About 14 years ago I was on vacation with two friends when I first heard about the 11th Armored Division–the men who liberated Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps.
So intrigued by the history of these men, I wrote two novels about them, From Dust and Ashes and Night Song. In the course of writing these books, I attended two of their WWII reunions. I interviewed them, looked through their photo albums and cried with them as they shared their experiences about being young kids fighting a big war. A few years ago I got to see many of my veteran friends again as I attended their 68th, and last, reunion.
I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to go.
Walking into the hotel and seeing the men in their 11th Armored caps brought tears to my eyes. I know their history. After being with them, I understand their friendship. I know that although they looked weak and feeble they were once young and very brave. Actually, they are still brave. Many traveled to their last reunion despite their failing health. Others came knowing that many of their friends were now gone. They came and confronted painful memories. I saw glances of knowing as they looked at each other across the room. Only their friends there could truly understand, having experienced what they did, too.
Many people label these men and women as the greatest generation.
I was reminded again how true that statement is. They were raised in a time when the United States was a Christian nation. They have lived lives dedicated to God, country and others. After the war, their hard work didn’t end. They came back and attended school, started businesses, and created a foundation of community for their children and grandchildren. Some of the men, in their 80s and 90s, still work and give. They know they could have lost their lives on foreign soil, and they don’t waste a day wishing the world was different. They know WE are the difference.
At the reunion, I spent time with wives too. I talked to some of the women who were home during the war. One woman talked about being in high school and every week seeing a flag at half-mast … knowing that they’d lost yet another young man from their community. The women cared for our country during the war. They raised families afterward. And some of them now physically care for the men they promised to love in sickness and in health. For most, those years of health have passed, but their dedication and love hasn’t.
I interviewed these veterans again. I spoke to some who attend the reunion for the first time in 30 or 40 years. Knowing it was the last one they had to come and say their final goodbyes. I talked to men who drove tanks, who fought from foxholes, who supplied the troops with fuel and ammunition, who cooked on the front lines. Their faces may fade in my mind over time, but their stories will always be with me.
I have to admit that tears are flowing down on face as I write this.
First, because there were many of my veteran friends who didn’t make it to this reunion. Arthur, Charlie, Roy, Pete, John … you were missed. You are remembered. But I’m also thankful I got to sit by Bert and hear his stories again. I’m thankful that Tony was around watching out for me. I’m thankful for the hugs I got from LeRoy and that I danced with Darryl. I’m thankful for talking to Chet and Phyllis and so many more.
I’m also crying because I’m so grateful for the opportunity to know this men. My own grandfather died before I had a chance to hear his stories. I missed out for sure, but God gave me 100 adopted grandfathers. I care for them and they care for me. When I walked among them I was appreciated. I gave voice to their inner memories. I brought their stories to life. And they do think of my novels as THEIR story. Each one feels the novels are about him. I love that. I want them to feel loved by the words on those pages.
They deserve to have their stories told correctly.
I can’t believe there will be no more reunions with these men. Tears come again when I realize I won’t see them again, this side of heaven. When I left the reunion that last day some still lingered in the hotel lobby. They had suitcases by their sides and a far-off look in their eyes.
They couldn’t believe it was the last reunion either, but they all decided it would be.
They’re getting too old to travel. They’re hoping their children and grandchildren will pick up where they left off. Will still meet and remember.
The last moment of my time with them was spent saying goodbyes. One of the guys I had the hardest time saying goodbye to was Tony. He grew up in New York and told me about getting care packages from his mom during the war. “I’d open the box and it would be filled salami and cheese,” he’d say with a chuckle. Tony is New York though and though, but his tough exterior crumbled on the last day.
“This doesn’t seem right it being the last one,” Tony said in our last moment together. There were tears in his eyes.
“I know Tony, it doesn’t.” I gave him a hug. “But I’ll keep writing stories. I’ll keep telling people to remember.” Hearing those words seemed to give him a little peace.
As he hurried over to the shuttle, loading up for the plane ride home, I said a prayer for thankfulness. I don’t know what I deserved to be honored to get to know these men, but I’m forever grateful.
My heart is full with gratitude for the World War II generation. Thank you God, that a generation with such a rich strength of character preceded my own and future generations. May we never stop sharing our stories.