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October 21, 2015

The Importance of Preserving Military Memories

by dianeshort2014

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day, more than 300 Vietnam veterans, more than 450 Korean War veterans, and more than 850 WWII veterans pass away due to old age, complications from exposure to Agent Orange, and other lasting consequences of war.

If we don’t capture their stories now, most of these veteran’s military service will go unrecorded, resulting in a tragic loss of our military history and the records of the sacrifices made by so many. Fortunately some members are doing something about it.

In the past couple of years a number of members have written about relatives who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. One was made into a Navy VOICES; the other an Army VOICES. Both were written by their sons who are themselves TWS members.

Army member Stephen Curlee wrote about his father, Navy officer LtJG Jack Curlee, who served aboard an LST during the invasion of Okinawa. Another was written by Air Force member Brad Crooks whose father Army 1st Sgt. Leonidas M Crooks served during many of the most important battles in Europe during World War II. Both recalled stories told them by their dads through the years and both did detailed interviews over the past few years knowing there wasn’t much time left.

Following the posting of Brad Crook detailed tribute to his father’s WW II service, Army TWS member, Tom Thompson send us an email on what it meant for him and wrote about his late Uncle Michael Strazanac who served in the Army during WW II.

Here is the insightful piece written by Tom Thompson to Brad Crooks

Thank you for sharing your dad’s experiences in your heartfelt tribute to his wartime memory. A nation of younger people who have never served, may not appreciate the sacrifices of our brave, patriotic “citizen soldiers” who answered our nation’s call of duty in the darkest days of World War II.

One only has to read what happened to nations that the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese conquered to appreciate what could, would have happened here. Your dad, along with millions of others, quite literally saved the world for us. When they came home, many did not speak of what they saw or what they did, especially out here in the stolid, rural Midwest. You are privileged to have had him share his experiences with you. I too feel fortunate to have had Uncle Michael Strazanac share with me some of his war history before passing on.

Uncle Mike served as a sergeant under General George S. Patton from France in June 1944 to May 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered and it was only a few years before he died in 2001 that he shared a few memories with me, also an Army veteran (1970-79).

I had assumed he was a ‘rah, rah parody’ of what most Vietnam-era vets assumed WW II vets to be. He was anything but and 50 plus years later he still remembered events vividly. He was also bitter about what he considered senseless death and what he felt were screw-ups “the brass made” trying to look good.

As I read what you wrote about your father coupled with my own experience listening to Uncle Mike, I realize they, and millions of combat veterans like them, shared a common untreated wound. I heard it best described in a color WW II documentary on PBS of troops coming home: elated to make it home they nevertheless brought with them “a well of bottomless sorrow” along with their victory over the Axis. The majority of returnees suffered this sorrow in silence.

Not surprising when one considers that the Army divisions Uncle Mike served in sometimes suffered 125% casualties from D-Day (June 6, 1944) to VE day (May 8, 1945). Since combat divisions are mostly made up of support troops not actually on the front lines, you get an idea of how deadly it was for the line companies and how traumatic such heavy losses were to witness. My uncle’s was hardly impervious from the experience.

My aunt said he suffered nightmares and depression for years. PTSD had not yet been discovered or labeled as such nor would he have admitted he had emotional issues. I suspect he would not have tolerated any treatment or being set out as being unusual or different – a Slavic trait my cousin has said.

I do know he considered the loss of the many American lives he witnessed as inexplicable and senseless. To appreciate the horrors and brutality of the European battlefields, I recommend the non-fiction book “Citizen Soldier” by Stephen Ambrose in which he describes the costly and fierce combat fought by the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany – June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945.

Uncle Mike had been in England for months in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy when he got into serious trouble. As I understand it, he was a very smart aleck 18-year-old kid and had angry words with an officer in his unit. Tensions were so high between the officer and my uncle, the possibility of his being sent to the stockade over trumped up charges was likely. Luckily another more level headed officer intervened and had Uncle Mike transferred to the 728th AFA (Armored Field Artillery) Battalion of self-propelled 105 howitzers. So he missed the Normandy landing, or most of it, and the horrors that followed when our inferior armor was chopped to pieces by Panzers and 88mm AT guns in the enclosed hedge groves and shooting galleries on the tight roads leading into France’s interior.

Toward the end of the war Uncle Mike was delighted to find his old unit was just down the road from where he was and excitedly hurried over to visit “the guys.” Imagine his shock and anguish when less than a year after he had transferred out from the unit he had spent a year training with, he discovered only one survivor in the unit who remembered him. The entire unit was virtually wiped out in a week or so in the hedgerows of Normandy shortly after the Normandy invasion. Imagine being that one survivor.

Unfortunately, his children, gifted, sensitive, educated professionals and academics, do not seem to understand the underlying nature of this often angry, driven, prickly man who not physically violent, just explosive and biting in hiscomments. (Photo is Uncle Mike with his oldest granddaughter Samantha less than a week before he died.)

When his disturbed daughter died by her own hand in the late 1970s, the tragedy tore at the heart of this devote Catholic that had already witnessed so much tragedy and devastation as a youngster. He could be very abrupt and rough. He was not a warm and fuzzy individual but I respected him and knew his heart was filled with kindness, just not milk and honey. Neither did I appreciate how deeply scared he was until shortly before he died.

I sometimes wonder if Uncle Mike considered the chance moments that let him survive the war, when the friends he trained with all died or were wounded and evacuated. He mentioned his fondness and bond with the men of his original unit. He described the training as a specialized armored commando as very rugged, “kill or be killed” and physically demanding. I suspect he really did appreciate the moment of serendipity that allowed him the opportunity to survive.

I know he was sickened by all the loss of life, but bore a strong dislike and mistrust of the German people for the rest of his life due to the things he witnessed. He also kept a strongly embedded distrust of the military brass and politicians.

During one of our sessions of hand digging his ponds in the middle 1990s, he gave a vivid account of how toward the end of the war an infantry regiment of war tested veterans was chopped to pieces on a worthless hill occupied by fanatical SS diehards.

Since his Self-Propelled Battery of 105s was in close support at the base of the hill, he witness much of the carnage.

By then everyone knew the war was over and the focus was on making it home. A new colonel (or general) had just been transferred in after spending the entire war in a cushy office at the War Department in D.C. The green armchair colonel/general had this regiment charge with fixed bayonets repeatedly up the open hill. The infantry was charging in lines over open ground and getting chopped up by well emplaced machine gun fire. The smart SS gunners fired low deliberately, horribly wounding and maiming the legs and groin area of exposed veterans who had already survived much of the fierce fighting across Europe. Then they would shoot up the medics and buddies that went out to retrieve them. There were many cycles of this. This hill could have easily been bypassed or reduced by airpower.

He did not tell me how it ended, just that the cycles of death, maiming, and charging the hill in Civil War style bloodbath seemed endless at the time. The senior officer was trying to make a name for himself as an aggressive commander before the war ended so his former stateside role would not impact his future promotions. In Uncle Mike’s way of thinking, the experienced infantry soldiers had survived much of the war just to die or be permanently maimed for a hill no one needed so close to the end.

He told me how he was just talking to one of his friends, an older man, who was shot between the eyes during the battle. As he was gathering his dead friend’s effects, he read a letter from the 10-yr-old daughter of this man. Mike was 19 or just 20 then. He looked at me with haunted eyes, “That letter really bothered me.”¬† He was not a crier or emotional man at all. He carried this well of sorrow with him always.

I tried to find out more about this “minor skirmish” on WW II vet sites or from members of his unit with no success. Just another nameless hill and Army screw up that did not scratch the sheet of history unless you were there. I wonder if that senior officer got his promotion. This type of idiocy was not confined to this campaign or battle. It is a common thread in the American military. Lives traded for promotions.

Most combat veterans carry this type of senseless tragedy branded in their memories, searing at their souls. A couple of inches to the left, going to use the latrine just before an 88 landed in your foxhole and taking out your buddy, a heated argument with a junior officer, seeming arbitrary moments of fate were the difference between life and death. Uncle Mike always said, “When your number is up, your number is up.” Hard lessons for a 19-year-old to absorb.

Reading a veteran’s account of battles post-Battle of the Bulge in a sister company in his same 728th AFA (armored field artillery) Battalion, I realize that a lot of lives were lost and desperate actions were fought in the closing four months of the war. Most historical accounts don’t mention this or other small battles.

My Uncle told one story that illustrates this war in the cold with ill-defined front lines. Toward the last years of his life we were working in the woods cutting wood or digging in the late fall and early winter. The smells, the sights of the season, and the smoke seemed to bring back the memories from his war experience. One stuck with me. Uncle Mike suffered terribly from trench foot during that 1944-45 winter and told my aunt that his feet hurt so badly he would often stand in the snow barefoot to ease the pain. He could not wear wool socks for the rest of his life.

Another time he told me about a time his SP 105mm battery setup an encampment that had numerous haystacks scattered around the area. Being a suspicious, cynical 19-yr-old, he thought the “haystacks” were just a little too perfect. He went up to one with his M-1 carbine and shouted “Reus Kraut!” (You can tell he had a gift for languages) and may have popped off a few rounds, most guys would in that situation. More than a squad of German troops came out of that haystack, and when they heard their comrades surrendering, an entire company popped out of the dozens of haystacks. They were actually cleverly camouflaged positions! After dark they would have probably wiped out his unit and raised considerable havoc as they ex-filtrated to their own lines.

In today’s world of constant news, he would have gotten some type of medal for this action that probably saved his unit, but it was just another day in combat back then and it went unnoticed as far as I know. It was not the type of thing any unit commander would have mentioned to a superior officer; it was a screw up of major proportions.

My Aunt Liz did say that when they saw old guys from the outfit at reunions, they treated him with unusual respect and affection, even by the officers. He was (due to his experience despite being the unit armorer) the primary recon man for the battery and would scout ahead for safe places to set up the battery or camp for the night.

My cousin passed on an interesting note about how this rough working class kid went on to college, became an industrial arts teacher and eventually earned a Master’s in Education. I knew some of it, but not the rest. Another moment of serendipity.

Uncle Mike lived the rest of his live devoted to his family in his own way and to his church and career as an educator. He and my Aunt Liz devoted the last years of their lives and considerable financial resources to charity. This tiny elderly lady and slender man went into some of the roughest prisons in the State of Michigan and ministered to the inmates without fear or consideration for themselves.

It says something about the nature of the man that these hardened inmates wept openly when they learned of his untimely death in 2001 at 78 from a heart attack in a farm field. He was enraged and trying to free an ATV stuck in the mud by prying it out with logs he pulled out of the woods. A neighbor found him dead from a massive heart attack in the field later next to the stuck ATV. It was somehow fitting if you knew the man. His “number had come up.”

Uncle Mike was typical of the men and women that made up what has been called the “greatest generation”, the ones that marched off to war to save the world from tyranny. He was in a word “unremarkable”. He and those millions of other unremarkable men and women were the rule rather than the exception. In his case, he was a tough Michigan mill town kid, a second generation immigrant. He was nineteen. His older brother Army Corporal Emil Strazanac was KIA on New Guiana that same year he crossed the English Channel to France.

Those few tottering survivors you see at the VA or church in their wheel chairs or struggling with their walkers deserve our respect and thanks. If you have a family member or neighbor you find is a WW II combat vet, you might do what I do when I spot them in the VA. I get down on one knee if they are seated, then I look them in the eye as I shake their hand and tell them, and for their buddies, “Thanks for saving the world for us.”

I told this to a Navy veteran who was still cutting my hair in his late 80s a few years back. He had piloted small landing craft in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945 in so many landings under fire he could not remember them all. When I asked which ones, he said, “I think all of them. I don’t remember all the names, one after the other.” I told him my feeling about him and his generation. He stopped cutting my hair, looked over oddly at me for a few moments, realized I was serious, and replied, “Well I never thought of it that way, but I guess we did.”

They did.

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