One of my favorite songs by Harry Connick Jr. includes the line, “It may be hard to believe, hard to comprehend but baby, you didn’t know me when.” This may sound strange but I think of that line whenever I have had the privilege to interview someone who served in World War Two. Over the past 15 years I have had the great fortune to interview 6 veterans who, as one would expect, have all been late in their years. Sitting across from these aged men, I marvel at their wartime photographs and I admit it can be difficult to imagine them serving in that war. Their fit bodies, hairlines, smooth faces and upright posture are long gone but their incredible stories remain.
“It may be hard to believe…”
I often find myself staring in disbelief at what these men accomplished in their youth. After all, they saved the world. Hours of conversation always leave me in awe no matter where they served. But I have noticed something through these interviews. Unlike most other physical features, rarely do a person’s eyes change over time. Those eyes remain a glow through a black and white portrait in their 1943 military uniform just as they do today in khakis and a Milwaukee Brewers sweatshirt. And it is through those eyes that I as a oral historian, try to imagine what they saw during their war years. Those eyes are the link for me to relive stories that have included the last moments on a sinking aircraft carrier at Midway, stealing booze from a Nazi general’s Italian chalet or an African American soldier driving a tank by the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“…Hard to Comprehend…”
Most recently, I met Sergeant Ray Nelson who was a gliderman in the famous 82nd Airborne Division. Ray was 95 when I met him to discuss his exploits during the Second World War. He looked as any grandpa should as he sat comfortably in his recliner watching baseball with the sound raised incredibly loud.
Ray landed in a glider behind the Normandy Beaches as a part of the D-Day invasion on June 6-7th, 1944. A bridge over the Merderet River near la Fiere, France was a critical roadway that the Allies needed to control in order to prevent Nazi infantry and panzer reserves from reaching the beaches. The battle that erupted at that bridge is described by historians as “combat comparable in every way to that experienced by those who stormed Omaha beach.” At one point in this battle Ray’s battalion had stalled on the bridge, lying flat on the stone road, under immense fire from heavy German guns. Ray rose up along with a few others and charged forward into that hellfire. His comrades followed. Over 60 men died and another 530 were wounded during this fight which was a huge Allied success. After the battle, Ray described walking through a nearby apple orchard and seeing the American dead on one side of the road and the Germans, “stacked like cordwood,” on the other.
Ray continued to fight admirably in Operation Market Garden. There his shoulder was wounded but he refused to leave the field until he knew his soldiers were safe. He earned the Purple Heart and Silver Star for his bravery. After a stay in a hospital, Ray rejoined his comrades for the final push into Germany where he liberated a Nazi Concentration camp and eventually met up with Russians to end the war outside Berlin. Before he left Europe, he managed to play baseball, one of his passions, in stadiums that once hosted huge Nazi rallies.
“…you didn’t know me when.”
There are more stories with greater details than I provide here which will be put into his final oral history project. I simply wanted to reflect on Ray and his passing a few weeks ago. It is fitting that this old soldier, a few months shy of 99 years old, died days away from the 70th Anniversary of the war’s end in Europe. At his funeral this weekend an eulogist stated that Ray and that World War II generation have left “footprints for us to follow.” Those words hit me as I sat in the pew next to my young boys. I admit it is both sad and scary to see men like Ray and the other veterans like Buddy, Skip I interviewed leave us because they did so much. How can we match their efforts? But then I recalled almost every interview I had when each of those heroes stated how scared they were at times or how they prayed to not have to continue the war in one way or another. Although it is hard to imagine, those old vets were once young too with lots of questions. They did not know what the future held but they sure worked and fought as hard as they could when they had to, when it mattered. Another of Ray’s eulogists stated that the Greatest Generation should also be described as one of “great humility.” Ray and the others did not ask for the glory given to them. Indeed, he was reluctant to tell his stories and be named a hero. Maybe that is because he did not want his generation’s legacy to appear unattainable to those that follow; their footprints be too large for others to even attempt to walk in them.