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Posts Tagged ‘World War II Generation’

THE THIRD BOOK

I’m putting together the final edits for my new book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume II. The subtitle is War in the Air—From the Great Depression to Combat. In it, I track the wartime experiences of seven or eight veterans of the air war over Europe. I also make some surprising discoveries regarding a family cousin who was killed at age 20. I’ll be posting some excerpts over the next few days.

I know that some folks subscribed to this site for the Holocaust educational material. While this may not be directly related to the Holocaust, understand that it is all about keeping the memory alive. And I have to tell you that some of my biggest cheerleaders for these stories about our World War II veterans come from the Holocaust survivor community.

Maybe I’ll start with the guy who lived on the corner for most of my life. In 1969, he also became my younger brother’s godfather. Thirty-four years later he ran into some of my students at a garage sale. They found out he was in World War II, and asked him for an interview for my class.

I had no idea that Dick was even in World War II. Here’s just an excerpt. You can order the full book here; the paperback edition will be out Sept. 1, 2017.

 

War in the Air-Flight Engineer Dick Varney

Richard Varney

I grew up during the Depression. I remember that day in 1929 [when the stock market crashed] very well. I was about 17 or 18. I had been working for two years; I went to work at 15 years old with working papers. My parents, God bless them, they grew up in an era when school was not that important. You went to work as soon as you were able to help the family. I don’t think you people understand what I am saying or what that means, but it meant a lot. But I wish that I had gone to school. I did later on, but I made it in life without [a formal education]. I had to do it my way. I worked at the sawmill on Haskell Avenue in Glens Falls; it’s not there now. I also started playing at dances in a band when I was 17 and did it for a long, long time; it was a lot of fun. It was quite necessary then because the wages then weren’t what they are now. I took lessons for a little while on the violin, but I played by ear from then on. I also taught myself to play the alto and tenor saxophone, which I still have, incidentally.

You have to realize that when I went to work at the Imperial factory, later, if you weren’t late or forgot to ring in and out, you got 40 cents an hour. Can you imagine that? You worked 40 hours; you got sixteen dollars a week! Now on this, you had a family to support—it isn’t like what it’s like today. In the Depression era you could buy a home for 1,500 dollars. You couldn’t hang a door for that now! Money was something you didn’t have, but you didn’t feel deprived in those days because nobody else had any money. No, you probably had one change of clothes, maybe one pair of shoes if you were lucky. You didn’t wear them in the summer because you didn’t want to wear them out. I’m not exaggerating, because you just didn’t have the money. You made do. You didn’t eat a lot of prepared food, you [improvised and] cooked your own. You ate a lot of things… [Have you ever had] dandelions? We used to go and pick them. Clean them, cook them, you make do. You just didn’t always have money with those kinds of wages.

*

On December 7, 1941, I was working at the Imperial Color paint factory in Glens Falls. It was a shock— I was outraged naturally, because it was a sneak attack.  But it was not unexpected; believe me, we had been heading towards it. In fact, in my opinion we were already in an undeclared war; we were actually in it because we were supporting England. We had been giving them everything they needed; from then on it was just a matter of time before we all got into it.  But Germany and Japan declared war on us first.

I was not a kid; I was 30 years old at the time. I was married and I had no idea what the future was going to bring for us, because I did not know what they wanted to do. I don’t think anybody relished the idea of going to war; nobody does. But nevertheless, I think we had a level of patriotism at that time that we won’t ever see again; certainly we don’t have it now. Everybody was behind it, the whole situation, at that time. I don’t think you heard anybody wondering whether we should go in or not, because we were in. In retrospect it was so long ago now, a lot of the details are not as sharp as they should be maybe, but I can remember most of it.

Richard ‘Dick’ Varney, flight engineer, first row second from right, and the crew of his B-24 Liberator Source: Richard Varney, Sr..

I was drafted in April of 1943, I think. Then we went through God knows how many schools, how much training, to prepare us for it.

I took my army basic training in Miami Beach. It was tough duty in Miami Beach. [Laughs] After that we were assigned to air mechanic school, and there I was trained for the B-24 Liberator. I was being trained as the aircraft flight engineer, and my job at that time was everything mechanical on the plane. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility, so you were taught everything about the airplane. Then after we graduated from there, they sent us to Panama City for air gunnery. After that we went to various places and to Westover, and from there our crew was formed. Now this crew, when it was put together, was the first time that I had met most of these people, the enlisted men I met. Then we went to Walker Air Base in South Carolina, and there we met our pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier; from then on, we were a unit—we stayed together, we trained together, all our practice missions and everything. Then we went to Langley, Virginia, and from there we took radar training. And that was the last duty in this part of the world—from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland and from there to Wales. We flew all the way over. Now as a unit we stayed that way. And then when we got there, we were assigned to our bomb group. And there we went through even more training—that’s all you ever did, you train, train, train, and train.

‘There Are No Heroes’

The B-17 crews were the glory boys. The B-24 flew faster, carried more bombs, and flew higher, but the B-17s were the glory boys. We didn’t name our planes like they did. We had ten to a crew in the 24s, yes. Originally they had a ball turret on the bottom but when we got over across the ocean they took that out and they put the radar transmitter in the bottom, where the belly turret was. That left the engineer free to do everything mechanical and the assistant engineer flew the top turret [gun] in my plane.

Finally we were scheduled for our first mission, to Hamburg. It was a vital mission, in the sense that Hamburg had all their oil refineries. And without that, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t have gasoline, they couldn’t have anything, so you could destroy it because it would certainly limit their supplies. It was a very important mission. And because of that they concentrated their [fighter] aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to protect it. So that’s a target I really remember, believe me.

I’ve seen planes go down, naturally. And the only things you’d look for were how many ‘chutes came out of it because when an airplane gets spinning, you couldn’t get out. Sometimes because of centrifugal force, the spinning of the plane would kill you, because you couldn’t get out. As I said before, I never got hurt. It was always the other guy. And the frame of mind that you have is something that most people can’t understand—you can see this happening, but it’s not you. It becomes an impersonal thing; it has to be, because you would go crazy if it wasn’t. Not that you didn’t have sympathy for the people but still, it wasn’t you. I don’t know how to explain it. But there are no heroes, contrary to what people may think. It’s like a job. I don’t think there are any heroes up there because you’re just doing your job, you have to—you either did, or you didn’t come back. You don’t have time enough really to be scared a lot.

*

Our missions were all over. They were over the Rhineland, yes sure. And Cologne, Dusseldorf, whatever you can think of. And we hit them wherever they were—we bombed as far as Austria and Czechoslovakia; in fact we even hit Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s retreat.

Most of the missions we flew were around 20,000 feet and believe me, in the winter time at that altitude, it’s about minus 70 degrees. That’s cold. But we did have heated suits, heated clothes. And of course under those circumstances we still had our job to do. As an engineer, I had duties at the time. I had to check to make sure the generators were synchronized, I opened the bomb bay doors, and I transferred fuel. All of these things were part of my job. I won’t speak for the other people; they had their own jobs. But that is what I did.

*

‘Something Always Goes Wrong’

Did anything ever go wrong during your job?

 

Did anything ever go wrong? [Chuckles] Oh, something always goes wrong. Yes, I remember one time when we got ready on the ‘IP’, which is the Initial Point, where we start the bomb run to the target—I forget where the mission was to—well, they loaded the bombs all right. But there’s a propeller on the back of it, and when you drop them, the wind screws the propeller off. When that propeller comes off, that bomb is armed; it won’t go off otherwise. But when the group crews load them, they’re supposed to put a safety wire through it, in each thing. Well, somebody on that mission [laughs], they didn’t put the safety wires in. So when I opened the bomb bay doors, the wind hit them and I called the pilot on the intercom and I said, ‘I got news for you, we got 10 thousand pound bombs here that are now armed. The propellers are all off.’ Any piece of flak coming through would hit the nose of them and… [Makes the sound of an explosion] that would be all she wrote, you wouldn’t find anything! It didn’t though. But that’s one time I sweated a little bit, I can tell you. [Chuckles]  You couldn’t fix anything. We were on the ‘IP’. You couldn’t take evasive action, you couldn’t do anything and we’re flying right through that flak. But when they dropped the bombs, it was fine.

Flak

I learned more about the German anti-aircraft than I did about anything else because that was the only way you could defend yourself against anti-aircraft; oh yes, we picked up holes, sure. Flak holes. And they generally fired in bursts of three. They used their 88s, they called them, and at different levels. The first one would be 18,500 feet, and another one would be at 18,700 and so on; three. They’re like steps. And they would try to bracket you with the target. And each battery they had of anti-aircraft was three guns, usually. But they so had many of those batteries at some of our targets! When they started firing, you would have thought there was a thunderstorm up there, you know what I mean? But I never lost it, I never lost an engine. I did lose the oil out of one when we landed because there was a hole in the oil reservoir, but the pump in it was strong enough so I didn’t lose the engine in the air. No, I made sure the engines were alright before we went up. As I said before, I don’t make that much of that because there’s not many heroes up there. You’re doing your job, that’s all. But for flying personnel, we had the highest rate of causalities than any branch of the service, because there’s no foxholes up there either, no place to hide, but [we were lucky.] Out of our original crew of ten, we only lost two. There was a bomb group that was short a co-pilot and a tail gunner. And we weren’t scheduled to fly that day, so they assigned them to that other aircraft, from the other group. And they got shot down. They didn’t come back.

You didn’t do too much worrying because it’s something that you were trained to do, and you had to do it and you’re busy and taking care of the duties of the job. You didn’t have much time to think about anything else. No, I don’t think we always wondered—of course, it crosses your mind naturally, why wouldn’t it? When you look out the side window and see a plane going down, it isn’t you, but naturally you’re going to wonder about it, you know… But as far as that, that’s all there’s to it. I mean, the way the job was—what in retrospect, what I did like about the air corps was that despite the hazards, if you went over and came back, you did have a place to sleep. You weren’t like an infantryman sleeping in a foxhole! You ate in the mess halls; you did get your hot food. But outside of that, as I said, I don’t think there were many heroes flying up there—I can’t say I worried too much—because what are you going to do? If you don’t like it, are you going to get out and walk? You’re going where the plane goes, that’s all there is to it. And that’s it. But I can’t say I got to take much credit for that. The only thing you can take credit for is being able to function under those conditions. You take 70 degrees below zero and you’ve got murderous work, and if you take your gloves off, it wouldn’t be for two minutes and your hands would be frozen. Outside of that, that’s the part of it.

*

I’m just telling you that I don’t feel that air combat was such a personal thing. It only gets personal when you’re flying through flak or got another plane coming at you or something—then it gets a little bit personal. So, like I say—what are you going to do? So I don’t pretend to be a hero; I just did my job, and I was good at my job, too. I made it a point to be, because I wanted to learn everything about that plane that I could. [When I entered the service] I never expected to fly. I thought I’d be a mechanic at my age. Instead of that, I wound up over places, I’ll never know how, but I did. I was in pretty good condition physically I guess. Not very exciting, but that’s the way it is.

This interview took place in 2003. Dick Varney passed away on April 28th, 2008, just shy of his 97th birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Varney and my kid brother, 1969.

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the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my new book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

alvin 3

Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

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In 2003, I set out to interview a retiree living on the quiet boulevard leading up to our high school. I sat on his backporch with him for a few hours on a late spring afternoon. Born in 1922, he was in the Navy, serving as a radioman on a destroyer escort, and he seemed to be everywhere in the Pacific during World War II. Like John A. Leary, he also spent a great deal of time supporting the Marines, and saw his first action in the South Pacific in the reduction of the massive Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain.

Mr. Peachman turned 93 this past March. He was my high school history teacher.

 

Alvin Peachman

From “The Things Our Fathers Saw” by Matthew Rozell.

From “The Things Our Fathers Saw” by Matthew Rozell.

 

 

You can view a book preview at the Amazon site. Available in digital and paperback format. Book can also be purchased at http://matthewrozell.com/order-the-things-our-fathers-saw/

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 Book Description: At the height of World War II, LOOK Magazine profiled an upstate New York community for a series of articles portraying it as the wholesome, patriotic model of life on the home front. Seventy years later, a high school history teacher and his students track down over two dozen veterans residing around ‘Hometown, USA’ who fought the war in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to the surrender at Tokyo Bay. They resurrect firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no community unscathed. Here are the stories that the magazine could not tell, from a special generation of Americans speaking to the youth of America today.  270 pages.

About the Author: Matthew Rozell’s teaching career is now spanning 4 decades, beginning as a quiet kid returning to teach in his own hometown to being recognized as a national History Teacher of the Year and as a recipient of a national Medal for History Education. Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow, has had his lessons filmed for NBC Learn, and has even been chosen as the ABC World News Person of the Week. He is also a recipient of several state and local awards for history education. He writes on the power of teaching and the importance of the study of history at his website,teachinghistorymatters.com.

He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

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This story below is an excerpt from my first book. It was published for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

My friend Jimmy Butterfield used to come to my classroom with his bride of 60+ years, Mary. She would joke with him, and us, and call him by his high school nickname, “But”. Maybe it was “Butt”, I don’t know, but they had fun playing around with each other in front of 17 and 18 year olds.

Jimmy, of course, was blind and hard of hearing. Mary had to yell at him, he would crack a grin under the dark glasses and flirt with her. The girls loved it. When the hearing aide was cranked up to eleven, we would get some echo and feedback, which didn’t seem to bother him, or the students in the class listening to his story. He just liked to talk to the kids.

Several years ago, after the two of them and Danny Lawler (another First Marine Division veteran of really hard fighting in the Pacific at Peleliu and Okinawa) came to my room for an afternoon, I came home to an email from one of my senior girls, telling me how meaningful meeting Jimmy and Mary and Danny was to her and her classmates. I still have it.

You see, Jim Butterfield got struck not once but twice in the head by enemy fire at Okinawa about this time in May  1945 (that is 70 years ago this month, if you are noticing). He was evacuated first to Guam, then to Hawaii and later stateside for over 18 months, and as many operations, for reconstructive surgery.  When he did realize that he would never see again,  he was ready to tell his high school sweetheart to leave him be. Not to get attached to him, a blind man.

Well, she told us what she thought of that. They ran a small mom and pop store back in Glens Falls together until they retired.

Why is Jim’s story important? Well, you’ll have to listen to him tell it. You have the sense of the unfolding realization of the loss he is feeling, but at the same time, wonderment at his and Mary’s resilience in making a successful life afterwards. The sacrifices made by this and other generations of veterans becomes real. We need to also note that Jim came home. Chappy and many others others did not.

Jim never looked for sympathy or pity- and of course would be the first to point out that Memorial Day is for those who did not return. But still, if we are to pause as a nation for one weekend to remember, we can’t forget what this nineteen year old from Hometown USA gave up as well.

Mary and Jim have since passed on. What obstacles they overcame together…

Rest on Jimmy and Mary. Thanks for letting us witness your story.

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From "The Things Our Fathers Saw" by Matthew Rozell.

From “The Things Our Fathers Saw” by Matthew Rozell.

 

Mary and Jim Butterfield Jan. 2007

Mary and Jim Butterfield in my classroom, Jan. 2007.

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Excerpted from “The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA“. Order the book here.

 Book Description: At the height of World War II, LOOK Magazine profiled an upstate New York community for a series of articles portraying it as the wholesome, patriotic model of life on the home front. Seventy years later, a high school history teacher and his students track down over two dozen veterans residing around ‘Hometown, USA’ who fought the war in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to the surrender at Tokyo Bay. They resurrect firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no community unscathed. Here are the stories that the magazine could not tell, from a special generation of Americans speaking to the youth of America today.  292 pages.

 

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