As I find myself back to the grind after a week off, there is some unfinished business that needs some attention. For Spring Break, my family (wife, daughter, and myself) flew out to Mesa, Arizona to spend some time visiting my in-laws and playing some golf. While Arizona promises a great deal of sun and warmth that you just can’t get in Michigan, for the history student it also offers countless volumes of oral history due to the significant 70-and-older population that reside there.
Near the end of our stay, it was brought to my attention that the landlord of the condo that my in-laws were renting was a veteran of World War II and that he would love the opportunity to talk with me about his memories from that era. So Friday afternoon I spent about two hours talking with Carl Backes.
Carl owns several apartments within Casa de Paz, a small complex of old army barracks-turned-condos in Mesa, Arizona. Carl is 98 years old and looks about 70; the only thing slowing him down is the need to use a walker. His memory is sharp, and his wit is still on target.
The reason why I visited was because of his willingness, even eagerness, to share about his time in the service during World War II. As a history teacher and, consequently, a student of history I was interested in what he had to offer. It seemed an opportunity to gain perspectives on the historical contexts in the era before during and after WWII. I perceived the exchange as being very one-directional, but he offered more appreciation than I expected. The exchange, therefore, was indeed two-way. The full interview is below, uncut.
What was I hoping for from this “interview”? I went with the expectation that Carl would help me greater understand how we remember WWII. This exploration is not my own. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of listening to John Bodnar, an historian from Indiana University and author of The ‘Good War’ in American Memory. He spoke at a celebratory dinner marking the completion of a Teaching American History grant received and administered by the Battle Creek Schools Consortium. That evening Bodnar described the essence of his book and defined for us how America as a culture has collectively stored one of the greatest eras in our history.
The general idea that he suggests is that there are two general “memories” of WWII. The first originates from the heroic and honorable storytelling of sources such as Tom Brokaw (The Greatest Generation) and Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers). The work of these authors promote the view that WWII was necessary, morally justified, and elevated American society above the cruelty of the world. The alternative “memory” is rather different and originates from the veterans themselves and is perpetuated by their families. The consensus among that contingency is that the war was horrifying and the events within could never be justified for any reason. What comes of it is a deep mistrust of authority and a disbelief of what is “sold” to the public. This cynicism is evidenced in novels by Kurt Vonnegut and James Jones, both of whom served during WWII.
John Bodnar suggests that as the generation WWII veterans are becoming fewer and farther between, our collective memory is shifting more heavily toward the first, honorable view that has made successful movies out of Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers. I intended to frame my conversation with Carl around understanding the existence of these conflicting memories according to Bodnar’s assertions.
Carl never saw combat. His initial assignment was as quartermaster because of his experience with management of supplies. However, he was pulled from basic training after the commanding officer of his company learned he could read, write, and speak German. Carl described how his mother was Austrian and came to America with her sister for an education and settled in Chicago. He was ordered to pack up his foot locker and report to Alabama where he would finish basic training as an officer. He would serve as 2nd Lieutenant of Camp Opelika (Opelika, Alabama) and oversee 4,000 prisoners of war, mostly German, from 1942 to the end of the war. His service ended with the war, and he laughingly declares his status as “decommissioned” because as far as he knows he can still be called into service at 98.
His insight into the collective responses and reaction to America’s involvement in WWII echoed as brilliantly in Carl’s memory as Roosevelt’s enunciation of “I hate war…”, which Carl says he can still hear. This phrase was spoken as early as 1936, and was repeated several times as FDR promised America that he would work to keep the U.S. out of war, while urging Americans toward the maintenance of a prepared and defensive posture. Carl also recalled listening to the radio address that President Truman offered on August 6, 1945 announcing the use of the first of what would be two atomic bombs against Japan. Carl recalled the following phrase from this address to be rather vulgar and unnecessary: “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold.” He understood then that the comment was an expression of vengeance and it fell upon his ears as unreflective of how most Americans felt. As he recalled WWII and specific items, Carl offered suggestions toward his greater perspective.
Carl made a few comments that provide some insight into the dueling perspectives from our collective recollection of WWII. He shared that while most American’s supported the war in actions, behaviors, and sacrifices, most did not want to go to war – even after December 7. Carl alluded to the massive efforts that American’s engaged in toward the production and end of the war and the consensus that all Americans felt a sense of duty toward their supportive actions.
What was clear, however, was that Carl did not share in the cynical, distrusting perspective that Bodnar suggests veterans to have from the era. When asked how things changed as a result of the war, he shared that the most remarkable part of the war was its galvanizing effect. He asserted that no one today could ever “fathom the enormity of the situation” and he agreed with Brokaw’s retelling of the “greatest generation” and how it took “dedication, and honor, and trust, and feeling to end that darn war.” He told me that he has spoken to several veterans and of those who fired weapons or took part in the fighting most refuse to speak about it. He mentioned his conversations with a veteran who was among the 60,000 captured at Bataan during the early losses incurred to the Japanese in the Philippines. This gentleman will tell you everything he did as a navy mop-man after he was rescued, but nothing from before.
After listening to the interview with Carl, and going through parts of the conversation, I’m left to wonder why these perspectives exist. Does Carl differ because he never saw combat? Are we at risk of losing a critical mass of our collective memory as silent veterans pass away? Prior to my next visit, I aim to read Bodnar’s book, as well as Brokaw, in order to prepare myself for other visits with WWII veterans. There’s too much at stake to allow “the greatest generation” to pass without illuminating the WWII era.