Editor's note: Bill Mayer is the contributing editor for the Journal-World. He saw combat as a 20-year-old B-24 navigator with the Army Air Corps in the final five months of World War II in Europe. This is the last in a series of three articles by Mayer regarding Ken Burns' "The War."
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
John Milton never knew about the standing, waiting, fear, dread and heartbreak of Americans "at home" trying to get through World War II while friends and loved ones saw military service. But nothing better describes the tests of patience and courage on the home front than that Milton sentence. It is echoed time and again in "The War," the epic 15-hour television series by Ken Burns that concludes tonight on public television.
Those who tried so hard to provide support for U.S. warriors did as much as many battlers on the front lines to produce victory.
Douglas County and Lawrence lost some 110 in a war that killed 407,000 out of the 16 million Americans in uniform from 1941 through 1945. About 1,300 from Douglas County served.
Of particular note are the local families who stood and waited and grasped at anything they could learn about what was happening and where their children might be. Such uncertainty was not as painful as receiving one of those grim telegrams about a death, but it all took a heavy toll, as in the case of John and Hattie Roper Kennedy of Lawrence.
The Kennedys had four sons in major combat at one time - Max, a fighter pilot serving in the treacherous Aleutians; Richard, with the 9th Armored Division driving the last half-track into Remagen, Germany; Bernard, an infantryman who was left for dead, by friends, as part of the Battle of the Bulge; and Joe, a bomber tail-gunner who was shot down and eventually brought out of enemy territory by the French underground.
They're all gone now, but they all came home.
Max was active in the sports scene as a golfer and golf coach and died in a freak accident on a golf course. Richard was the man who gave us Kennedy Glass. Joe wound up as a pit boss in Las Vegas. Bernard was found after his group had moved on and later was discovered, barely alive, by happenstance. Combat mates were aghast upon learning they had left him, thinking he was dead.
You want to guess what the family back here was going through?
"Every single night," says Jackie Kennedy, Max's widow, "Hattie would sit down and write about the day's events in letters to each of her boys. She would bundle them up and at the end of the week she would send them.
"It was all hand-done ... no typewriter or carbons, no copying machines, just heart-and-soul contact with her beloved sons."
Ken Burns' often-grim, always graphic and generally unsettling television series mentions things like this and the examples are inspirational, American warts and all. But there is nothing quite like Hattie's devotion and dedication.
"I'm taping all of the series and I'm going to chain my grandkids to the television set to get them better acquainted with where they came from and what a price everyone paid to win that war," says Jackie Kennedy. "It's all so indescribable and even if you lived through it, you learn countless things you never even heard of."
The evidence is that Douglas County had as many as 10 families who at one time or other had four sons or three sons and a daughter in service.
The farm family of Myrtle and Corbin Penny had four sons "doing the impossible" and trying to get home. They were James on a destroyer, William on an ice-breaker, Lowell as a Navy officer and Lawrence (Mike) in European action. Mr. and Mrs. Roy McClure had Bruce, Earl, Lauren and Merle on duty.
Families cringed at the news that the five Sullivan brothers in Iowa were lost in a single Navy disaster and agonized at the prospect of deaths and injuries for their loved ones. The Sullivan tragedy was part of the inspiration for the "Saving Private Ryan" film.
Ruth Elbrader of Lawrence, now 88 and still as sharp as a laser razor, gave the full measure of devotion as an Army nurse from 1941-46. She later was a nurse as Haskell Institute when it was a high school. A lot of her actions in combat zone field hospitals would match or top those of fictional "M*A*S*H" episodes.
Ruth reached the status of "registered nurse" in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1941 and admits she was bored. The Red Cross began a recruitment of nurses, so she joined the Army and the next day was a second lieutenant. In all, some 60,000 served as wartime nurses, not so many considering the demands on so many fronts.
Ruth Elbrader saw plenty of stateside service and in 1943 married Army Lt. Thomas Leone. He was killed in Belgium, where Ruth saved a number of lives. She vowed to do all she could.
"We were often moved close to the battlefront in Europe after arriving for duty on the continent 21 days after D-Day, 1944," Ruth says. "I happened to be with a group that dealt with the 'chest and belly' injuries that required treatment and brief rehab before they could even be put on ambulances and taken to safety. It was one big challenge after another. I encountered some supremely gallant and courageous people who worked miracles for so many of those guys."
In 1945, she became Mrs. Lt. William Elbrader. He was a Topeka-Grantville native who had seen service in Alaska. They settled here 46 years ago. Bill died 13 years ago.
"It's been quite a ride," Ruth says with a chuckle. "Right now, about all I do is put out the flag every morning and play a lot of bridge. The television series on 'The War' is magnificent and I only hope a lot of people see it, think about it and appreciate what we did and why we had to do it."
Misery to go around
As for planning and expediency, Gen. George Patton said that "the best plan in the world is only good until the first shot is fired. Then you do the best you can with what you've got and make somebody else suffer for your misery."
It happened everywhere, America, Britain, Russia, Japan, Germany: bad decisions, miserable leadership, thoughtless brutality, unconscionable racism - everyone had a hand in it and the overall picture of "The War" is not pretty despite the Allied victory.
As one observer described war, "It is an absolutely and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." But we had to go that way to win. Humans are supposed to be the only animal that knows it is going to die - maybe not when, but that thought is ingrained early. War has a way of bringing the end long before most prefer.
This TV production features Keith David as narrator and Geoffrey Ward as scriptwriter. The touching vocal on "American Anthem" by Norah Jones pays tremendous tribute to all who sacrificed.
But the Jones vocal is an honor for not only World War II people but also those in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the current Great Hate in and around Iraq.
Good people have paid and paid and paid to keep us afloat and, sadly, there is no end in sight despite the World War II effort that rates as the greatest cataclysm in the history of the world. As Burns keeps saying, there were no ordinary people, just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We must have more of such.
Quentin Aanenson, a P-47 fighter pilot from Minnesota, said he and some comrades were discussing what kind of salary would be justified for one day "for what we do." He says the first "fee" was $1,000 and it quickly escalated beyond $10,000, for one day's work. To which another pilot responded: "There is not enough money to pay for what we all do voluntarily."
Compensation? Nobody ever epitomized what means most to armed forces veterans than former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, himself a wounded combat veteran. Dole contends the best thing that ex-warriors can hear is, simply: "Thank you for your service."
There can be no price tag on that.