Friday, September 30, 2011

Honoring the memory of World War II

I was privileged to attend the opening of the Museum of Idaho's World War II exhibit Thursday, and it got me thinking about the people who fought fascism and won.

In my years with the Post Register, I interviewed plenty of WWII vets and their families. Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Veterans Day ... invariably the assignment would be to find a vet and conduct an interview. Being a WWII history buff who never gets tired of hearing the stories, the assignments usually came my way. A couple of them stand out in my memory.

One WWII piece I can recall was about Lloyd Gneiting of Rigby, an 89-year-old vet who'd gone into Germany with Patton, liberating the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had photos that had miraculously made it home, which, horrible as they were, could only hint at what he'd seen with his own eyes.

The interview took place in 2003, a few months after the Iraq War had begun, and Lloyd was having a hard time with his memories, which were being triggered by everything he was seeing on TV. There was no Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1945, it was called shell shock. For Lloyd, the memories he'd suppressed for nearly 60 years were coming back with a vengeance. It was a hard story to write, and a reminder that not all was roses for the men and women who came home from Europe and the Pacific. Judging from this YouTube video from last Memorial Day it appears he is doing better than when I saw him.


The second story that comes to mind -- a happier one -- is the one I did in 2004 after receiving a letter from a woman in Rambouillet, France, asking if we could find any relatives of Harold Grout of Firth, a combat engineer who'd been killed in an ambush in August 1944 during the Allied drive toward Paris. They were planning to add his name and a few others to a monument, and wanted to invite family members.

With legwork, I was able to locate Grout's widow, Melva, who had remarried after the war but had two daughters by her first husband. In the end, the entire family went to France for the dedication and the two daughters, who had only a very dim memory of their father, were able to visit his grave at the Allied cemetery on the coast of Brittany. Melva also discovered she was entitled to a pension from the Veterans Administration, a nice bonus for an 88-year old widow on a fixed income.

Much has been made of the "Greatest Generation," people who came home to enjoy the post-war economic boom and the best standard of living the American middle class has probably ever had. I think of my father-in-law, Ed Juell, who served in the Pacific and then went to work 42 years as an engineer for Westinghouse, raising a family and sending five children to the University of Utah.

What strikes me is that the children of the Depression did not preoccupy themselves with big houses, flat-screen TVs in every room and every kind of toy easy credit could buy. I hear about how tough times are today, and I know they are for many, but I think about choices people make and the men and women born in the second and third decades of the 20th century. They came out of the Depression to save the world, many of them sacrificing their lives, many more paying with arms, legs and their central nervous systems.

After the war (and thanks in great part to the G.I. Bill), they enjoyed prosperity, not to mention security, working for employers that viewed them as people to be developed, not "full-time equivalencies" to be cut in the name of short-term profit.

They wanted the best for their children and future generations. As they leave us, our best hope for honoring them is by being the best people we can be, embracing their ideals and committing ourselves to the liberty they fought to preserve.