By Colleen Thompson
“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” — President John F. Kennedy, October 1963.
They were just teenagers once. They signed up or simply ran away to serve their country, knowing little of what lay before them 75 years later, the men and women who once fought in World War II are mostly in their 90s, and time is running out.
Every soldier has a good story, even if they say they don’t. Unless we record and document them, the voices of the “Greatest Generation” will go silent, and we will have missed an extraordinary opportunity.
Becky Grogan, marketing coordinator for Plantation Village, a nonprofit Life Plan Community in Porters Neck, Wilmington felt compelled to do something about this. Since 2013, she has been documenting the stories of 28 surviving veterans, which have culminated in a book in conjunction with author Kevin Maurer. Titled Answering the Call, a Story of Everyday Valor, this limited-edition, 64-page, archival hardcover book recounts their stories and pays tribute to their memories.
“When I saw how many WWII Veterans we had in 2013 (58 at that time), I really wanted to get their stories down on paper. The experiences that people were telling me just blew me away,” said Grogan. “I love history and I hate to see these personal experiences lost. It took me a few years to get the project off the ground, and then by that time, we were down to 28.”
Wilmington author Kevin Maurer has covered the military for over ten years and documented the stories of soldiers, including in his bestselling book “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden.” In 2003, he followed the 82nd Airborne Division during the initial invasion of Iraq. He returned to cover the soldiers more than a dozen times, most recently in 2010 when he spent ten weeks with a Special Forces team in Afghanistan. When Grogan approached Maurer to do the book, it was a natural fit for an author who sees the same thread that runs through all soldiers.
“WWII vets remind me a lot of the men fighting now. They both have the same ideas flowing through their minds. A sense of patriotism at first, but that goes away when the shooting starts. Then it’s about doing your job and being there for the men to your left and right,” says Maurer. “That is how this book says more than others do about WWII. This is a book about the little moments. It puts a human face on a generation of soldiers put on a pedestal.”
The book gives readers a glimpse of another time and place for these remarkable veterans living within our community that is both personal and touching.
“I learned to see these people as they were during that time of their lives. It gave me a totally different perspective on them. I see them in the community everyday—they are in their 90s, but now I can picture them as they once were, and it makes them more human to me.”
Al Newsom, a longtime resident at Plantation Village, never stopped talking about the war and how it changed his life. He would make himself comfortable in Grogan’s office recounting his stories which were fortunately documented before he passed away in July at the age of 94.
“When I went overseas in World War II I didn’t expect to come home, but I did. Most guys, it seemed like about 50 percent of them, didn’t get back. It may not have been that bad, but I went over there and said, “I’m probably not coming back.” You just went to go do your job. So, you just sort of did it—when it was your time to fly, you flew, right?”
Al Newsom, US Army Air Corps
“I have some medals—regular combat medals, occupation medals and things like that. I don't know where they are. They’re in the house somewhere. I had fun with the guys I worked and fought with, but it was strictly business. We were just doing our jobs over there.”
Ed Hawkins, US Army Air Corps
For Maurer, the book highlights the fact that you don’t always have to go into harm’s way to do your duty. These men and women did their part to help build not only a better nation, but also a better world. “Because so many of our WWII vets have passed on, the book looks more closely at the last generation that joined towards the end of the war,” says Maurer. “It was interesting to hear their stories about wanting to join and their eagerness to get into combat. Many didn’t make it back before the war ended, but their stories are valuable because they offer a rare picture of an America united, something that feels so far away in our current age.”
Among the 28 veterans, Susan Hollister stands alone as the only woman featured in the book. “Susan is truly inspirational. She didn’t speak English until she was six; she’s from a farm family and had it not been for her decision to become a WAVE, she probably would have stayed in her hometown,” explains Grogan. “Instead, after the war using the GI Bill she got her Business Degree and worked in NYC. She went straight from Washington DC up to Columbia University—she never went home. She will turn 98 in December and is still going strong.”
For a farm girl from Scranton to have the adventure of the training in the Navy, then being stationed in Washington, D.C. with 30,000 other women and finally going to Columbia University and getting my business degree. I just loved it!
Susan Hollister, US Navy
We owe a great deal to the men and women who fought during WWII, and it is sad to think that within a few short years there will be no one left to recount firsthand the stories associated with this time. This is why it is incumbent upon each of us to make sure we take the opportunity we have right now; to capture these memories so they can be passed down to future generations and not be lost to the sands of time.