Veterans' stories reveal more than courage

Would the world be different if World War II veterans had shared their lessons more often?

The eight regulars at the United Methodist Men's Breakfast Club of Tiffin, Ohio, looked up from their plates as I, a female stranger, took a seat at their table.

I had been asked to join their weekly ritual that fall morning more than 10 years ago – a world before Sept. 11, 2001, a world before the US was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I was there as a minister on sabbatical who dabbled in history projects. I pulled a chair up to the table as he continued an assessment of a recent Cleveland Indians' baseball game. I sat, pretending to listen.

The retirees shared good-natured chuckles as the waitress brought coffee refills. I awkwardly tried to make eye contact with someone, anyone.

Between bites of pancakes, Pastor Gene, who had invited me, asked me to introduce myself.

The eight comrades turned and faced me. Finally, my opportunity. Nervously, I blurted out that I was visiting the area working on an intergenerational World War II oral history video program.

Blank stares.

"And Pastor Gene," I continued, quickening the pace, "suggested I come this morning and hear your ideas."

More stares. Someone scraped butter on his toast. Their silence embarrassed me. Why had I thought that these soldiers of the 1940s would want to share life-changing stories with a 30-something stranger whose generation thought war meant Vietnam?

Maybe invading their breakfast ritual wasn't such a good idea. But how could I escape? Then, from the other end of the table, a tall, long-faced man spoke.

"It's disheartening," he began, "that few youth today realize the significance of Pearl Harbor. They don't understand how the world changed on Dec. 7, 1941. That day, America woke up unprepared for war."

A heavyset man sporting a crew cut nodded.

Relieved to finally have a response, I blurted out: "Where did you serve?"

Without hesitation, they called out "England," "Italy," "the Philippines."

Slowly, as the men's confidence grew, stories flowed. They were young soldiers, they said, but old enough to fight. Midwestern boys plucked from their corn and wheat fields and replanted on foreign soil.

In strange lands, these boys clung to the familiar: duffel bags, GI tents, and the friendship of one another. Real soldiers, they discovered, were made not of boot-camp bragging, but by demonstrating courage in the battle fire that baptized them all as American soldiers.

Routines were established: nighttime shooting and daytime advances, capturing positions that Tokyo Rose claimed were lost. They knew of torture that buddies had endured at the hands of Axis powers. Would they return that treatment in kind? War was not all glory; choices were never easy.

In this alien environment, they depended on the ones left at home to remind them they were husbands, sons, sweethearts. Supply boats brought chatty "V-mail." Packages arrived stuffed with hometown newspapers and crushed homemade cookies.

The men eagerly wrote back, sharing as much as the censors would allow.

One man at the breakfast table explained that news of his first child's birth reached him as he served in Italy in 1942. His son was 17 months old when he met his war-weary father.

They talked now with ease about the physical, but I wondered about their spirits. "How was your faith shaped by the war?" I asked.

The man still wearing a soldier's crew cut confessed that in wartime, God sometimes seemed far away. He had returned to the States hoping to make sense of what he had seen. It led him back to the church. Several of his brethren nodded in agreement.

Suddenly, one of the men looked at his watch, pushed back his chair and said a quick goodbye.

A few others self-consciously glanced at their watches, aware of being consumed in long-lost memories. The watches, resting on tired arms, reminded them they were no longer young soldiers fighting in a foreign land.

The spell was broken. Once again, I was self-conscious about my age and inability to comprehend these profound experiences. How could I understand? There were more stories to be told, but not to me, not then.

All these boy soldiers had wanted was a happily-ever-after ending to their military service: a safe return home, an opportunity to make a good life for themselves.

Now breakfast was over, and Pastor Gene thanked me for coming. We all stood and exchanged warm goodbyes.

I left the restaurant with what I had come for – ideas for my project. But now, more than 10 years later, I wish I could talk with them again. This time, I would pull up a chair for a young woman in my church who's leaving after graduation for active duty. With her there, would the world's current events compel the once–hesitant storytellers to share with her what they had once held back?

Perhaps they would assure her that soldiers have always been young, scared, homesick, and proud to protect their country. Maybe they would offer a perspective of war that only they can understand.

I wonder how differently things might be if the breakfast-club veterans – and thousands of others like them – had been able to share their lessons more often, more easily. How different things might have been had we really listened to what they had to say.

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