They're Truly a Great Generation
Over Thanksgiving weekend, for at least the third time, I watched a marathon showing of "Band of Brothers," the 2001 epic HBO series by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
It brings to life author Stephen Ambrose's account of the 101st Airborne's Easy Company's wartime fortunes from basic training in Georgia through the Allied invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the war's end in Germany. The late Carwood Lipton, of Southern Pines, is dramatically depicted on screen.
Even if the series weren't a masterpiece of gritty realism that reminds us of the major sacrifice millions of Americans in uniform -- and their families -- made during the Second World War, I would be inclined to watch the film simply because it draws me closer to my own soldier father.
He went into Normandy on the second wave at D-Day to rebuild telephone communications. He wound up running a German POW camp near the Belgian border, narrowly avoiding getting caught in the Battle of the Bulge.
During a golf trip to Britain in late 1994, just after the 50th-anniversary observances of Operation Overlord and shortly before his own passing, he shared with me several powerful untold stories that I later wove into a book called "Final Rounds." The effect of these harrowing tales was to help me feel much closer than I ever had to one of the seminal events of American history.
After my book was published, I heard from a stream of World War II veterans who felt compelled to share their own moving -- and often previously untold -- war stories, including several men who served in my dad's old Lancashire-based flight squadron of the 9th Army Air Corps. Though letters still come on a fairly regular basis, over the past few years the veterans' voices have pretty much fallen silent for obvious reasons.
Time waits for no man or woman. More than 16 million men and women served the Armed Forces of this nation during the Second World War. Today, though, it's estimated that 1,700 members of the Greatest Generation pass away every day.
Change of Wedding Plans
For this reason alone, I ventured out to Belle Meade twice this past week to meet some special folks who reconnect us with some of our most important history.
The first was Ruth Stevens, who just turned 94 on Nov. 17 and has another important anniversary coming up on Dec. 19.
Sixty-eight years ago tomorrow, on December 7, 1941, her engagement announcement to Bill Stevens appeared in the Sunday-morning edition of The Birmingham News. Ruth Keener was a graduate of Birmingham Southern College and a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Jefferson County. Her fianc, Bill Stevens, had completed his masters in psychology at Vanderbilt University and signed up to do his military service. They planned to get married in June of 1945 -- a big church wedding in Birmingham.
But the Japanese altered that plan on the very day their engagement appeared in the paper.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Ruth told me with a lively twinkle in her eye as we sat down in a corner of the Belle Meade lobby. "In the morning, we were all so excited about the announcement. By the next day and with news of Pearl Harbor, however, we were suddenly a country at war and Bill was being ordered to report for duty at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. So we pushed the whole thing up. A little over a week later, we had the wedding ceremony at the church in Birmingham and boarded a train for Southern Pines."
They spent their first honeymoon night at the Jefferson Inn on New Hampshire Avenue. The next morning, Bill caught a bus over to Fort Bragg to report for duty and collect some clean Army duds. He was almost prevented by his commanding officer from returning to see his bride.
"Somehow he convinced the man to let him come back for one night to Southern Pines," Ruth said. "After that, we said our goodbyes. It was very hard -- but something many others were having to do at that moment. Bill went back to the base, and I caught a train home to be with my family for Christmas. All that was missing was my new husband."
Because of his advanced training in psychology, Bill Stevens was given a lieutenant's commission and sent to work as a psychological administrator at an Army Air Corps base in California. Ruth and her mother followed in a car. "Among other things, I learned it's a long drive just to get across Texas," Ruth quipped. "Thank goodness my mother went along for ride."
Bill's specialty was administering psychological screening to trainee pilots, navigators and other potential command officers. "During the first half of the war his job was to evaluate airmen and place them in the right job," Ruth remembers. "Everyone wanted to be a pilot, the glamorous job. But not everyone was mentally suited for that task. I remember how Bill used to say the toughest job was to convince a bright young man that he would be far better suited to be a navigator or a bombardier."
During the second half of the war, Steven served at military hospitals in Maryland and Ohio, where he mentally evaluated wounded soldiers and counseled others returning to civilian life.
"That was even more difficult work for him," Ruth remembered. "So many of them had been through such terrible ordeals. It's very much like now -- with all of these young people returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. But Bill was so dedicated to his work. He worked hard to help soldiers find their way back to a normal life."
After the war, Bill Stevens went to work for a national psychological testing firm that, among other things, developed psychological testing protocols for Xerox, IBM and various other American corporations. Bill and Ruth went on to have two sons, two grandsons and three great-grandchildren.
In 1982, the couple retired to Sanford and became heavily involved with the historic Temple Theatre, helping to revive the theater's acting company and raise funds for the theater's restoration. Today, a portrait of Bill and Ruth hangs in the Temple's lobby in tribute to their efforts.
"Name a show," says Ruth, "and we probably put it on. Bill had always loved little theater, and I got drawn in to make costumes when I decided I couldn't just sit home while he was out rehearsing three nights a week."
In 1999, the couple moved to Belle Meade. Bill's health was rapidly declining. He moved into the facility's health center, she into an apartment. Days after they moved in, with his family gathered around for Father's Day observance, Bill Stevens opened a few presents and asked to rest before he opened more. He passed away early the following morning.
"It occurred to me not long ago that our married life really began and ended in Southern Pines, which is such a dear little town," Ruth observed. "There were a lot of wonderful memories between the time we left here and returned, including the end of the war. I think that war shaped so many of our lives."
Keeping Memories Alive
Ruth's message was powerfully underscored Thursday morning when I went back to Belle Meade to watch a special presentation on the war by eight veterans and a group of history students from Southern Lee High School who had prepared their version of a wartime USO show.
The program was the brainchild of Belle Meade resident and WWII veteran George James and history teacher and Presbyterian minister Bill Bivans, whose own son is presently serving in Iraq.
"We started this five years ago in an attempt to keep these memories alive and connect young people to things that really took place," explained George. "It's perhaps hard to believe, but a number of history teachers these days actually choose not to teach the Second World War to their students. That seems like a tragedy to those of who understand what was achieved and sacrificed in that war."
Between breaks for jitterbugging and apple juice, veterans told some of their stories to the students and perhaps a dozen other residents who stopped by to be reminded of that special time in their lives.
Bud McManus told of towing troop gliders in his C-47 into the gloom over the Cherbourg Peninsula in the early hours of D-Day, with tracers and flak exploding all around him.
Bill Hailey shared his remarkable experience of having two different ships torpedoed out from under him -- and encountering a compassionate U-boat captain who altered his view of the German people.
Bob Levin was captured after a harrowing two-day battle on the banks of the Rapido River in Italy. He spent the rest of the war in a string of German POW camps, foraging for scraps of food.
John Brown was a navigator on a B-24 in the 15th Air Force, flying dangerous bombing missions over Austria, Romania, France and Germany. He talked of seeing planes carrying comrades he had breakfast with that morning simply disintegrate when the 400-pound fragmentation bombs they were carrying were hit by enemy ground fire.
"Were you scared?" one of the female students asked incredulously.
"Of course," Brown answered. "But we were 19 and too young to realize how scared we were."
Dorothy Baker offered poignant memories of serving as a nurse on troop ships carrying wounded soldiers home, and told how she even met her husband, Horace, on one such ship.
Finally, Pat Matson talked about the effects on the home front -- the rationing of gas and rubber goods and the interminable waiting for news from the battlefields of the largest war in human history.
"The important thing I hope my students take away from this," said Bill Bivans, who pastors Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, "is the legacy these remarkable people have passed along to us. We're keepers of their stories. Some of them will soon be gone. But I hope that hearing these stories from the people who really lived the experiences will have a real impact on their understanding of the world."
Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor day, a day that shaped all our lives.
This week, I was grateful to be reminded of this by George, John, Dorothy, Pat, Bob, Bill and Bud -- and by a wise teacher and his jitterbugging history students.
Not to mention by a couple of newlyweds who began and ended their married life in such a dear little town we call home.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, editor of PineStraw magazine and regular contributor to The Pilot, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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