Nearly three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, ripples from it continue to affect those who served, as well as society as a whole.
Veterans interviewed by Ohio History Connection for an oral history project talked about their experiences and “how they were extremely lucky that they got out of it, basically, in one piece,” said John Haas, manuscripts curator at Ohio History Connection. “And they’re very thankful for that.”
The veterans also say they miss those who didn’t come home — and Haas said almost every single one would say “Those are the real heroes.”
Findlay veteran Tom Daley, who served in the 8th Air Force 379th Bomb Group, spoke of those who didn’t come home.
“We lost 33,000 Air Force guys. … I was in a position where I could see a lot … to see these planes get hit and go down,” he said. “Nineteen-, 20-year-old guys, 22. It’s just sad. And the 33,000 guys were in that age group. And you wonder what the world would be like right now in the United States with all the guys that … died during the war … what the states would be like if all the guys lived.”
Walter Grunden, a history professor at Bowling Green State University, also oversaw a project in which students conducted oral histories with those who had experienced World War II. His students came back years later thanking him for the assignment. A student might say that their grandfather — who had since passed away — had never talked about the war in detail, but ended up sharing things their grandmother never knew.
Students were very interested in hearing about combat, “but that’s not usually what they got.” Interviewees instead wanted to talk about the camaraderie, about the people they served with.
Grunden said as he began the project, in the back of his mind was “a sense of urgency,” as we are losing so many of that generation.
Hancock County Veterans Services Office Executive Director Nichole Coleman’s grandfather served in the Navy during World War II, but never talked about his time in the service. She encouraged other veterans to share their stories — if not stories of combat, things like: “What ship were you on? What was your best friend’s name?”
She said the World War II generation, in particular, has in a sense chosen to put their experiences “in a box and tape it shut. … I would encourage them to share.” Even if it’s getting out the one picture you have of yourself in uniform, write down information about your dates of service and what your job was on the back, so your children and grandchildren can better connect with you, she said.
She said among veterans, “there is that instant connection, regardless of when we served.” Coleman, who served in the 1990s, said just as her generation looked up to Vietnam War veterans, she suspects the Vietnam War veterans looked up to those who served in World War II.
Coleman said veterans of all eras face a challenging transition, coming home from “brutal ugliness” to, perhaps, “a wife or a mother or a sister who they really love and want to be gentle with.” She said many World War II veterans traveled home on overcrowded ships, and people were seasick — but one thing they had going for them was that sailing home gave them more time to adjust than, for example, Vietnam War veterans, who could be home in civilian clothes 24 hours after leaving combat.
Soldiers see horrible things: atrocities, explosions, dead bodies.
“War changes everyone,” said Joy Bennett, curator/archivist at the Hancock Historical Museum. Many came home with post-traumatic stress disorder, although no one then understood what it was.
PTSD was considered a “very unmasculine thing,” Bennett said. And while it wasn’t like in World War I, when some of those dealing with this illness were shot as “cowards,” it was still looked down upon. Men might come home and be a little more removed from family life, or drink a bit more than they once did. And wives were unsure how to handle husbands “waking up and screaming at night.”
Local veterans spoke about how their time in the service shaped their personal lives, and in particular their friendships. Most stayed in touch afterward with the friends they made in the service.
Richard Robinette, who served in the Navy, said it reached a point where they knew one another’s families from meeting up at reunions, “and you could see their children grow up, and how they would change” over the years.
Veterans described their service as a significant time in their lives. Carl Gierke, for example, keeps memorabilia related to the war on display at his home.
“I have most of my uniform,” he said. “And I can get in it, with the top button only!”
Gierke’s wife, Helen, said “He gets a lot of respect from a lot of people. He wears his hat and gets a lot of respect. People come up and shake his hand and thank him for his service. And it means a lot to him.”
Grunden said people often ask how the war defined this generation. He chooses to turn the question around: “How did that generation define the war?”
They were of a different time. The generation “was not perfect and they would be the first to tell you.” But they survived the Depression and had a strong work ethic. When war came, they “braced for it,” Grunden said.
And, yes, some of these same qualities persist now that they’re in their 90s. Grunden said there’s a sense of gratitude, too, for every day after surviving the war.
Ron Ammons, the son and nephew of World War II veterans who interviewed local veterans for the “Heroes By Necessity” books, said he’d heard someone say that “the Greatest Generation may have been raised by a Greater Generation.” That is, those born around the 1890s faced hardship and, if they had five children, it was likely one wouldn’t survive childhood. That generation may have passed along a strong will and encouraged their children to have good morals and to do their duty, he said.
“They gave it all because they needed to give it all,” said Katherine Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, but they would likely make the point that they were “just ordinary people.” She said a gift of getting to know these veterans is realizing “they make mistakes and they are very human,” not “heroes on a pedestal.” And she said this may inspire others to realize that maybe they too — if pressed – can “stand up and do the right thing.”
Not only the veterans themselves, but the world as a whole changed as a result of World War II. Historians say much of the rest of the 20th century was shaped by what happened in this war.
Haas said the Cold War “was a direct result,” and the Korean War grew out of World War II.
University of Findlay history professor Mark Polelle said the Western world was unprepared for the cataclysm of World War II. And one reason World War III never happened is that we took lessons from World War II and the Cold War, he said.
Russ Crawford, history professor at Ohio Northern University, said there were “echoes of World War II” in the first Gulf War. That is, then-President George H.W. Bush, who had been a pilot in World War II, went into Kuwait in part because of the impulse, “don’t appease the dictators.”
The GI bill was passed during the war, in response to the lack of support that had been available for returning World War I veterans between the two wars, Haas said. So, after the war, thousands of veterans, men and women, went to college.
Bennett said the economy was “still booming” after the war, and American factories shifted from making items for the war to making other products. So “the ’50s was a time of consumerism,” she said.
Also the baby boom followed, shortly after the men returned home. More black Americans served in the military during World War II, albeit in segregated units. Polelle said this — along with the fact that the war was against Nazis but America had segregated drinking fountains — forced more Americans to ask some questions that led to the civil rights movement.
Bennett said feminism in the 1960s was also influenced by this era, as women “got a taste of what it was like to be equal” in World War II.
Robinette said he wishes young people today knew more about the war.
“I think a lot of kids coming out of school right now have no idea who we fought in World War II. … They don’t know history at all,” he said. “And I would hope they would teach that in school, you know? We fought the Germans. We fought the Japanese. But I don’t think they teach that anymore. At least we should know who — a lot of their great-grandparents died in that war. And they should know, you know, who it was and why it was.”
Veteran Ken Lentz, who was a prisoner of war in Germany, said he has told his story to children and “I think they should know about it, but I’m just not a public speaker.”
And Daley said, “The sad thing is to see all these guys dying off so quick, now, because of our age. I always said, in five years, we probably won’t be around. Might be.”
Both Daley and Lentz died this month.