Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Quietest Generation: Yellowed World War II Records Vividly Show Valor That Veterans Concealed

This is such an interesting story.

At the New York Times, "Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why":
NEW ORLEANS — All his life, Joseph Griesser hungered to hear the story of his father’s Army service in World War II.

What he had were vague outlines: that Lt. Frank Griesser had splashed onto Omaha Beach on D-Day; that his lifelong pronounced limp had come from an artillery blast. But the details? They remained largely unspoken until the day his father died in 1999, leaving Mr. Griesser wishing he knew more.

“He never talked about it; I just knew he was injured in the war,” said Mr. Griesser, who lives in Stone Harbor, N.J. “We went to see the movie ‘The Longest Day’ together, but that was pretty much the extent of our conversation about the war. I think he just wanted to put it behind him.”

Many of the Americans who fought to crush the Axis in World War II came home feeling the same way — so many, in fact, that those lauded as the Greatest Generation might just as easily be called the Quietest.

Where did they serve? What did they do and see? Spouses and children often learned not to ask. And by now, most no longer have the chance: Fewer than 3 percent of the 16 million American veterans of the war are still alive, and all are in their 90s or beyond.

But that has not kept their children and grandchildren from wanting to know their stories, especially as the 75th anniversaries of the D-Day invasion and the other triumphs of the war’s final year have neared. And a growing number of them are turning to experts to help glean what they can from cryptic, yellowed military records.

“We have people calling every day to try to find out about their fathers,” said Tanja Spitzer, a researcher at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “They regret that they didn’t do anything when their parents were alive. We get a lot of apologizing about it. For them, it is very emotional.”

Ms. Spitzer tells them it is not too late. Among the nation’s many staggering accomplishments in World War II were the billions of pages of personnel files that War Department and Navy clerks amassed to keep track of everyone in uniform. Most of those records still exist, stored in a climate-controlled facility in St. Louis by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The repository is immense, with enough boxes of files to stretch more than 545 miles. The boxes hold everything from the mundane, like payrolls and medical screening forms, to the heart-tugging: photos of young recruits, letters from worried mothers, medal citations. Researchers can use them to recreate the individual stories that many troops never told.

“We can tell a lot,” Ms. Spitzer said. “If you know what you are looking for, you can really create a full picture.”

Responding to the growing interest, the museum created a research team this year focused solely on piecing together profiles of veterans from the archives, joining an array of military historians-for-hire who work with families like the Griessers.

“It’s a lot of sons and daughters, wishing they had the conversations that were too painful to have when their fathers were still alive,” said William Beigel, an independent historian in Redondo Beach, Calif., who has been researching World War II veterans for 20 years. He said demand has been surging as the ranks of living veterans have dwindled, and he now gets as many as 25 requests a day.


Dolores Milhous remembers her father, Lt. James E. Robinson Jr., only as the tall man who came through the screen door and hoisted her onto his shoulders shortly before he shipped out. When he was killed in combat in the spring of 1945, she was 2 years old.

“Mother always talked about him,” said Ms. Milhous, 76, who lives in Dallas. “But there was so much I didn’t know — things I wished I asked before Mother passed away, but I hesitated because it made her so sad.”

Knowing that the memory of her father would only erode further as it was passed down to her five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, she asked the museum researchers to look for his file.

They returned with a stack of 240 partially burned pages from the archive, detailing a stunning story she had known in outline but not detail: Her father, a slight 25-year-old with a slim mustache and a Texas accent, had turned the tide in a battle involving thousands of men, and was posthumously awarded the military’s highest award for heroism, the Medal of Honor.