"My War" as Told Through the Art and Letters of Tracy Sugarman


When you are a child, the first rule of picking out a book is, “does it have good pictures?" If the answer is yes, then you open the book and read it. It the answer is no, you put the book back on its shelf. Why read a book with no illustrations?


Then life catches up on you, you grow up and and have to realize that books aren’t all about pictures. Before you know it, all of your “adult” books just have words in them - long, sophisticated words that little children wouldn’t dream of knowing. And if they could, they would dismiss them as nightmares.

That’s pretty much what happened to me. My shelves (though I love each and every one in them), are nonetheless filled with picture-less books with words starting at 5 syllables each. They are long, sometimes dry, and full of lots of and lots of information. I read them and enjoy. I don’t think about the fact that they are picture-less.

However, once in a blue moon - when the unicorns and werewolves come out and play together- the 6 year old in me pops up and demands that I find books with good pictures in them.

That’s how I stumbled on this particular book, My War by Tracy Sugarman.

“disaster in the channel”

About a two years ago, I was visiting my brother in Florida and happened to stop by the Sanford renowned book shop, “Maya Books and Music.” It was completely charming, and I would have been happy walking away with half the store. But since my pocketbook groaned and declared otherwise, I decided I would have to be satisfied with this little find.

The moment I opened its cover, I was struck by the gorgeous watercolors and sketched images liberally distributed throughout the pages: simple pencil portraits of servicemen the author had encountered, dramatic scenes from a storm in the English channel, friend Tommy doing laundry near a windowsill of daffodils.

“Tommy and his laundry, with daffodils”

Alongside these images were detailed letters to his wife, "darling Junie," narrating his life as a young ensign in the US Navy the months surrounding the greatest naval invasion in history, "D-Day," and interspersed with his retrospective commentary years later when he would publish his drawings and letters.

The impetus for “My War” came from a parting gift Sugarman’s wife, June, gave him as he was preparing to go overseas in January, 1944.

“It’s a little something for both us us.”

I edged open the package and peered inside. Sketch pads! And pens and a tin of watercolors!

“How wonderful! You’re too much, Junie. But those are for me. "What’s for you?”

… Very quietly she said, “For me, it’s your sanity. And maybe some pictures so that I’ll know you’re alive and kicking! Hold on real tight, darling. You’ll be back and I’ll be waiting.”

“Junie” did wait, and hundreds of letters later, thousands of miles traveled, a great Naval Invasion, and a World War, Sugarman came home. At end of the book, Sugarman regrets that he was not able to save all the “funny, wonderful, life-sustaining letters” he received from his wife the months and months he was away. “They were read and reread, folded and unfolded until tattered, and finally abandoned when the next sea-soiled envelope arrived.” But thanks to Junie’s care, his did, giving us this thought-provoking and informative narration.

Tracy and his wife june “a summer day at ocean view”

In his preface, Sugarman says,

“I leave it to the historians to chronicle the strategies and dynamics of the global conflict of World War II. With the perspective gained from more than half a century of scholarship, they delineate the battle lines and campaigns, the tactics and struggles of the world I inherited after Pearl Harbor. They know a great deal about “the war”. But they didn’t live my war.

It is my conviction that ever sailor and soldier in World War II fought his own war. It was a struggle that only sometimes permitted him to see the enemy. But as he stared into the darkness from his ship or beachhead, he very soon began to see himself. So new to manhood, he watched himself grow through fear and loneliness, boredom and exaltation. It was an inescapable odyssey for each of us who served.”


And such an odyssey he paints! Beautiful and haunting at times:

There are those long twilights here now. The sky is billions of miles away, and you feel very much alone. The water stretches away forever -no waves, hardly a ripple. The ships sit alone in the water, each in its own pool of aloneness. The sky arcs up from millions of empty miles beyond the shore. And straight up there’s nothing. It’s big and empty and very quiet. The sun goes away, and it’s still too big, too light. The emptiness comes off the water and crawls right into you.” (July 1 - T. B.Robertson)


At other times, he writes the raw and truthful: realities of the high price war takes on youth and innocence:

The inconsistency between the American fighter and the American sailor or soldier is staggering. I remember so well how inadequate I felt when I tried to tell you how wonderful those guys were on the beaches last June. I wouldn’t take back a word of it. I feel now as I did then, but coupled with it goes a feeling of wonder. Wonder as to how such marvelous fighters can be such rotten people… Their conceit, their arrogance, their obscenity and vulgarity in front of anyone shames the life out of me… They never apologize for our own shortcomings, and get a majestic sort of pleasure in making the English painfully aware of theirs. In every conversation the “biggest,” the “newest,” the “cleanest,” the “fastest,” the most and the best of the good, the least of the bad… Individually, I would do anything for any of them. But as a group they are the antithesis of anything I desire. I don’t want to close our eyes and pretend the bad and the wrong and the ignorant aren’t there, darling. Those things are real, and too important to both of us. I want only to reject their standards and their values. They revolt and shock me. (Feb 23, 1945)

In his retrospective commentary, Sugarman adds some thoughts to the harsh words he spoke about the American Serviceman back in 1945:

One of my “kids”

One of my “kids”

There are unexpected surprises that one finds when unearthing an intimate record from one’s youth. The most astonishing to me are those letters from the war that describe my perceptions of many of the men with whom I served. They swing from admiration to revulsion, from pride to anger, from pleasure in their company to embarrassment at their provincialism and lack of sensitivity, yet older is not wiser… It is hard to remember how young we all were when we went of to war in 1944. Most of the sailors on my ships really were the “kids” I wrote of in my letter to June. Put to the test of physical courage, they were remarkable, often accomplishing the seemingly impossible and usually with pride and good humor. When off on liberty or leave in a war-torn England, however, their ignorance and immaturity often displayed itself in ways that were embarrassing to their fellow servicemen and arrogantly hostile to our hosts.

For the most part, these were kids who had never been away from home, who were fearful and tried to cover it with bravado, who had little or no sense of history, and often showed that they resented being there. American education had ill prepared them to understand how uniquely fortunate their own country was due to geography, not because we were born to be “number one in everything.” Nor did most of them understand how indebted we were to those who fought alone for so many years, although the shattered homes and churches and towns around them bore the dreadful testimony to the high price that the English had paid for all our freedom. For too many of the Americans, this war was not really our war. It was their war, “and if it wasn’t for us Yanks, they’d sure as hell lose it.” Thankfully, as a nation, we are a long way from the provincialism that was so rampant in many Americans in World War Two. -Sugarman

But even though he had hard words to say about the things he saw, he never once took for granted the sacrifice these boys were making.

“Young men dying seems to me, somehow, the greatest tragedy. The acceptance of death has been something new to me. And I know that death serves only to accentuate the love of living we both share so dearly. The bridge between is so complete, so final that you finally stop thinking of its terrible proximity and cling rather to pulsating life. Your laughter is a little quicker, your thinking is a little less shallow, your energies and ambitions fired with a new urgency.” (August 17)


For our heart’s sake, not all his letters dwell on the hardships and seriousness of the job he and millions of the boys were experiencing… there are plenty of carefree and amusing accounts, including one which makes you marvel at the serendipitous happenings that sometimes occur in war:

“I had been napping, riding out the foul weather that had stopped all our work off the Robertson, when Mike, the stewards’ mate, excitedly came in my room and shook my shoulder. “Mr. Sweetenin’! Wake up! There’s a Lieutenant Sugarman looking for an Ensign Sugarman. Is you he?” I stared at the grinning sailor and bolted out of bed and raced up to Operations. The signalman pointed to the LST lying off our bow. "Signal came from there, sir.”

I stared across the water at the ship, rolling wildly in the windy chop of the Channel. Marvin here? It was too impossible to believe. But how marvelous if it were so! My older brother had been my role model in so many ways, and I had been the best man at his wedding. But I hadn’t seen him now in over a year. When I was getting my commission at Notre Dame, Marv and his wife, Roni, were stationed in Alabama… In my last letter from the folks, they were rejoicing that Roni was expecting a baby, their first grandchild. But not a word that Marvin might be shipping out to Europe. And now a few hundred yards away, he was coming to Utah Beach! I could just imagine the folks’ faces when they got the news!"


In his letter to Junie, he related their first “meeting.”

The weather got more and more wild, and there was no way of getting there. So tonight I called their ship by radio and summoned Marv to the radio! Although strictly against regulation, it was too great a temptation. And honey, he sounded so wonderful! The magic of a familiar voice from home is something so good it can’t be described. Imagine, angel, having Marv right here on my beach! … The conversation was pretty crazy, both of us were so damn excited.

[Sugarman] “Hey, I understand you’re gonna be a father! Over.”

[Marv] “You’re yelling me! Over.”

[Sugarman] "I didn’t think you had it in you. Over.”

[Marv] “Are you kidding! Over.”

[Sugarman] I think it’s wonderful! You got a bottle of Scotch? Over.”

[Marv] “Lots of it. Get the hell over here! Over.”

It’s easy to see in their delighted faces the most happy surprise of being reunited with a bit of home on the beachheads of Normandy.

Another time, he relates an amusing incident that happened shortly before he was shipped overseas to England:


“Late in January 1944, orders came directing our whole outfit to move out. We had all trained exhaustively and were eager to get to the English staging areas…. As we were packing to leave the base, unsettling new orders arrived.”

Sugarman and two other Ensigns, Tommy Wolfe and “Andy” Anderson, were detached to train a new batch of sailors soon to be arriving. Flattered but disappointed, he resigned himself to the fact it’d be a few months more before going over. However 3 days later, they received new orders: “Three officers and thirty men were to proceed immediately to Long Beach, NY to await transport to the ETO.” There was just one hitch… their new crew turned out to be more in the style of the Dirty Dozen rather then the “ship, shape, and bristol fashion” ones they’d just said the adieus to.

Sugarman wasn’t so sure. He’d grown up in Syracuse, NY and the only “tough characters” he was used to were the ones he met on the Lacrosse field and shook hands with at the end of each match.

“I finally took my buddy and fellow ensign, Tommy Wolfe, aside. A tough, street-smart New York kid himself, Tommy looked and sounded like Jimmy Cagney. He grinned at my concern about our new crews. “Relax, Sug. This is the biggest break these characters could dream of. If we’re tough and fair with them, they’ll work out great. I grew up with guys like them.””

Just as Tommy said, it turned out to be okay. “But I wondered how, at twenty-two, I could make these men believe I was tough enough to take them to war.”

On the train north to New York, June rode with the released prisoners. At the first opportunity, I took her aside. “Are you okay? They giving you a hard time?” She laughed. “They’re kids,” she said. “They’re tough kids. I wouldn’t want to be the Germans when they hit the beach. But they’re really very sweet.” I stared at my wife. “Sweet?” “Well,” she said, grinning, “they’re very sweet to me.””

The book is rich and full. The layers of depth and insight that comes from a mere 23 year-old are striking and cause you to go back and re-read the thoughts he penned to his wife during the tempestuous 18 months he spent overseas. 18 months that changed his life and the lives of millions around the world.

I do think have left me unscathed physically and mentally. I do not feel “older thank my years” nor “hardened by the crucible of fire.” Nothing I’ve seen has changed anything fundamentally in me. Possibly my resolution has sharpened some, my enthusiasm slightly tempered, my tolerance and understanding somewhat broadened. I think that’s happened to most of us in some degrees. Being here, there has had to be an assertion of self and independent spirit. If these are bounded by humility and a decent memory of what actually was, then it should be a healthy influence, not corruption. -Tracy Sugarman

Thank you for the lessons, Mr. Sugarman. And thank you for the pictures.

All quotes and images are taken from the book, “My War'“ by Tracy Sugarman

International Holocaust Remembrance: “My name was A15-049”

Rose Williams, at the age of 17. This passport photograph was taken shortly after her liberation.

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For this solemn occasion, here is a special post from the Operation Meatball archives. July. 08. 2014

“My name was A15-049”

Faith Phillips

Today I sat in a small room with a few of my siblings and listened to the story of a woman who had lived through the horrors of the Holocaust in the Nazi concentration camps.  Rose Williams was a 12 year old Polish girl when the World War II began in 1939. After the Nazis invaded Poland, the fingers of Naziism began to close around the throats of the Jews, beginning with subtleties and moving into unimaginable cruelties. This is where Rose found herself with her brother, sister, mother, father, and grandmother. 

Every week the phrase: "The Jews are our misfortune!" would appear at the bottom of the newspapers.

One evening, a German soldier came to their home and ordered them to be out of their house within the hour. Next door was a very kind Gentile family who offered to take the three children into their home and hide them. But from the oldest down to the youngest not one would choose to be separated from their family members. “What will happen to one, will happen to all.” Thus the whole family was transported to a ghetto where they stayed for some time working for and being beaten by the hands of the Germans. 

Once, they waited anxiously for her father to return from his work. When he finally came, he was quite bloody all over his face. “What has happened to you?” they cried. He explained that he had asked a German soldier for a rag to continue his work with; the soldier, wrenching his beard from his chin, replied, “Here is the best rag!” 

Rose was walking outside one afternoon with her grandmother when they saw German soldiers separating babies from their mothers and throwing them on the sidewalk. One woman who refused to release her child was shot and the baby was hurled to the ground beside many others. Rose’s grandmother ran toward the spot were the babies lay, but Rose, grabbing her grandmother by the hand, cried, “What are you doing?” Her grandmother replied, “I am going to go save some of those babies.” A German soldier seeing the commotion ran to them, asking what was going on.  “Oh nothing, Sir, nothing,” she said, trying to pull her grandmother back. Refusing, her grandmother ran forward to help some of the little lives. As she did, she was beaten down by the soldier and shot. “It has taken me years to black out the memory of my grandmother’s dead body lying there being trampled with no one to bury her.”

Eventually, the family was able to acquire two passes to get work outside the ghetto, which, even though holding many horrors of it’s own, was a better place to work. Rose and her sister found jobs in two different factories. The factory Rose worked in, being a munitions factory, contained a great deal of alcohol. Rose along with many other workers smuggled the alcohol which was very valuable to the starving families.

Various versions of the Star of David that was required to be worn by all Jews.

Then it happened. They were all piled into a train. Two buckets were thrown in to serve as toilets for the hundreds of people packed in the car. Anyone attempting to bend down and relieve themselves would not be able to stand up again. Because of the compactness of the car, they would be crushed or suffocated by the masses. Many died even before the train reached Auschwitz, their destination. 

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, they were forced into lines where the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death,” looked them over and decided whether they would go to the left or to the right, to immediate death in the gas chambers, or to temporary life in the work camps. The prisoners would be assembled and reevaluated from time to time.

An SS doctor decides who will live and who will die.

All Rose had when she had first stumbled off the train was a pair of winter boots and a couple of photographs of her family.  Even though she had so little, she had still been ordered to leave everything behind! Her warm boots were exchanged for some “dreadful” wooden hollander clogs. They froze when it was cold and got stuck when it was muddy. She decided that she could bear them no longer and threw them away. Her feet became ulcerated and unbearably painful.  All alone in a brutal concentration camp, she thought life was no longer worth living.  

Dr. Josef Mengele (middle) the "Angel of Death".

The next time Rose was in the line where life or death was being determined for so many, Dr. Mengele sent her to the right. She begged him to let her go to the death line instead. “He didn’t look at my sore legs or feet. He just looked at my face and said, ‘You are young yet,’ and pushed me to the other line.” In that unusual way, God used the famous “Angel Of Death”  to keep her life from death!

Not long after her life was spared, Rose found out that her little sister was one camp site away. She was able to find someone to switch places with, from her camp, to her sister’s. After being reunited, they both swore that they would never allow anything to separate them again.

In four years, she was kept in four different prison camps. Most of her time was spent carrying stones from one side of the camp to another, and then back for no purpose or reason except that she was ordered to by her captors. 

At last, that longed for, hoped for, awaited, day came in 1945:  “wolności,” freedom, liberty, liberation! The liberators arrived! They gave care packages and chocolate to the the starving people.  When Rose was released from the camp at 17 years of age, she weighed 87 pounds. She was sent to a hospital and had to stay there for two years until she weighed 100 pounds. To their delight, Rose and her sister found out that her brother had survived the camps, as well, and was still alive! 

In 1946, they all tried to get visas to be able to immigrate to the United States, but after finding out that her brother had tuberculosis, Customs would not allow him in. So Rose and her sister moved to what was viewed as the modern “Promised Land,” America. Her brother moved to the old Promised Land, Israel, and became a man of note there. Rose married, becoming Mrs. Rose Williams. She had children and grandchildren passing down to them an incredible legacy. Since 1945, she has traveled to Israel seven times. It’s amazing that God preserved her life through these tragic experiences! 

Mrs. Rose Sherman Williams

I have been told many times how my grandfather, as a little boy, would look out his window and see a little blonde haired Jewish girl whose parents had been killed in one of these death camps. He wondered what her name was and what her story was. Who knows, maybe this woman, Rose Williams, whom I met today, knew the little blonde haired girl’s parents. As a little boy, my dad saw that some of our relatives had numbers tattooed on their arms. When he asked about them, he was told that they got them in the concentration camps. These stories of the Jews during the Holocaust are very personal to me because this is part of my family history. In truth, this all happened in a land not very long ago, and not very far away.


"The Bonnet of an American Jeep" [Special from the Operation Meatball Archives]

Ernie Covil 1.jpeg

[From the Operation Meatball archives: January 5. 2015]

My sister Faith recently received a letter from English veteran Ernie Covil whom we met while in Normandy three years ago (2011), and then again this past June (2014). Our delight at seeing Mr. Covil after three years was quite unbounded. After the trip, Faith wrote him and sent some of the pictures we had taken. The letter he wrote back was of such interest that we thought we would share some of it with you, as the timing of it is also perfect. 

As many of you may know, this past month has been the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most significant battles of WWII. There were tremendously high casualty rates on both sides, but in the end, the Battle of the Bulge was a decisive benchmark for the Allies as the push to Berlin and winning the war. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Covil’s letter telling a little of his time during the months of December '44 through the beginning of '45.

About my time in the Army, I was called upon on April 1, 1943, age 18. After six weeks infantry training I was then moved into my new regiment as a Lorry Driver into the R. A. S. C. (Royal Army Service Corps). My job was to supply ammunition, food, petrol from the beach to the front line or wherever it was wanted. When Antwerp was taken and the port made workable, the ships were able to bring supplies in, we were moving them from there. That saved the long journey back to Normandy (the roads had been shelled, bombed and it was hard going). Working out of Antwerp, this made things better and carried on back to parts of France through Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

While in Belgium, I was sent to an American transport unit in the Ardennes. It was snowing and cold. I enjoyed my Christmas Dinner on the bonnet of an American Jeep. On leaving the American Unit I went back to the British lines, moving along through to Lubeck, Hanover, Hamburg, and nearly into Berlin. A few miles this side of Berlin, the British and American lines stopped and let the Russians take Berlin. On my way through we were very lucky; we only lost three men, which was nothing to what some units lost. But three is three, to many it is someone’s life gone.

I loved all 40's songs. My most loved one at the time was Vera Lynn’s, "We’ll Meet Again." Of the best bands - must be Glenn Miller. There was no band better to dance to, not even today. When the war finished in Germany I was then sent to Egypt [and] Palestine. From there I came home and was demoted (discharged) September 1947."

The history of the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Antwerp are both fascinating. If you are interested in reading more about it, I would recommend Mr. Federer's article as a very good summary. 

The Boy Who Drew Sunken Spanish Galleons

A few months ago we were driving through beautiful southern California, up and down winding roads, oohing and awing over the picturesque scene. Our GPS beeped and we slowed down, looking at the mailbox numbers for our destination (we've been known to knock on the wrong door before).Then we saw it - a hand-painted signpost of the 101st Screaming Eagle crowned by the word: Airborne. No mistaking... we were at the right spot. 

When Bill Galbraith was a young boy, he once got into trouble in art class for drawing a sunken Spanish Galleon surrounded by the vast ocean, instead of the modernist depiction of the ocean-life the teacher had expected. The teacher marked up his picture, and in return he called her a nasty name.

The years went on and this imaginative young boy grew up (as all children seem to), but he didn't lose any of his creative or resourceful characteristics - though there was certainly a good dash of mischievousness in the mix. All this would soon come to play an unexpected part in his life when he found himself lying in a hospital in England, his future in question, after being seriously wounded in the leg and shoulder during the fighting around Eindhoven, Netherlands. 

Paratrooper to the core, Bill had jumped with the 101st into Normandy during the wee hours of June 6, 1944. The fighting had been awful, but he made it out in one piece and was sent back to England with his unit for more training. When September 17th rolled around, he made his second combat jump into Holland for Operation Market-Garden. Unfortunately Market-Garden did not go as planned... but Bill wasn't around long enough to find out. On the 18th, during some street fighting near Eindhoven, he was hit in the leg by shrapnel from one of the infamous 88's. Crawling around the doorway of a house, he tried to see where the shooting was coming from, hoping to put a stop to it. At that moment he was hit again, this time in the shoulder. Falling back, helpless, he hit against the door of the house. The door suddenly opened, and a pair of strong Dutch hands dragged him in to safety. 

Bill's wounds were nearly fatal for him. If it wasn't for a recent medical discovery, he would have lost his leg and been an invalid for life. Even with this blessing, however, it still took three years of intensive operations and rehabilitation treatments to fully heal his wounds. The process was long and painful, and at times no doubt seemed hopeless. But this is where the tenacious spirit of the little boy who drew sunken Spanish Galleons for school played a part.

A few months ago when we were in California for the Iwo Jima Reunion, we realized we were only a few short hours away from our dear and lovely friend, Mr. Galbraith. After calling him up with short, short notice, we stopped by for a visit. His drive-in was unmistakable with the Screaming Eagle he had painted on a post by the mailbox. It made us smile. He had told us about the wonderful eagle that protected his home, but it was something else to see it in person. His last combat jump might have been in 1944, but he was still a Paratrooper!

During our visit, he talked with us about his life over the years, the bonny Scotch/Irish war-bride he brought home to America, his magnificent paintings and drawings (it was no surprise to see countless paintings of ships sailing in fierce gales, surrounded by brilliant Screaming Eagles!), and walked us down memory lane as we poured through a scrapbook of photos and stories from WWII to his paratrooper reunions in later years. I'll tell you this, there is nothing quite like going through an old scrapbook and listening to the stories about each person, place, or event in the photos. We laughed at the funny stories, awed over the sweet stories, and got misty eyed as he showed us the pictures of his best friends who were lost. A lifetime of stories collected so neatly into one book. 

Of all his fantastic stories, one that continues to stick out is what happened while he was in the hospital. Determined not to be overcome and unwilling to live in a constant foggy state from pain-relieving drugs, this imaginative boy turned United State Paratrooper decided to focus his mental energy on learning poetry. Line by line, day by day, month by month. Replacing pain with verse. Poetry of all sorts, but specifically the works of Robert Service, "Bard of the Yukon." And it worked! Between drawing wonderful pictures and memorizing glorious poems, these mental exercises did not leave much time to dwell on the pain. In mid-1947, he was released from the hospital, and the wounds became a thing of the past. However, 73 years later, he can still recite those verses he learned, whiling the hours away with his hospital chums. Recite *perfectly* I should add. As we sat in his living room, listening to him repeat from memory such classics as Dangerous Dan McGrew, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and The Sourdough Story, we couldn't but pick our jaws off the floor at his impeccable memory for verse. 

There are so many lessons to learn from our dear friend Mr. Galbraith. His devotion to his fellow paratroopers was unquestionable. Never once was it "me" or "I." It was always, "we" or "they." "They were the brave ones." "We were like brothers." The camaraderie and loyalty between these men is surely one-of-a-kind.  

His love for his wife is another lesson for us. An Irish girl, living in Scotland, he persuaded her to come to the unknowns of America and be his wife. Married 65 years with 10 beautiful children (he beat our family by 2!), it's a beautiful story for another time. 

But I think the lesson from this story - the story of Spanish Galleons and Poetry - is that the little boy whose imagination ran away with him in art class later had the impetus to stretch his mental strength and put his mind to work, rather than take an easy way out with pain-medications. The pain went away, but the treasures he has stored in his memory have lasted for close to 75 years. How important is this mental battle! And the rewards reaped afterward are ever so wonderful.

Appomattox and Bataan

152 years ago today, after 4 years of valiant and desperate fighting, General Robert E. Lee surrendered arms, on behalf of the South, to General U.S. Grant. Included in this surrender was our great-great-great Grandfather, John A. Ramsay, Captain of the 10th North Carolina Artillery, his brother Robert Ramsay, and future brother-in-laws Robert, Thomas, and James Beall. Each one of the Ramsays and Bealls distinguished themselves during the war, rising in the ranks and bravely leading their men. Each of them were wounded several times, but recovered to fight another day. John Ramsay, years later would happily recount the stories of his conversations with General Lee, a man he admired greatly. 

But rather than just returning home to a quiet life, John Ramsay recognized the need to help rebuild the South from the tragedies of war, so he dedicated his life to the City of Salisbury (his home-town), following his surveying and engineering interests -including in the construction of one of the town's first sewers. Later he ran for and become Mayor of Salisbury. I think it says something that he was both respected by the old Southerners as well as the new Northerners.

77 years later to the day, on April 9, 1942, our great-great Uncle Private Israel Goldberg, son of Jewish Russian immigrants, surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army and took part in one of the most tragic events in our history, the Bataan Death March. Barely surviving the death march, he died a few months later in Camp Cabanatuan. 

It is amazing to realize that both of our relatives, though on separate sides of the family, and from completely different backgrounds, each took part in such a historical and monumental event as the two greatest surrenders in American history: Appomattox and Bataan. They both had their ideals, they were both fighting for what they believed in. And we are quite proud to be their descendants. 

"Kelley. With an 'E'"

John Kelley (right)

One of our veteran friends who passed away last year was a fascinating Air Force Captain we met through Honor Flight in the fall of 2014. Actually, it was Mom who first became acquainted with him, and then in the following months, through exchanged letters, we got to know him a little better. We were at the WWII Memorial greeting the flights coming in, and as his guardian had wandered off, Mom went up to chat with him for a few minutes. He introduced himself as John Kelley. "Kelley with an 'E'. Not like the way women spell it." He was 95 and adamant. He wanted to make sure it was differentiated from the more feminine version of the name. 

"You look good in the photo. I look like Hell -warmed over!!"

When she mentioned she was from San Antonio, it opened a floodgate of stories. Captain Kelley had been at Brooks Field, and became well versed with all the local hot-spots during his off time. He described later in a letter, "As I mentioned to you, I took my advanced flight training at Brooks Field in San Antonio. And received Wings following graduation from Brooks Field (December '43). At the time I was dating a student at Incarnate Word College, and having a ball. On "Open Post" at the Gunther Hotel. Mostly dancing up a storm. I never had so much fun in my life. I was a New York kid and grew up listening to Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Sinatra; I never missed a beat in the process.

His stories continued and each seemed to outdo the last one. The months following his Honor Flight we stayed in touch through letters. In fact despite health issues making it very difficult to write, he would send quite the tome relating his experiences in the Air Force. 

"Back in 1943, I was en route to the Aleutians flying the A-24 Dive Bomber. Following the receipt of my winter flying gear, my number one friend, Scotty Alexander, and I took the planes for a test hop. That is where it all started. In the air at about 10 o'clock, Scotty dumped me and we got into a Dog Fight. We chased each other trying to get on his tail for a simulated shot. Well, we "crashed" (mid air collision). Both pilots bailed out and made it okay. I was ready to hit the ground when the parachute opened. I still shake thinking about it. I thought I had it. Scotty was found rolling his chute out of the debris. The next day we received two new planes and an 'ass' charging for committing a 'Bad Act.' It really happened in a hurry. We both were spellbound, but reacted to a real issue. We were terribly embarrassed over the act, and let it be known we were sorry to our fellow pilots. 'Gross' to say the least. We did get to combat and completed our missions. We were lucky to make it. It was exciting times."

A theme we saw in Captain Kelley was a genuine pride in having worked himself up from the ground, starting as a "New York city kid" and rising to officer status in the Air Force. 

"We grew up in Queens, New York. I'm a grad of New York University at Farmingdale, New York. Graduated 1939, took agriculture, played football, and had a ball.... I consider myself a good military man. Took orders well and served (obeyed) well. When I was a cadet, I obeyed my last order first. I got to be a cadet, not too shabby for a New York City kid. I was just plain 'with it' as a new cadet."

A highpoint in his Air Force career occured on August 8, 1945: escorting the "A" Bomb to Nagasaki. "I have a photo of my flight (9 planes) when the B-29 dropped the 'A' Bomb. The picture is a jewel and depicts the way it was. Following I got the flight (4-P47s) in close and said, 'Fellows, this is it. The war is over.' And it was... I ended the war with the 'Atom Bomb' drop on Nagasaki. I actually saw the drop on Nagasaki and personally viewed the devastation (what a mess) - total ruin.

Captain Kelley had a long and varied career in the Air Force until his retirement in 1984. Regarding his service in WWII he said, "I [had] made captain in 1944. I completed two tours of combat -one in Aleutians flying Dive Bombers (A-24s) and at the end of the war P-47s in the Pacific... I consider myself as having a charmed life. Exposed to danger but lucky my life was lightened with Aeroplanes.

Bill: An All American Marine

Last night I started a brief instagram post with these words, 

"Even the most beautiful things cannot last last forever."

It is true. But in a way, that is what makes them so beautiful. If you'll excuse the cliché, beautiful things are like flowers - we appreciate them so much more when we only get to experience their beauty for a little while. 

Bill Madden (seated) reading the newspaper.

Bill Madden (seated) reading the newspaper.

One of these beautiful flowers was a retired English teacher named Bill Madden. He was soft-spoken and gentle. He dressed in the way you would imagine an old lover of the arts would dress, including a slightly faded, but very neat, blue cardigan. He lived and breathed poetry and could recite countless classics from Keats, the Bronte Sisters, and Emily Dickinson, to the slightly lesser known (but still wonderful) Eugene Field and Alfred Noyes.

Once, Jubilee and I spent a delightful afternoon with Mr. Madden comparing notes on our favorite poets. We had a little disagreement over the merit of Kipling's writings, but that only added to the color of our conversation. Emily Dickinson's "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" brought on hilarious laughter at the peculiarity of her writings. It was all so impromptu and lovely that I shall never forget it. 

But with all these gentle qualities, you would never have guessed Mr. Madden to be a former United States Marine, one of the men who fought with "uncommon valor" on the battlefields of the Pacific. Instead of commemorating his 19th birthday with cake and ice cream, he was storming the beaches of Iwo Jima. There were no candles for him to blow out and the fireworks in the sky were not a celebration of life, but more out of a line from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, "Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them, volley'd and thunder'd. Storm'd at with shot and shell, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of Hell."

A young and adorable Bill Madden

Looking over the island's landscape, he later recalled, "[It] reminded me of the witches scene in Macbeth. Clouds of sulfur fumes steamed up from nearly every crevice of the ghostly terrain."

Mr. Madden survived Iwo long enough to see the inspirational flag-raising and watch nearly all of his close friends blown to pieces before he himself was wounded and evacuated. It took nearly 50 years before he was able to write and talk about the horrors he witnessed on that nightmare of volcanic rock. "Forever impressed on my mind," he wrote, "are the sights and sounds of young boys being ripped apart by the steel fragments of mortar shells. My hand trembles whenever I write about it, even after half a century. I will never forget the unmistakable "ka-zoom" of mortar shells exploding into a clustered body of troops and then the "zing" of fragments of body, sand, and steel flying past my ears as I dived for cover. Life can never be the same once it is experienced under those conditions."

One friend, Red Griffiths, miraculously survived a fearsome bullet that ricocheted around his helmet, entered his neck, and exited his back. Another walked into a machine gun ambush and was paralyzed from the waist down. "So many more of my buddies dropped one by one with wounds: Neilson, Johnson, Lanier, Strome, Mitchell, Rebstock, and Hernandez, to name a few. I myself was buried alive my a mortar shell on the edge of my foxhole, but was dug out immediately by Al. That blast robbed me of my hearing for 24 hours... Even more fearful to contemplate after I was rescued was the smashed but unexploded grenade lying beside my head." And the stories go on. 

My first meeting with Mr. Madden was unforgettable. Jubilee and I had traveled to Virginia Beach for the 5th Marine Division Reunion. It was one of the first times we had traveled alone like this, but the opportunity of being around so many of our wonderful Marines quite put away any concerns. The first afternoon of touring brought us to a local Military Aviation Museum where we all gathered outside before going in. 

Marine Corps buddies, Al (left) saved the life of Bill on Iwo, shortly before being wounded himself. 

"Excuse me," said a soft voice. Jube and I turned around to see a lovely veteran whom we hadn't yet met. "May I please ask what two such nice young ladies are doing in a group of us old people?" We laughed and told him how we wouldn't miss a gathering like this for anything! "I was on Iwo," he said, "And the guy over there saved my life... A mortar shell hit right by me blasting my eardrums and burying me alive. Al came and dug me out, and, if it weren't for him, I would be dead. You know," he continued, hardly pausing to take a breath, "My wife passed away three months ago. And you girls remind me so much of her. We were married for 69 years. She was the love of my life." He pulled out a photo of a gorgeous brunette and showed it to us. In an instant, our laughter nearly turned to tears as we realized how fresh the loss was for this gentle man. 

Jubilee and Mr. Madden at the 5th Marine Division Reunion

Jubilee and Mr. Madden at the 5th Marine Division Reunion

We continued to chat for the rest of the day, beginning to put together the pieces of a life which could be considered that of a truly all American boy. In love with his high school sweetheart (though unsure that the love was reciprocated), he signed up as a United States Marine to follow in the steps of his older brother. Completing bootcamp, he was shipped off to the Pacific for combat, hardly after his 18th birthday, hoping all the while that he would survive to return and marry the girl he'd been in love with for so long. 

Now, let me just pause and take a minute to tell you the story of Bill (Mr. Madden) and Phyllis (his wife). Theirs is the ultimate storybook romance if there ever was one. It started with the "puppy love" (as he called it) of a young high school boy, but quickly grew into a mature love and desire to marry the girl of his dreams. To him, Phyllis was as kind as she was beautiful, talented as she was popular, with a genuine heart that only thought of others. And Bill knew she was the only one he could ever love. But there was a problem, Phyllis was dating a guy named "Slats." 

"It was a picture to show me the ring she bought with money I sent her from overseas because I didn't know what to get her for some special day, a birthday, Christmas, or something. My Marine buddies fell in love with her from her picture and said they were going to write to her and take her away from me.  I said, "ok, just try," and I gave them her address.  Several of them did write to her, but she turned them down diplomatically, as I knew she would." -Bill M.  

Slats would have been nice enough, except for the fact that Slats liked Phyllis and Bill liked Phyllis too. "Slats was a nice guy." Mr. Madden told me. "I liked him a lot, but this was war over the woman we both wanted to marry. I would have done almost anything to get her to marry me instead of him. That's how love works, I guess." And how could a poor young Marine compare to the guy who "had a good job, good clothes, and a nice car." Things looked hopeless for Bill until Slats joined the Navy, and Bill found his opportunity to cut in. This didn't last long, however, as he too was soon shipped off to San Diego for training. Phyllis continued to stay in touch with both the Sailor and the Marine, but it couldn't continue this way. 

On invitation of her boyfriend, Slats, Phyllis, and a friend named Fern went to stay with an aunt in Los Angeles. Slats was concerned that he was being pushed out of the picture, and hoped to gain some ground by making frequent visits. Phyllis now found herself in a conundrum. Even though she had been dating Slats, she was beginning to take a real liking to this shy, young Marine. Well, the climax of this little love triangle finally arrived. In Mr. Madden's words here is what happened:

"She told me to come there on a day that Slats did not have time off, but 'the best laid plans of mice and Marines gang aft agley.' Slats got someone to take his duty place on the day I was to take Phyllis out. I had hitch hiked to LA and was going to take a cab wherever the girls wanted to go, but we ended up, all four of us, in Slats' aunt's car and headed for the Hollywood Palladium where Harry James was playing and Helen Forrest was singing. I was not too happy with the arrangement, and neither was Slats, much less Phyllis. We got to the Palladium, had some drinks, and listened to that heavenly music of James and Forrest. I quickly asked Phyllis to dance before Slats had a chance to. I was still a teenager and didn't dance very well, but I would have done anything to get her alone for a while so we could talk. Well, we danced, talked, and when the song was over, we stayed till the next one and the next one before we got back to the table with Fern and Slats. He was not happy a bit. I got one more dance during the playing and singing of "Stardust," which became our song. She decided that night that she would choose me to marry over Slats."  

They were married for 69 years. 

I already told you a bit about his experiences on Iwo. After meeting him at the reunion, Jubilee and I chatted with him over email, exchanging stories nearly every week. It was frequent for him to talk about Iwo in those emails- the buddies he lost and the nightmarish events that were burned into his memory. But more often he talked about what he wanted future generations to know. He didn't want the sacrifice of those men forgotten, as so many have already done. I know at times he wondered if the price we paid on Iwo was worth it. But I think it was. The freedom we have in America today is an example of that. 

As we continued to talk, he became less the formal English teacher, and more the personal friend. Though this did come with one difficulty. "Call me Bill instead of Mr. Madden," he said. "I give you permission, although I admire you for the respect." I protested. It's not really my habit to call people I respect and who are a great deal older than me by their Christian names. It just doesn't seem right. However Mr. Madden eventually won over. "And you can just make it Bill, not Mr. Bill... We're just Liberty and Bill now." Well that was the end of that.

We talked about family and life. He told me Marines never build their houses at the bottom of a hill, and when our house flooded last spring, I understood why. He gave me valuable advice for our futures: Be careful in choosing a boyfriend - "Don't be in too much of a hurry. Many people rush into marriage and then decide to quit within five years. That's not the way to go. Don't be in a hurry. I know you will use good judgment... I sure hope you girls someday have a man who will love you as much as I loved Phyllis, and still do."

Photo credit: PRWEB

Lastly, he also taught me to be an ardent Chicago Cubs fan... but my wait to see them win wasn't nearly as long as his. In fact, Mr. Madden had been waiting 70 years to see the Cubs play the Series. In late 1945, while he was recuperating in the Navy Hospital in Chicago from wounds he received on Iwo, word got around that in gratitude for their service, the Chicago Cubs were offering free tickets to any of the patients in that hospital. The tickets were given to the Navy officials, who in turn made the happy announcement with one stipulation: That they would be required to "scrub down the deck" and do various other hospital cleaning. Well, gentle though Mr. Madden was, he was not about to be pushed around by some stuffy Naval officer, so he stiffly refused. "They're sure to play the Series another year, so I'll go then." 70 years later as he told this to Jube and me, it was still evident that his dignity had been offended. We had to laugh. But as we all know, the Cubs didn't play the Series the next year, nor the next, nor for many years after that. A staunch Cubs fan, Mr. Madden held out hope. 

This past October, I heard that after all these years he was finally going to be able to see the Cubs play in the World Series. I know he was so excited about it. As I cheered for the Cubs' win, I was so thrilled knowing that his wish had finally come true. Little did I know that night that he had passed away just a few days too early, on November 1st. He never got to see the Cubs win their game.

Even though I knew his health was poor, and we discussed it frequently with each other -the merits and otherwise of possible medications and procedures - it still was a shock to hear. Despite the vivid and harsh impact Iwo Jima had left on him, he still continued to look at life as beautiful, grateful for the many years he had been given. But I know he was happy to go. The last few months of his life he continually told me how much he missed his wife, Phyllis. "You don't know what it's like to live with someone you love for 69 years, and then not have them with you." Still, I'm selfish enough to want him here a little longer. Just one more chat, one more conversation. I only got to know him in the latter part of his life as the years had faded him and ill-health and pain made basic things very difficult, even dreary for him. But still he had shared so much kindness to Jube and me, that it only makes his passing so much the harder. He was truly one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met. Mr. Madden's life story seems to be one of the truest examples of the Greatest Generation. And I know, I for one will certainly miss him. 

I Meet Sir. C. Aubrey Smith; We Talk of Korea, the Cold, and the 5th Marines

“You were at the Chosin?” I was directing this question to an 80-something year old gentleman with a moustache somewhere in between Nigel Bruce and Ron Swanson. His hat said, “Chosin Few,” his lapel pin said 1st Marine Division, and his tie was covered in Marine Corps symbols...  I was asking an obvious question; there was no doubt as to the identification of this character, but it was more a preambulary statement than a query. 

“Yes. I was.” He said a bit gruffly.

I pulled up a seat and sat down next to him. We were in the green room of the Iwo Jima Reunion in Arlington, Virginia, last February. It had been a busy afternoon, and now people were coming in and out of the room with drinks, chatting, and relaxing. 

“It was pretty cold there.” I said to the Chosin vet. 

“You’d better believe it.” He grunted. “Got frostbite on my feet. Couldn’t walk from it.” There was a definitive stress on certain letters in the words he used, sending him up north quite a bit... likely to some part of Massachusetts. 

“I can’t imagine it. I’m from Texas, and we start freezing over when it gets down into the 50s. What keeps you going when it is so cold?”

“Training.” He said simply. “We became robots. We were so reduced by the cold, the only thing that kept us going was our Marine Corps training. We didn’t know what we were doing. But that is where the training became important.” He stated these facts as they were, though with a bit of a shiver in recalling the memory. 

A few weeks previous, I'd been reading up on Chosin, and was delightfully surprised to run into one of the men who fought there, though at an Iwo Jima reunion of all places. 

"American Marines march down a canyon road dubbed "Nightmare Alley" during their retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea." Photo by David Douglas Duncan

The Chosin Reservoir Campaign (or Frozen Chosin) summarized: A terrible, complicated battle fought in North Korea between the allies of the United Nations: United Kingdom, South Korea, America, and the United States 1st Marine Division, against the North Koreans and Red Chinese during the winter of 1950 (November 27-December 13). 

One of the most iconic photos from the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. "A dazed, hooded Marine clutches a can of food during his outfit's retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, December 1950". Photo by David Douglas Duncan

Some have compared it to the Battle of the Bulge fought in WWII. But the Marines who were at Chosin say it was worse. Our soldiers were poorly fed and poorly equipped, and our high casualty rate was caused more from the extreme temperatures than anything else. The cold was more than unbearable, at times dropping down to -40F. The boots they'd been issued to help with the cold only made their feet sweat profusely during their marches and freeze instantly on stopping. This created many cases of frostbite and trench-foot. It was miserable in the extreme. 

At night the men were warned about falling into too heavy a sleep or zipping up their sleeping bags. They might not awake from the former (many froze to death in their sleep), and as for the latter... the cold could freeze the zippers shut, making them easy prey for the Red Chinese who had no qualms about slitting the throats of defenseless Marines trapped in their bags.

And then, there was the most nightmarish part of it all. The enemy was unceasing. Every single Korean combat vet I've spoken with has told me the same thing almost verbatim: "The enemy never stopped coming. Charging forward madly, with an endlessness to them. It didn't matter how many you took down with fire, they continued, and continued, until all were too exhausted to go further." Just like your worst nightmare when no matter how hard you strive, all your efforts are in vain, nothing you do seems to help anything, and the situation only gets more desperate. (To get a better understanding of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign I recommend reading here). 

The U.S. Retreat at Chosin Reservoir

As I talked with this Chosin vet, his gruffness began to wear off, and I saw underneath a charm similar to the dashing old actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. True confession, when I was very young, this screen actor had made a lasting impression on me as the ultimate charming old gentleman. His portrayal of the gallant Colonel Zapt in Prisoner of Zenda, or the grumpy-but-with-a-heart-of-gold grandfather of Little Lord Fauntleroy, were just a few that quite stole my heart. Thus, sitting across from this fascinating and delightful curmudgeon from Massachusetts (who in every way seemed to characterize Sir Smith), it felt like I was being taken on a virtual trip to the battlefields of Korea, personally guided by Sir C. Aubrey Smith, only with a strong Massachusetts accent and Marine Corps written all over him.

"How long were you at Chosin?" I asked, interested in continuing the conversation. 

"Till the middle of December, when I was wounded." Said Sir Smith (as I shall call him). "My sergeant sent me to the back for medical attention. When I got there, I was told they had no place for me and to go back to the front. I made the hike to the front lines again and got bawled out for returning. The sergeant sent me back again. This time I told them how it was and what was what, so I stayed back till I got shipped home."

His 6-month war in Korea was over. 

"And you were in the 5th Marines?" I checked.

"Yes indeed. The best regiment in the Marine Corps!" 

"I don't doubt it," I said, amused. "Actually, I just finished reading a book about a brother regiment of yours - A Company, 7th Marines... Baker 1/7 I believe it's called.”

Hardly had the words "7th Marines" come out of my mouth when there was a virtual explosion from Sir Smith. 

“Bah. Those 7th Marines! They’re no good at all. Always behind the action at a safe distance, making us do all the dirty work. We take a hill, they get the glory. Those no good....” My charming friend was obviously not biased at all. 

A friend of his nearby turned and said, “Bob, isn’t that the Company with the Chinese guy in the pink vest?”

“Kurt Lee. Yes," said Sir Smith with a chuckle. "The fellow was crazy. Always running into battle with that ghastly pink vest so that his men would always know where he was at all times.”  

“So you saw his pink vest then?” I was thrilled. Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee was a truly remarkable soldier. The first Marine Corps officer of Chinese decent, he quite proved the mettle he was made of during the Korean War. Gallantly leading his men into action, he would holler out orders in Mandarin, successfully causing disarray and confusion in the ranks of the Red Chinese. Then he would wildly attack them with little care for his own protection. His men watched in awe as Lt. Lee stood tall and straight, marching about and giving orders during the hottest parts of the fighting, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of bullets whizzing around him. Eventually, he was wounded, but he did not allow this to interfere with his duty. Indeed, he and another Marine made a daring escape from the American hospital to return to the front, despite being covered in bandages and wrappings. No, nothing mental or physical would ever come in the way of this brave Marine's determination. 

And as far as the pink vest was concerned, if he thought it would inspire his men, than who cared if it made him the perfect target for the Red Chinese?

Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee in Korea

Sir Smith guffawed at my excitement over the vest, “Of course I did! Everyone did! He didn’t seem to realize the enemy would also see where he was at all times. What did he think anyways? He could have gotten us all killed. There is no place on the battlefield for foolish heroics.” 

I couldn’t help laughing. These “foolish heroics” Sir Smith spoke of (and highlighted above) had awarded Lt. Lee none other than the Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor given by the United States.

“Besides,” his eyes twinkled, “He was in the 7th Marines that...”

I had to laugh again. The 7th Marines may not have been up to Sir Smith's standards, but with men like Lt. Lee in their ranks, they were certainly a fighting force to be reckoned with.

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

But though we joked about the eccentricities of the officers, the events of the summer, fall, and winter of 1950 had left a deep and terrible impression on Sir Smith. He told me that the reality of what he had gone through was finally catching up on him. About 50 years after his service in the Marine Corps, he suddenly started having nightmares about the fighting in Korea. He dreamed about things he'd seen or done that hadn't crossed his mind in decades, and out of the blue thoughts attacked him that left him with little mental peace. 

"I have to go to a PTSD group now." He told me somewhat grimly. "I'm the oldest guy there. All the others are soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn't help much, but I keep going." 

We all know that the end-date of a war doesn't mean it's over in the minds of the fellas who fought there, but it's still hard every time I hear it from their own mouths; that each day they are re-fighting the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, or Iwo Jima, or Normandy. Thankfully, though, my new friend has a tenacious fighting spirit and probably wouldn't allow himself to be easily overcome by these nightmares.

We talked for some time more, till the dinner bell rang concluding the weekend. It was a lovely time I spent chatting with Sir Smith. Learning from such a charming curmudgeon about the rougher side of Chosin combat (as well as a few humorous anecdotes) was a remarkable experience. It is regretful that so few know anything of the Korean War, or even the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. The difficulties of Chosin were practically unparalleled in American history. That any could survive it is truly a miracle. But they did, and once again I was reminded of the endurance of the human spirit when it is put to the test - especially the United States Marine Corps at Chosin. 

Memorial Day in Fredericksburg

My personal favorite Admiral in WWII, Admiral Chester Nimitz.

This past Memorial Day we spent the day in Fredericksburg at the Pacific War Museum. I think there are few places I would rather spend this precious day of remembrance. After the museum's annual Memorial Day program, we spent most of the afternoon studying and reflecting the Wall of Honor Plaques in the museum's courtyard. This wall of Honor Plaques are remarkable and unique. Some paying tribute to the fallen, others in gratitude for a family member's service during WWII. It took some time, but we managed to look at just about every plaque on the wall (and there are quite a few!). 

While there, we found a couple of friend's names, and talked with a lovely Navy veteran, Mr. Glazener, who volunteers at the Nimitz regularly.  Mr. Glazener was in the pacific during the latter part of the war, and showed us where his ship's plaque was on the Wall of Honor. Though he never experienced action, he did tell us of one dramatic event: As the war came to a close (and the Japanese were fighting their hardest), one of the destroyers in his convoy was hit by a Kamikaze. The kamikaze hit the Bridge, taking it out completely out and killing all the officers in the ship. To save the ship, Mr. Glazener's Destroyer hooked up to the totaled ship and towed her to the closest island of safety. The poor crew were thus happily saved. 

His hand it resting above the plaque to the 6 Destroyers in his group.

He later got out of the Navy and served on the US border patrol for many years. He experienced all extremes from the frostbite cold of Vermont to the crazy border troubles of McAllen, Texas. Car chases up to 140 mph, shootings and knifings (getting shot and knifed himself), and numerous other exciting things. There was no doubt talking to him, that he is true-blue Texan for sure!

All in all, a quiet, but memorable day spent remembering our fallen soldiers. 

A Gold Star Meant for Me

When you visit the National World War II Memorial in D.C., you will see a wall covered in gold stars. There are 4,048 stars on this wall; each representing 100 men who sacrificed their lives for us in WWII. Last year we met Mr. Lee (pictured) at this memorial. Mr. Lee doesn't like to talk about the war at all. He was part of the 11th Airborne and made four jumps in the Pacific, taking part in some of the fiercest battles. But he did tell us something that was beautiful, sad, and poignant. In a thoughtful voice he said, "There is a star on that wall that was supposed to be for me. But it is for my friend instead. He took my place." The memory of the moment when his buddy took a grenade for him is still as clear as when it happened 70 years ago.

Frank Buckles: America's Last Doughboy

Near the end of January, 2011, I was sitting in one of my Dad's annual business and planning meetings. It had been an interesting but long day. To pass the last hour or so, I decided to read some of the headlines in the news. One of them stuck out particularly to me. I read that America's last WWI doughboy was about to turn 110. His name was Frank Buckles. Wow. How incredible. Just putting aside the shear remarkable health he was in at 110, he was also a veteran of the Great War. The so called "War to End All Wars." Right then and there I decided to meet him. I had to. 

The next few weeks I researched him, his life, his military career, etc. I also prepared a letter to send to him, asking for permission to visit. 

Dear Mr. Buckles,

My name is Liberty Phillips. I am 14 years old... I live in San Antonio, Texas with my seven brothers and sisters. Joshua, Justice, Jubilee, Faith, Honor, Providence, and Virginia Hope. All of my life, my father and mother have brought me and my siblings up on a great love for history and its impact on the modern culture around us. 

(I talked about the history documentaries my dad had made on WWII and how that had influenced me to learn more.) 

...My father has often impressed upon us how little time on earth we have, and that every year more veterans from past wars die. Understanding this, when I read that it was your 110th birthday, I was reminded that when my father and brothers were on Iwo Jima, they met a WWII vet named Marvin Perrett who was a Coastie during the war. They got to know each other pretty well, and when visiting the WWII Museum in New Orleans a year ago, we looked for Marvin Perrett only to find he had died shortly before. This was a reminder for me of how fleeting life is, and since we are going to Normandy in June, I thought this would be a prime time. Maybe if this worked out, I could film you giving a message from a WWI vet to the WWII vets that my dad could show in Normandy. 

I would forever be in your gratitude if you would allow my brother and me to do this. I have met many WWII veterans, and have been so blessed by it, and would be exceedingly blessed to meet you, the last WWI veteran, before time runs out.... Forever in your gratitude for what you did for our country, Liberty Phillips

Well, to my great sadness, time did run out before there was an opportunity to meet him. On February 27, 2011, right as I was about to send my letter, Corporal Frank Buckles passed away. 

My dad later wrote about it: 

Several months ago, I discovered that my dear daughter Liberty had been secretly working with her mother on a surprise for me. Knowing her father’s passion for history and desire to cultivate a culture of honor, Liberty’s hope was to meet Frank Buckles, World War I’s last living American doughboy, to interview him, and to share his story with others.

Liberty watched me make The League of Grateful Sons, and she has stood beside me for ten years as I worked with the Faith of Our Fathers Project. She understands that the mission of this effort is to demonstrate our commitment to the Fifth Commandment in the context of showing honor to the heroic fathers of the World War II generation. Liberty has taken this vision into her heart, and she hoped to reach back one generation further and meet World War I’s last remaining U.S. veteran.

So, with the encouragement of her mother, Liberty spent weeks researching the story of Mr. Buckles. She then came to me with her surprise project of honor and asked if she could complete the mission by visiting this unusual man who was such an important link to our nation’s providential past. How encouraged I was! I gave Liberty my blessing, and she prepared to make the trip with her mother to see Mr. Buckles. But just days later, he died. My dear daughter was never able to complete her mission of honor. That broke my heart. It saddened me that she was never able to meet this veteran and to speak to him about the Lord Jesus Christ. We missed our window of opportunity with Mr. Buckles. We waited too long. . .

A few months later, when our family was preparing for our first trip to Normandy for the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, I read another article in the news and sent it with this note to my dad:

Dear Dad,
It turns out I missed out on more than just meeting and interviewing Frank Buckles. Look what just came in: "
Veteran Claude Choules's death breaks last link to World War I: ...The Australian Defence Force said Mr. Choules became the last surviving WWI serviceman following the death earlier this year of American Frank Buckles."

It means even more to me now, Dad, that we are taking advantage of this opportunity to honor the WWII vets in Normandy in a few weeks. Thank you for having this vision and giving us this opportunity.  On a side note, Claude Choule was 14 when he joined and of course, as you know, I'm 14 right now. It just makes me think about life a little differently.

February 27, 2016 was the 5 year anniversary of the passing of Corporal Frank Buckles, America's last doughboy, and the veteran I came so close to meeting. A lot has happened in the last five years, but my family's drive to honor the men who served our country so well has only become more serious as time goes on and the urgency increases. You could say that the passing of Frank Buckles was my first real awakening to the brevity of life we have with our dear veterans. Though I'd met many veterans before, I'd never experienced the impermanence so personally. 

Though I missed a rare opportunity, I think that the passing of Frank Buckles prepared me and taught me to better appreciate the events we experienced that summer as we traveled with several dear WWII veterans who willingly shared stories and tears as they traveled back to their battlegrounds for the first time in 67 years. And for everything else since then.

Stationed in Texas: Jake Kesatie

In 2014 at the Conneaut D-Day, we met the lovely Mr. Jake Kesiatie, an Army Staff Sergeant who served at the San Marcos Military Hospital in Texas during the war. A first generation American, Mr. K was born in 1918 just as the war was wrapping up. “When I was born they had to end the war... But then they had to start a war for me”.

Near the hospital where he was stationed in San Marcos during the war, was an Army Air Corps training base. One day two trainer planes, with five occupants each, had a head-on crash. Nobody survived, and he was detailed with others to clean up the mess. "There weren’t any bodies, just pieces here and there -arms, legs..." He had to fill ten bags with pieces of the remains of the trainees bodies. It was a terrible memory that made him shudder as he told it to us.

Several times throughout the war Mr K. tried to get shipped to overseas service, but they told him his help at the hospital was too valuable. And it must have been because he spent four years stationed in Texas. He was happy to hear we were from Texas because, besides the war going on, he had happy memories of Texas and the Bluebonnets, and of course the people. Mr. Kesatie may never have seen combat, but his role back home was vital. And for that we are very grateful to him.

Jerell Crow - Coast Guard at Iwo Jima

We learned recently of the passing one of our sweet Iwo Jima veterans: Mr. Jerell Crow. Mr. Crow was a Coast Guardsman during WWII, but the U.S. coast was the last place he was to be stationed. Taking part in the invasion of Iwo Jima, Mr. Crow landed some of the first waves of Marines onto the island and continued until all troops had been taken off the ship. Even 70+ years later, Iwo was a subject too difficult to talk about. "[I] have never wanted to go back. The first day there was all that I needed to remember it." And anyone who has read anything about the Battle for Iwo Jima understands why.

Before even Iwo Jima, Mr. Crow had already had his share of experiences. A newspaper clipping he sent us from shortly after the war says, "While serving on Guadalcanal, [Jerrell] Crow was operating a small boat carried on a destroyer. The boat making for shore, was attacked by the enemy and destroyed. Crow and the marines swam to the island, where they were out of contact with U.S. forces for 47 days. Only six of the men were alive when they were picked up after U.S. reinforcements came to the island. For wounds sustained and for his bravery, he received the Purple Heart, and the Silver Star."

Following Iwo Jima, came the landings at Okinawa and regrouping in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Thankfully this invasion never came, and after four long years, the war came to an end. Mr. Crow was one of the brave and silent men to serve our country when she needed him most, and for that he will never be forgotten.

"They were good Marines, the finest."

"What sticks with me now is not so much the pain and terror and sorrow of the war, though I remember that well enough. What really sticks with me is the honor I had of defending my country, and serving in the company of these men. They were good Marines, the finest, every one of them. You can't say anything better about a man." 

R. V. Burgin, 5th Marines, 1st Division, survived over a month of brutal combat during battle of Peleliu Island in 1944. It was supposed to be a "quickie" in and out. But it wasn't. The battle lasted from September 15 to November 27, with nearly 20,000 casualties. Today, you can go to this haunting island and see what is left from that terrible battle in the remains of military equipment, blown out pillboxes, and sometimes even unburied bodies. It is a tragic picture of the reality of war. But is was an island where boys became men and leaders. 

Frederick Kroese: Dutch Resistance Fighter

In 1940, it would have been a very hard time to be living in Europe, especially if you lived in one of the many little countries that were being invaded by the Nazis. The Netherlands was one of those. At first, it wasn't so bad. The Netherlanders could live with them, but when the Germans went to fight in Russia, they needed more men and more weapons. So, they started taking men out of the factories and sending them to fight the Russians. But of course they had to have someone to fill the places of all the men who were being sent to the front, so the Germans started taking the men and boys from the countries that were under the Nazi thumb.

In mid 1943, Frederick Kroese, got a message telling him to get a few belongings and report so that he could be moved to Germany to work in the factories. As a 19 year old young man, he wasn't going to be bossed around by some government that wasn't even his own, telling him that he had to drop everything he was doing and go to work to help the very people who had invaded his country. So he just said, "I won't do that!"

There were then only two options left to him: he could either wait for the Nazi police to come get him, or he could go into hiding. Well, he wasn't going to wait around for the police, so he found a place to hide himself! And then, since he wasn't going to just wait in hiding, he decided to join the Resistance. 

When I first met Mr. Kroese, he described to me in great detail the perils of joining the Resistance. It was a very real and dangerous thing to undertake. He knew that at any time he could be shot, put in prison, or tortured for information and addresses, but it gave him a way to "really do something against the Germans..." In a lovely Dutch accent, he told me, "You took part in an organization which did things you shouldn't do to survive it. In common clothes - you don't have a uniform, but we were the enemy of the Germans." He wore a band on his arm that said he was in food distribution so that the Germans wouldn't bother him or take away his bicycle. If you remember from Corrie Ten Boom's stories, bicycles were very important to the success of their plans. 

One day, however, as he was coming out of the woods, he found a German stealing his bike. He really needed his wheels to get where he was going, so he tried to talk him out of it  -but without success. He finally asked if the German would at least give him a ride into town on the back of it (oh the gall!), but he wouldn't take up his offer... And he lost the bike. Just another day in the life of Frederikus Wilhelmus Kroese.

During the war American planes would drop supplies to the Dutch resistance, especially weapons, explosive equipment, and booklets on how to use them most effectively. This booklet is explaining how to blow up a bridge. Mr. Kroese obtained it from one of the cylinders that were dropped.

When American or English pilots were downed, he was there to help them. "I was in the group that saved flying people who were shot down..." The pilots would call in to the Dutch Resistance saying, "Save us, save us, we're crashing!" and Mr. Kroese would organize the farmers to go to the location where they were falling, destroy the evidence, bury the parachutes, etc... Then find them a place where they could stay, forge false identification papers and ration cards, and finally get them new clothing! Isn't that just too rich...part of the Dutch Resistance, forging papers, and saving downed English and American pilots!!!

Mr. Kroese's false identification papers.

Although it was no doubt thrilling to their impetuous spirits, these Tommies and Johnnies were practically still boys, and didn't seem to grasp the danger of the situation or the tremendous sacrifice that these Dutch people were embracing, risking their lives, and giving them a large portion of their own scarce supply of food. "They would stay there for a few weeks, or as long as needed and they would stay in the house where I was aided. We gave them food, and some night I came upstairs after they had dinner, and I came and I saw that the soup was in the washing table," -(that was in the year that food was especially difficult to come by)- "So I said, 'Are you mad? If you don't like it, tell it to us, and we can have it, but don't spoil it!'"  

At other times, the Americans struggled to grasp the precariousness of their situation. "Sometime in the following months, there came a German car stopping just before our house... but what did he (the American flyer)? He moved to the window, pushed the curtains away, and I said; 'Are you mad?!'" 'No, but I've never seen my enemy. I want to see my enemy.' As they are young boys, they don't realize, and they don't know. They didn't know that we had few food, and he didn't realize that he, ya, was in danger of bringing us in danger by showing himself at the window. It was remarkable." 

Finally, after 5 longs years of being under Nazi oppression, after 3 years of working every moment against his country's oppressors, rescuing Allied pilots, burying parachutes, hiding radios, stealing bicycles, blowing up bridges, forging papers, scraping together food, organizing the farmers, - and every moment living in the realization that they could die any time, the Netherlands were finally liberated.

"It was happiness to be liberated." 

In all the times that I've come in contact with people from the Netherlands, I've found them to be some of the nicest people in the world. So kind, and with such a full history of their own, and between our two countries, dating all the way back to 1608 when they welcomed our Pilgrim Fathers into their land, and gave us a place where we could live in peace and worship God in freedom for over ten years, until our forefathers sailed to America. Mr Kroese is certainly no exception! Thank you, dear sir, for your gallantry and your kindness to our boys who got in a tough spot in the air over there.

Bert Stolier - USMC

"Bert Stolier was stranded in the placid waters of the Pacific Ocean for three days and three nights in December 1942 after his ship, the U.S.S. Northampton, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during the Battle of Tassafaronga. With no food, no water, and little hope, all Stolier could do is reminisce about his family and home in New Orleans and sing every song he could remember. Then, Stolier said, a miracle happened. "The tide pushed me between two islands and I saw a ship," he said. "As I got a little closer, I saw, with apologies to my future wife, the most beautiful sight of my life." What Stolier saw that cold December morning was the Stars and Stripes flying on the deck of an American ship. Unable to move, Stolier cried out "Any of you sailors want to give a marine a hand?" A few minutes later, Stolier was rescued... Stolier, now in his 90s, served in the Marine Corps during the Pacific theatre and fought in battles such as Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, [Tarawa] and Iwo Jima. (Excerpts from the Sea Coast Echo)

When I asked Mr. Stolier about the Battle of Tarawa (a three day battle on a scrap of land hardly half a mile square, with over 9,000 American and Japanese casualties), he said to me, "It wasn't a battle. You can't call something that horrible a battle.... But it had to be done." Mr. Stolier is a truly remarkable man. At 97 years of age now, he spends his time at the WWII Museum in New Orleans sharing his incredible stories.

"You can't tell a man's bravery by just looking at him"

"You cannot look at someone and decide if they are brave or not. You can only find out if someone is brave by looking backwards, seeing how they have responded."

This is something Lt. Lynden Benshoof often thought about when he was aboard his LST in WWII. He told us he was concerned and worried about his own actions. Would he be brave? Or would he be like his Captain, who after fierce fighting during the Africa and Italy Campaigns, finally couldn't handle any more. One day, Mr. Benshoof had found the Captain of the ship, curled up like a child, grasping tightly to a radio and pretending to be talk into it. Benshoof suggested he go to his cabin for rest. The Captain did, locking himself in and not coming out again.

But if Africa, Sicily, and Salerno were tough, it wasn't the end. On June 6, 1944, Lt. Benshoof's LST took part in the D-Day Operations landing troops onto Omaha Beach. It was horrible work. "We saw all the guys stacked like cardboard on the beach and we could see all the trouble happening... There was so many bodies in the water they couldn't dodge them all." His LST would make 57 trips between England and France carrying causalities and prisoners. "One thing I learned is you can't tell a man's bravery by just looking at him." Only by looking backwards. Looking back on his life, Lt. Benshoof's greatest fear, the fear of failure to do his duty, never became a reality. He served his country well and proudly. But it is a good lesson for all of us to consider: how will *we* respond, when the trouble in our lives becomes too difficult to bear. Quit, like the poor Captain? Or persevere a little longer. Only the future will tell us how we responded to the present crisis. So let's take the example of Lt. Benshoof, and fight a little harder and stick in there a little longer. 

A Korean War Veteran's Story

A few months ago, at a Victory Japan Remembrance day event, we had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Creswell (right), a combat veteran of the Korean War. He was in tears as he thanked Mr. Slief (left), for his service in WWII. "I'm wearing my uncle's hat," he said. "He was on a bombing mission and never came back. They found this hat in his locker. I wear it to all events like this. I'll never forget him. Really, you guys are my heroes. I just missed the war. I went in in 1950 and all my trainers and were WWII veterans. They called me "kid" like I was their younger brother and they taught me how to fight. If it hadn't been for you guys, I would have been killed." Pointing to his ear he said, "See this ear? In Korea, a Chinese soldier came at me with his bayonet and was going to stab me. I ducked and he sliced my cheek and cut that piece off my ear. I had to have 222 stitches on my face. My girlfriend called me scarface. If the WWII guys hadn't taught me how to fight, I wouldn't have made it. I owe everything to you all. You're my heroes. Thank you."

Growing up Mr. Creswell sold newspapers on the streets of Burbank, California (just down the road from his good friend Debbie Reynolds). "You guys were out there making the headlines and I was selling them." When we asked what his biggest headline was, he told us, "the Invasion of France. I was in school and the paper man came and told me to come sell papers. He gave me these huge stacks. All afternoon I sold them [for a nickle] a penny profit for me, making $30 the end of the day." 

Paratroopers are a Special Lot

Sainte Mere Eglise, Normandy, this past June for the D-Day anniversary events. 

Paratroopers are a special lot. They are known for an unusual delight in death defying antics and absurd feats. Mr. Dan McBride is no exception. Just surviving jump school (the first time he jumped his chute didn't open and he pulled the emergency as he reached tree level. A little stunned, he assumed that was normal), his first combat jump was into Normandy, on June 6, 1944. 

“I was loaded down with eight grenades, two antitank mines, ammunition, a full field pack, four blocks of TNT, an entrenching tool, a bayonet and a carbine. I weighed 300 to 400 pounds. We had to have someone help us climb into the plane. The formation began to break apart as pilots tried to avoid the AA fire. They were banking and diving and turning. Well, on one particularly steep banking turn, being closest to the open door waiting to get the signal to jump, I fell out the door."

Tangling himself in the parachute lines, he landed on his head, which knocked him out for a good while. The adventures that followed were numerous; and told in his dry-wit style, become quite hilarious. Not too long after D-Day, on a night patrol, a soldier came up and spoke to him. It was a German."I pulled up my rifle, and he pulled up his. We both shot, and we both hit — but I hit more." Wounded in his arm, it would be the first of 3 purple hearts he would receive in 1944. The next one would be in Holland after he was blown off a dyke by mortar shells, crushing his ankle. "The medic stuck a needle through my boot. I had to walk out of there, and I could hear the bones grinding." His third Purple Heart came in Bastogne when he was hit in the knees from tank shrapnel. He would take part in four of the major battles in Europe: Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and Southern Germany. Today, at 91 Mr. McBride is still one tough hombre with plenty of chutzpah. "I live in New Mexico close to the border. One time I was in the parking lot of Walmart and this guy came up to me with a pocket knife and said, 'give me your money'. I pulled out my [handgun] and told him, 'you can either leave now, or in a body bag. I don't care which.' Boy did that guy go running... (he laughs) yup, that was about two months ago."

Dachau Liberator

When we first met Mr. Birney "Chick" Havey at an airshow last fall, we asked him where the "Chick" came from in his name. "In the army, everyone got a nickname," he said, "they were all 'Bud' or 'Tom" or something like that, so I went by "Chick."' We talked with Mr. Havey for a while; he showed us his "artifacts" collected during the war. A German dagger, German medals (including an iron cross), German patches, and numerous other fascinating objects. Later in the day a lady came up to us and said, "Did you know Birney Havey was one of the first men into the gates of Dachau?" Goodness! This had not even been brought up. We went back to Mr. Havey and he willingly obliged our questions, even pulling out some photos he had taken. 

Arriving in Europe just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Havey had seen plenty of fighting and death by the time he reached  Dachau; but despite the natural hardness that come with combat, the sight he saw that day, April 25, 1945, was enough to turn the strongest man's stomach sick. His anti-tank unit came in through the back, discovering around 300 train car-loads of dead and rotting bodies. He said of all those prisoners, they only found one alive. From there they went into the camp, and the horror did not abate much. He saw "people living inside post office-like slots, three or four in each hole. They were alive, but some were dying in there, others were too weak to get out." Rounding up several of the SS still in the camp, they lined them up and shot them. Mr. Havey only stayed in the area a day and a half before his unit moved forward, but that day left permanent mark in his mind, and no doubt brought renewed meaning to the reason he was fighting.