Hear World War II veterans describe life and death
Serving from Iwo Jima to Normandy, the veterans in this audio-enhanced excerpt from "When We Went to War" describe wartime, life, death, courage and fear.
"When We Went to War" was published by The News-Gazette in 2001 to mark the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The book was based on two special sections produced in 1994 - marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day. For those sections, News-Gazette reporters, led by Greg Kline and Phil Bloomer, interviewed more than 200 veterans and others about their experiences overseas and at home.
We recorded most of the interviews, and here for the first time is an excerpt from the book with audio added to the quotes from the veterans. (If you have the book, this excerpt is from pages 24 and 25, in chapter 3.)
We've also added a couple more excerpts that are similar in theme, in which soldiers relate anecdotes about being at war. Those are at the end of this section.
The interviews were recorded on cassette tape, often in the homes of the veterans, and digitized some time later. The text leaves the ages of the men as they were when they were interviewed in 1994.
A hand stuck out from beneath the frozen bodies in the snow, a wedding ring on its index finger, and recently married William Baumgartner, an Army engineer, wondered.
“You wondered just what was going to be next,” the 72-year-old rural Sullivan man said of that moment in Belgium in December 1944, toward the end of the Battle of the Bulge.
“In fact, you just lived from day to day wondering. ... You saw scads of bodies in the forests and around tanks and on the tanks, bodies laying around in the fields.”
Donald Nelson said he well remembers wondering too – “why some of us lived and some of us died.”
“Some people said it was God’s will,” said Nelson, 72, of Champaign, who also served in Europe.
“But it wasn’t God’s will that Wally should die, and Bob and Don should live,” he said. “It’s chance. Bullets don’t have names on them. The Germans didn’t care. We were targets. They were targets. War is a dehumanizing experience.”
Soldiers dealt with that reality in different ways.
Training was part of it.
“They conditioned us,” said Elmer Beachey, 70, of Champaign, who recalled how an artillery shell shaved off the head of a fellow Marine who was bringing him a hot breakfast on Iwo Jima.
“We were so hard. … We could have seen our own parents shot, probably, and it wouldn’t have bothered us. That’s how hard they conditioned us.”
Experience hardened them further.
Death became so commonplace, according to Orrin Gould of Champaign, “it was natural.”
“You just knew it was gonna happen to them or you or both,” said Gould, who served in the infantry in France. “We really didn’t even bother to learn the names of the replacements right away because we were pretty sure they’d be killed in two or three days.”
Some just ignored the notion that it could happen to them.
“You never really think you’re gonna get it,” said Richard Squire, 69, of rural Champaign, a B-17 bomber pilot in Europe. “You always think the other guy might.”
Something else – call it peer pressure, esprit de corps, pride – also kept them going.
“You’d be ashamed to not do it,” said Denzil Dees, 79, of Urbana, an Army lieutenant at the invasion of Normandy. “Everybody else is doing it. I can do it. Nobody chickens out.”
Most of them also had the advantage of youth. Some figure they were sent precisely because they were young and resilient.
“They picked 18-, 19-year-old kids because we didn’t have the sense to get scared,” said Bill Koester, 70, of Tolono, noting that he couldn’t buy a beer in Washington after his stint as a B-17 gunner.
Frank Elliott said he felt “real fortunate” that he “was 19 years old instead of 29, 39, or 49” during the war.
“It was maybe not as devastating as it would have been,” said Elliott, 69, of Rantoul, a B-24 pilot who operated from Italy. “The death of a friend now, just a natural death, affects me more than somebody’s then.”
Not everyone, though, could deal with the fear and death.
“Some people cracked, these guys screaming and acting crazy,” Nelson said. “They’re the ones who got sent home. Maybe they were the smart ones. The rest of us who managed to keep the discipline had to go clear on through.”
We've included two anecdotes in full from the men who lived them. They are in the book in very brief form.
In the first, Elmer Beachey, who fought on Iwo Jima, recalls how picking one bomb crater over another made the difference between life and death.
And in the second, Donald Nelson recalls facing the enemy on a Sunday morning in Normandy.