Roy Exum: A Child Of World War II

Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I am a child of World War II. Actually, I was born four years after the Japanese surrender – the 75th anniversary of which will be celebrated this summer – but in my formative years I can very distinctly remember sitting on the floor of DeSales Harrison’s family room at the foot of Lookout Mountain’s East Brow Road and holding the Gendaito (a type of Samurai sword) that ‘Dee’ accepted on the deck of the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. That was the day Japan’s total surrender ended World War II and some years later Mr. Harrison was told the Japanese officer committed ‘harikari,’ a noble form of suicide in order to restore honor to their family name.

Further, I went to elementary school with sweet Mary Navarre and, in her house on West Brow Road, her dad Carl had a picture of General Douglas McArthur very famously striding through the surf on prominent display in the family’s Florida Room. The man to the General’s right, also walking through the water and also clenching a corncob pipe in his mouth, was Carl Navarre … on par with “Dee” when it came to telling wide-eyed little boys the best (true) stories ever.

[QUICK ASIDE: When I was about 30 years old and nothing save printer’s ink coursed through my veins, “Uncle Carl” called me late one afternoon and asked me to come to the house to meet a friend of his. Are you kidding me? I was on my way out the door before I hung up the phone. “Roy, thank you for coming! A friend of mine and I just bought the Coca-Cola rights to Israel … please meet …” and as Carl spoke, the swivel chair in front of me turned and a smiling man wearing an eye patch rose to shake my hand. Mr. Navarre never had to add, “Moshe Dayan,” the Israeli genius who captured the world’s heart in the “Six Day War” and easily one of the world’s greatest heroes of all time.)

[In my line of work, I’ve met thousands of important people – headline makers – and their presence is commonplace. I am now impressed by no one, for I know they laugh, cry, bleed, endure, and overcome like I do, be it on a bigger playing field, yet they are just like me. Defense Minister Dayan took away my breath and the words with it. I finally stammered that he was the greatest hero I had ever met. With the slightest hint of a smile, he pointed to the picture of Carl and General McArthur walking through the surf. The lump in my throat was mammoth. “Uncle Carl” laughed, jangled the ice cubes in his glass, and invited the two of us to his bar for “something refreshing.” Oh. My. Lord.]

Back to World War II: I loved Bill Hagan who had two gorgeous daughters on Robin Hood Trail. He jumped from a plane on D-Day, and had emptied two clips from his machine gun before his feet touched the ground. Some years later his grandson, Thomas ‘Doc’ Holiday, by then a Colonel in the country’s same Army, did a ceremonial and very personal jump at Normandy. And in the 25 years since my birth, I’ve rubbed shoulders with modest, kind men who witnessed the worst mankind could offer and in their return to peacetime, personally gave me so many examples to which I have tried to aspire.

I get on this bent after reading the most wonderful issue of “National Geographic” yesterday that I can ever remember. The June issue of my favorite “dream” book was in the morning mail and I was immediately drawn to the portrait of a very proud Lawrence Brooks on its cover. Mr. Brooks, one of 125,000 African-Americans who fought in World War II, is believed to be the oldest WWII veteran still alive at the age of 110. This month’s magazine centers on “The Last Voices of World War II” and, while I have reads thousands of stories on the valor of “Our Greatest Generation,” the magazine had two distinct qualities that were new to me. First, it included voices from Germany, Japan, Russia – others who were as deeply affected by the war in the identical eyes of our own GIs. The war was every bit as bad or worse, than it was for the Allies.

Secondly, it included a list of total casualties. For example, we know that approximately 96,000 Americans were killed defending our nation and that is generally believed correct. History books show  600,000 German soldiers were killed … but no,  if you include the civilians that were killed when the RAF bombers annihilated German cities at night, and the American bombers that devastated Germany’s industry by day, the real number of German civilians and military came at a far greater price – 5.1 million. In England 382,600 military died but add the air-raid sirens in London and across the British Commonwealth – 55,000 more. Real figures: In Europe from 1941 through 1945 the magazine revealed 43 million deaths directly related to World War II. The toll world-wide? 66 million civilians and fighters perished in the bloodiest conflict in history.

If I may, here are some excerpts of the voices from only a few of World War II’s remaining veterans and victims:

* * *


(Note: These excerpts are taken from the June, 2020, issue of National Geographic and it’s revered salute to ‘The Last Voices of World War II’. This Sept. 2, we will celebrate and give thanks to Almighty God, for the unconditional ‘Japanese Instrument of Surrender’ on the deck of the U.S.S. battleship, Missouri.)

* -- “We were sent to die for The Emperor and Imperial Nation, and everyone acted like we believed in it. But when the soldiers were dying, the young ones called out for their mothers and the older ones called out their children’s names. I never heard anyone calling the emperor or the nation.” Japanese veteran Nobuo Nishizaki

* -- “On the fear he felt only after landing his plane: When you see how many holes you have in your plane, or how the Messerschmitts attacked you, then you start to feel. If you feel nothing, then you are not human. And in the end, we are all human.” – Soviet pilot Yevsei Rudinsky.

* -- “I just want them to be remembered as good citizens, good Americans who felt duty-bound to join in protecting the country during time of need, even in the face of discrimination.” U.S. Airman Harry Steward Jr., who flew 43 combat missions in a P-51 Mustang with his Tuskegee Airman. On one mission he shot down three enemy fighter planes and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

* -- “If you were still there at age 23, you were an old man. If we let it bother us, it would destroy us,” Grammy Award-wining Eugene Polinsky, who flew clandestine missions over German-occupied France, Belgium, and Norway with “The Carpetbaggers.” In stripped-down b-24 Liberators, painted black, they would fly at tree-top heights and release parachute-laden supply containers upon a light signalled from the ground. Inside the containers would be part of a stunning 500 OSS agents, motorcycles, cash, weapons, bombs and materials for resistance fighters.

* -- “They told us, ‘If you are shot down, if they capture you, you will be shot as a spy … so don’t get shot down.’ Great advice.” OSS clandestine pilot Eugene Polinsky.

* -- “I figured it out later – my mother was giving me her rations as well.” Soon his mother was too weak to walk He remembers his aunt pulling his mother in a rag-filled sled with one hand and him with the other. When they reached his kindergarten, the 5-year-old remembered. “She had these big tears running down her face like streams, and I felt in my soul this was the last time I would see her.” he said his bite his aunt, trying to breaks away, but his mother called out, ‘Valya, go, go. I’ll get better and come pick you up.” Instead,” he said, “my kindergarten became my first orphanage.” --- Leningrad survivor Valentin Shorin.

* -- “I have had, in my life, whole squadrons of angels looking after me, there is no other way to explain it.” After having eight tanks shot out from under him, and leading a German tank company before he reached the age of 20, he was later assigned to guide Hitler through a district in Poland. “As he followed Hitler into an assembly hall, he fingered the pistol he wore on his side. “I thought, ‘You’ve been given another chance at life. Do this and you will surely die .. and they wil kill your whole family.” –German officer Hans-Erdmann Schonbeck, who would later become the head of the German Automotive Industry Association. “I lived. I made it. I wasn’t going to waste that.”

* -- Desperate with hunger, Waltraud Pless, found herself following a farmer’s cart and, as potatos would bounce out on the rutty road, she would gather them in her skirt to take back to her family. Soon she found herself in an unfamiliar field far from home. “That’s when a Russian soldier grabbed me and raped me.”  She ran home to tell her mother and her screams were met with silence. “I was nine years old. The war wasn’t my fault.” – Waltraud Pless, German survivor.

* -- “A young Russian soldier came out of the bushes … without weapons, already bandaged, injured. He must have been completely lost. I would have said, ‘Go back! Get out of here!’ But an older soldier pulled out his gun and shot him. That was against all of my ideas of surrender … but these are the horrors of war, which turns humans into monsters.” – German veteran Wolfgang Brockmann.

* -- “I came across Marines, sitting on the ground, hands to their faces, sobbing their hearts out,” -- a fellow Marine at Iwo Jima.

* * *

I can only hope the June issue of National Geographic will become a book ... a textbook for students in every language ... that will be read around the world.

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