70 years ago, we were preparing to storm the beaches at Normandy and enter the 2nd World War in one of our finer moments. A few years ago, I had a particularly rowdy bunch of boys in Confirmation that needed something special, so I asked Wilbur Nelson if he would come one evening and talk to the boys about what it was like to be part of that invasion. Wilbur thought about it and called me back that he would come.
He shows up with some picture books that had photos taken of the invasion. The boys were 13 and I explained to them that Wilbur was only 19 during that invasion. They started racing through the books to find the pictures of the most gory scenes of death. My heart leapt into my throat for a moment, wondering how Wilbur would react. But ever the educator, ever the Boys camp director, he had a seasoned patience.
One of the boys saw a picture of a German submarine. Wilbur explained that the U-Boats as they were called were on patrol throughout the region and were fearsome to experience. “Did you ever see one?” asked one of the boys.
Then Wilbur told them the story. I think it was two days before the invasion. I believe he was on a mid-sized boat that held about 200 sailors, doing patrols off the coast of Britain. One of the boats in the flotilla had experienced engine trouble and Wilbur was assigned with 4 or 5 other guys to leave the boat they were on, get on the damaged boat and get it towed back into harbor to be worked on. Late that night, they got a radio communication that the boat he’d gotten off of a few hours earlier had been spotted by a U-boat. The U-boat fired a torpedo right into the hull of the boat and it killed all the guys on the boat.
The military command was in black out at the time. The operation that they were planning was so big that they couldn’t risk any communication being intercepted by the Germans. They wouldn’t even give the German High command confirmation that the boat went down. And Wilbur and the other sailors were told that they were forbidden from talking about the incident.
I didn’t know that story. So, you are 19. All the guys on your boat, probably a bunch of the guys that you went to basic training with, probably most of the guys that you are close with at that point in your life. You get to England. You are not even in the war yet really. You’re doing routine surveillance at night, only a few days into this assignment, and all of them are dead.
And you can’t call your Mom. You can’t write about it to your sweetheart. You can’t even take the night off and have a few beers with your 5 guys that are left. No you are to finish your assignment, get re-assigned.
And two days later, Wilbur was on one of the medic boats that followed the attacks onto the shore. His job was to pick up the dead and the wounded off the beach and get them back to the hospital.
The room was quiet. I said, ‘he was only 6 years older than you guys’. I just can’t help but say a prayer for that 19 year old kid, not that the guys from that generation ever asked for our prayers. But maybe we let them be too strong for too long.
I read the reflection from the Marine in the Wall Street Journal last week saying that he never expected to get pity from citizens for being a Marine. He didn’t think he needed any pity, nor that everyone suffered from PTSD. And I understand that our Veterans are surely subjected to a lot of overly sentimental gratitude these days which just misses the mark. But I would say that the trauma of war is deeper and broader than we realize and empathic identification is in order. We asked too much of our men and women serving our country, even if they were willing to do it.
Several years ago, I was on a Bridges Run with our youth. We were in Battery Park, handing out sandwiches and soup. Something came on the radio that one of the homeless guys had on loud, a reference to Jimi Hendrix or Woodstock. I said to all the guys in line “June 1969, what were you doing? Where did you live?”
First guy said, “I was in Da Nang”
The second guy said, “I was in country just south of the DMT”.
On and on it went. And I realized that a very good percentage of our homeless guys at Bridges were Vietnam Veterans. I wasn’t completely surprised but I never looked at that work the same again. The damage and trauma of war is palpable, even if you can’t easily measure it.
It is true that most people come back, especially from World War 2 and resumed lives of normalcy. But with the funerals of the soldiers of that generation, I’m always astonished at just what responsibility was thrust upon them at a tender young age.
I think of Pete Moran. Most people at Christ Church only knew Pete when he was in his late 70’s, early 80’s. He was an usher in the church, a man not afraid to sport the plaid, bravely so. He had that big Celtic smile and friendly handshake. Just a great guy you would welcome as your uncle. He was also drafted in college, trained as a bomber pilot In his very first mission, again at the ripe old age of 19 or so, he was flying from the South of France into Germany. On the return, the Germans opened a full barrage of artillery flack that hit Pete’s plane several times. Of course he was the co-pilot, but of the 12 guys on the plane, something like 6 or 7 of them had been shot dead, including the pilot. The right engine had been shot out, so Pete had to steer putting all his weight to the left to keep the plane even, flying as far as he could to try and get past the enemy lines. At last, the plane went down in a field. Everyone expected it to explode upon impact. Miraculously it didn’t. Pete passed out in the cockpit. He awoke with the 4 remaining guys smashing through the glass, risking their own lives, to pull him out of the cockpit. They ran through the field carrying Pete until they were far enough from the plane and he lay there in the mown hay until his head cleared.
I said to him, “Pete, you guys were behind enemy lines, you don’t know how far it is past them to the allies, the night is falling, what do you do?”
Pete said, “Chuck, we were 19, we got drunk.” Smile. The immortality of youth.
But you know what. Pete told me that those guys that lived through that flight, they wouldn’t fly for anyone else except him. From day one, he was their captain, a kind of lucky/skilled charm that would get them home to their girlfriends. We put all that responsibility on those boys. They were 19.
Or Steve Fellows who died a couple years ago. Steve, married to Jeanne, raised 5 kids in Summit, members of our church. Every time you saw him, no matter what was going on, he greeted you with a smile and a joke.
I think he was just 22 years old, old enough to be an officer when he was drafted, but a young officer that got promoted in the field. He was in the Philippines, on one of those collections of islands that all form a connected archipelago. The Americans had just taken the Philippines from the Japanese but the whole region in the sea there was the front lines of the war.
Steve was the ranking officer in this outpost, so he had to relate to the locals. These islands were largely inhabited by native clans that had very little contact with Europeans ever. They spoke a variety of languages, very primitive civilizations. And here is the key, they were perpetually at war with one another. It was one act of revenge after another. In addition to keeping his supply routes open and doing reconnaissance in his area of responsibility, Steve had to go meet with the Chiefs of these islands and get them to keep the peace with each other so we could fight a war with the Japanese.
Apparently he was very good. When the Americans finally had to leave the Chiefs of the tribe had a ceremony to say goodbye. As a sign of honor, they inducted Steve as a Prince into each of their 7 tribes I think it was. Now that he was a prince, Steve had the right to pick a bride from the tribe, so he could have returned home from the war with 7 wives.
But he didn’t, and here I quote from the article written in the New Jersey Star Ledger, “Instead he returned home to his sweetheart Jeanne in Maplewood, New Jersey and they were wed later that year.”
Now that I’m older, what was really amazing is that those guys did all that on our behalf and a surprising number of them went on to lead very productive lives. Wilbur Nelson, shop teacher at Summit High School, principal Brayton Elementary School, community leader, ran a summer camp for boys that raised a couple generations of kids. Pete Moran, wonderful drug abuse counselor, mentor and sponsor for so many alcoholics that turned their lives around. Steve Fellows, community leader, church leader.
I finally asked my mother-in-law what it was like to be on campus when the war ended, like she was. I remember the first time I got to Princeton University walking around the old part of the campus right around Nassau Hall. You would see the oldest dorms and some of them had a star on them, etched in the stone. Those were the rooms of the boys that died during the War. There are a lot of stars etched in the stone.
My mother-in-law got that far away look in her eyes, remembering her sophomore year, coming back so vividly. She said, “It was crazy. You had soldiers all over the place, straight back from Europe. Every night was like Friday night, like the last night of your life really, at least for a group of them. They drank, passed out in public. There were fights. The dean was out every night. The police had to break things up and bring boys home. And the authorities, the Dean, the police, nobody ever said anything.
Of course, we never heard about this from our grandparents. Their generation didn’t feel the need to process everything. Of course, some of it was just too much to process. PBS had a special on this week. One of the Veterans, now 89, said “You know I didn’t want to talk about that. I had these images. In the beginning I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t want to go back there. Now it is not so bad but still…
I admire them, the way that they went on, led their lives, tried to have normalcy around them and through their normal families and their normal lives, to honor those that didn’t make it. They were all of them a lot like Neal Koppenol.
Neal Koppenol taught business at Summit High School. His son Doug Koppenol went to church here for quite a while. A few years ago, I went to see Doug in the hospital. He was dying. He had to make some end of life decisions and his kids thought it might be good to talk to me, even though he didn’t know me.
He explained the situation and I asked him a question I ask sometimes in that context. I said, “Neal are you ready to die?” He was quiet for a bit.
Then he said, “Christmas eve 1945, I was stationed in Japan. We were tasked with bringing nationals back to the mainland in Japan from the out islands they’d escaped to in order to dodge the war. It was below freezing and a terrific storm had kicked up. Our boat was overfilled with people and the waves got bigger and bigger. We were headed straight into the waves and they were so big that the bow of the boat was out of the water for a couple long seconds with each wave. You could see the bow bend. We had a couple hundred people on board and I was on deck the whole night, watching that bow come out of the water with each wave.
Those boats weren’t made of cast iron like a destroyer. They were just sheets of metal welded together. I kept watching those welds hour after hour, just waiting for them to come apart and the boat to just collapse into the freezing sea. I was sure we were all going to die.
Just before dawn the seas suddenly died down and the storm was over. We sailed into Tokyo bay at dawn, the first rays of light streaming over the city. Chuck, every day since then has been plus one…”
I said “Neal, have you ever told your kids that story?” He shook his head ‘no’. I said, “Neal, it is time.” What a great way to look at your life, really the only way spiritually to look at your life. The tragic and the comic, through boredom and exhilaration, it has all been a blessing. Be grateful.
It is true that we owe these veterans better health care than we are giving them at the moment. And it is true that even without a formal diagnosis of PTSD, we owe them our support because as far as I can tell, they are all changed by what they have been through. It is true that we need to work hard to avoid being sucked into wars in the future because the human cost is just so great.
But perhaps the greatest honor that we can pay the is to live lives of grateful normalcy, to love our families and to live in reconciliation and joy, to drink in all the vital things that life has to offer, to keep alive the spiritual wonder that we are here. Our thanks is to pass that blessing forward and to live in freedom and fulfillment. We can’t repay them and they don’t want us to. This will be enough.