Learning What Vets Could Not Tell: What They Did in World War II

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.”

[Read about researchers in France digging up the physical remains of the Normandy invasion.]

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 has dwindled, and he now gets as many as 25 requests a day.

“Sometimes they start to cry on the phone about how much they loved their dad, and how he had horrible nightmares, but would never talk about it,” he said.

Mr. Beigel was able to document the daily movements of Mr. Griesser’s father from the Normandy beaches through the vicious fighting in the hedgerow country to the east, where he was decorated for valor and wounded by the blast of a German artillery shell.

Using that information, Mr. Griesser and his family traveled to France in May to retrace his father’s steps, and he plans to make a documentary about the trip for his family to pass down.

“It was very moving to be on the exact spot where he had been, and to think about how hard they really had it,” Mr. Griesser said.

The usual starting point for the research is the repository in St. Louis, a vast building crowded with more than six acres of shelves stacked 29 feet high. “It looks almost exactly like the last scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: endless shelves of stuff,” said Eric Kilgore, the research room supervisor.

The archives once held a file for nearly every veteran who served in either world war. But in July 1973, a fire broke out in the stacks that took firefighters four days to extinguish. Millions of documents were burned; millions more were left soaking wet, and soon began to molder in the muggy Missouri heat.

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Ms. Milhous has letters her father sent her mother during the war, including one he wrote eight days before his death. Soldiers’ letters were censored to exclude military specifics; Lieutenant Robinson gave his location only as Germany.CreditCooper Neill for The New York Times

Navy and Marine Corps records were unharmed, but an estimated 80 percent of all Army records from World War II were ruined. Archivists have tried to reconstruct some files by drawing from other sources, but they say millions are lost forever.

“Sometimes, everything was destroyed but a name on a payroll,” said Dan Olmstead, a researcher at the World War II museum. “But fire is funny. Sometimes files that were in the middle of the fire were spared.”

That makes file requests on Army veterans something of a dice roll. But Mr. Olmstead said he has often pored over pages half-eaten by flames and rumpled by water damage and still been able to make out the vital details of a soldier’s life.

Anyone can view World War II personnel records at the St. Louis archive without charge. But the documents are often laced with military jargon and abbreviations that can be tough for a layman to decipher.

“You might as well be reading ancient Sumerian,” said Robert Citino, a historian who directs the research program at the museum.

Skilled researchers, he said, can interpret the personnel files and combine them with other records, like the commanders’ daily reports that amounted to a diary of each fighting unit, to weave a narrative of where soldiers went and what they did, sometimes in striking detail.

Their services come at a cost. Simply having a researcher pull and scan a service member’s file from the National Archives costs about $100. Combing other records to flesh out a narrative can run to many times that. For $2,500, the museum team will assemble a bound biography of a service member that includes historical context along with whatever photos and records are in the archives.

Many descendants say that finally knowing their relative’s story is worth the price.

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.

As an Army forward observer, Lieutenant Robinson’s job was to work his way up close to enemy positions and radio in coordinates for artillery strikes. In April 1945, his infantry regiment had pushed deep into Germany and was crossing a river when it ran into tough resistance: 1,800 men from an SS Panzer division, dug in on high ground.

His company of about 100 men attacked across an open field, but the Germans hit back hard. They attacked again before dawn the next day, but the SS troops were ready, raking them with machine-gun fire and pounding them with mortars. By noon, half the company was dead or wounded, and the rest were pinned down. At that crucial moment, the company commander was shot in the head by a sniper.

That left Lieutenant Robinson, who had next to no leadership experience, in command.

“Fully aware of the hopelessness of the situation, knowing that if the company remained in that position they would be annihilated in a very short time, he would have been justified in withdrawing,” read a singed report in the file, typed by a sergeant shortly after the battle. Instead, Lieutenant Robinson, “with complete disregard for his personal safety, amid the deadly hail of bullets and shells, gallantly and courageously rose to his feet and coolly walked among the men, shouting encouragement,” the report said.

He led a charge up the hill, jumping into enemy trenches and killing 10 German soldiers at close range, records showed. The company rallied behind him and overran the position.

Though the unit was down to just one-quarter strength, the lieutenant urged the men on to rout the enemy from a nearby village. At its edge, an enemy mortar round exploded next to him, sending hot shrapnel through his larynx.

Bleeding down his chest and barely able to speak, Lieutenant Robinson refused first aid and continued for hours to call in artillery strikes. At sunset, with the Germans finally driven off, he walked wordlessly back to the closest aid station, a mile and a half away. He died on an operating table a few hours later.

Ms. Milhous had heard as a child that her father was a hero, but the archive’s detailed records filled in the gaps, reassured her that the stories were more than just legends, and gave her something concrete to pass down.

“It finally puts things to rest,” she said. “And I can rest too, knowing his memory is preserved.”

Source: NYT

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