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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”