. It was a happy time and in those years. I never had reason to think about the inevitable challenges and tragedies the Stahlecker family faced. That changed recently.

A few months ago, I started blogging about my first novel, “Every Common Sight,” and its main character, a troubled World War II veteran named Wendell Smith. Wendell was a hero of the Battle of the Bulge but brought back terrible memories and trauma from the battlefield that caused his hands to “shake like he was really angry or had a high fever.” The story of the novel, released last month, is largely of the attempts of Wendell and his family to cope.

Peggy and I now are in regular touch on Facebook and she wrote to say that it was a book that Harley would probably want to read. His older brother, Johnny, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

Faded memories. Johnny and his wife. Lillian.
Faded memories. Johnny and his wife. Lillian.

But it turns out that is just a part of the Stahlecker family story. Peggy’s older brother, Reuben Follansbee, was killed in the Allied invasion of Normandy.

“I was 4 years old,” Peggy told me. “The only thing I remember was that he was going to be leaving for the war and he came and picked me up and held me. Other than that, I really don’t remember him at all. I remember seeing “Saving Private Ryan” and I think I had my eyes closed most of the time. The only thing I could think of was that I hoped he died right away and didn’t have to suffer.”

When Harley and Peggy started dating in the 1950s, they soon discovered they had something profound in common. They were both young children when the letters from the War Department set off waves of grieving among their parents and older siblings.

“That brought us closer together,” Harley said.

They recalled how during World War II, the tragic realities of war were shared by everyone, not a small segment of society as is the case today. Most American families checked the mail every day, dreading official correspondence.

Johnny Stahlecker.
Johnny Stahlecker.

 

“We all knew it was close combat and there was going to be casualties,” Harley said. “Every family braced themselves for that. If you didn’t get a letter, it was a good day. If you got a letter from the War Department you didn’t want to open it. But you had to. Then you went about the grieving process.”

Like Peggy, Harley has just a few foggy memories of his brother, Johnny, who had married shortly before shipping out overseas.

“When I was little, he would take me to the neighbors where the boys would box,” Harley said. “Around 1940, he left and went into the service. He came home after basic training, and that was the last time we saw him.”

But World War II reached even further into Harley’s family. Another older brother, Milton, fought on Okinawa in the Pacific Theater, surviving but at great psychic cost. With Milton there were familiar echoes of my fictional character, Wendell Smith.

“He had been more happy going and carefree before he went to the war,” Harley said of Milton. “When he came back he was a changed man. He had seen the terrible side of life. He drank a lot. He was more sullen.

Milton Stahlecker
Milton Stahlecker.

He had suffered from post-traumatic stress, but then there was no help.”

One day, years after the war, Harley decided to ask Milton about his experiences. The younger brother was surprised by what he heard.

Milton described how hundreds of soldiers died during the amphibious landings.

“I said, ‘Did they get shot?’ And he said, ‘No, they drowned. They let us off too soon and with the equipment they drowned. Hundreds of soldiers died that way. Instead of taking us further and dropping the gate, they didn’t have good enough intel and the water was too deep. A lot of guys never got their equipment off.’

“Milton said their great fear wasn’t that they were going to get shot, but that they were going to drown,” Harley remembered.

Once on the island, Milton told his brother of crouching in a foxhole with the enemy a hundred feet away.

“The Japanese were sitting there, and Milton said that all night long they were screaming and hollering,” Harley said. “He said they never slept.”

Harley and Peggy
Harley and Peggy.

That day years ago, Harley asked Milton about combat itself.

“He didn’t want to talk about it,” Harley said.

Milton is long dead. So many other wars have come and gone, so many generations of families have borne the physical and emotional scars.

Harley, for one, says he had healed.

“Years ago, when I would watch a movie about World War II, I would feel that hate,” he said. “I’m not that way anymore. They were just trying to do their jobs. At first I hated, but that disappeared over a period of years. Now it doesn’t affect me one way or another.

“Earlier it did.”