As a young boy, I lived in an area where I was surrounded by veterans of World War II. At the time, I got to hear their “war stories.” Sometimes, they reminded me of the old B-movies with the John Wayne-like hero charging onto the beaches.
Navy Cmdr. “Happy” Blake would recall his story of diving off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington into shark-infested waters at the Battle of the Coral Sea. He’d laugh and say, he was rescued only to be sunk again less than a month later at the Battle of Midway when the aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown, rolled over and slipped into the Pacific.
Army Sgt. Adam Anselm, a boisterous man as I recall, was with the First Infantry Division when it got hung up on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. I remember he was filled with such bravado about his Army experience, I thought he had won the war all by himself.
Army Sgt. Oscar Romero, in his raspy voice, would just say, “I was there.”
Navy Cmdr. John Morton saw men die with their ships while on escort duty on various destroyers doing convoy duty across the Atlantic. A destroyer he was on gave close-in gunnery support on D-Day to the G.I.s invading France. His war stories were darker, as he described how burning oil and fuel consumed every man floating in the water when their ship was struck by German torpedoes.
Years later, prior to the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, I would return to these and other men to write their stories I was doing about the invasion. Romero opened up about his ordeal on the third wave into Utah Beach of Normandy and crawling into his foxhole with his Rosary. Anselm’s bravado was gone. He turned me down at the last minute for an interview. A family member said he couldn’t talk about it. Sgt. Nicholas Baca, a small New Mexican scout with the 2nd Rangers, climbed up Pointe du Hoc, and later survived the Malmedy Massacre at the Battle of the Bulge. Lt. Herman Martinez crashed his glider behind enemy lines with the 82nd Airborne. He would freeze in a watery ditch nearly shattering his teeth as he watched Nazi SS troops execute his comrades at Graignes, France.
And there were others who I knew as a child, but now as a man realized something was different about them.
I always wondered why there was a difference between the World War II veteran and their sons who fought in Vietnam. The older veterans appeared more stoic, I thought. The younger ones – well, always blaming Agent Orange or PTSD – or some other crap.
How wrong I was. How little did the public know in the ’50s and ’60s the effects from Agent Orange and Post Traumatic Stress are very real – and linger into the next generation.
Certainly, this was the case when I recently read Carol Schultz Vento’s book “The Hidden Legacy of World War II.”Vento’s father, Arthur “Dutch” Schultz was portrayed by Richard Beymer in the 1962 epic film “The Longest Day” (inspired by Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name) as the lost, confused paratrooper who couldn’t find his unit while the war was being fought around him.
Expecting another tribute by a child of a World War II father, “Hidden Legacy” shatters the war hero stereotype by placing the soldier on the frontlines of family life and dealing with post traumatic stress in postwar America.
The movie’s depiction of lost paratrooper Pvt. Schultz, dangling from a tree behind enemy lines on D-Day, will always live in my child memory. But Vento’s book now completes the more important story as she writes about her father dangling onto life after the war.
Vento’s journey into her father’s war years and postwar life spiraling out of control from alcohol and violence, is a story that will resonate with many baby boomers. Vento’s love for her father fills the pages, but now as an adult, she courageously strips away the stereotypical view of the World War II hero and opens the mental and emotional wounds suffered by the veterans because of long periods of intense combat exposure.
The well-researched book includes vignettes of other World War II veterans, including Medal of Honor recipients whose personal wars were just beginning after victory was declared on the battlefield. The stories of Marine pilot ace Pappy Boyington, Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy and others leaves a very different imprint than the ones we saw on the silver screen about the Greatest Generation G.I.
Vento uses her skills as a former political science professor and attorney to put a professional and critical eye on the after-effects of exposure to combat. It behooves anyone who has seen combat in these past 10 years of war – and their families — to read this book and see if there is a glimmer of the same struggles they may be dealing with.
“Hidden Legacy” is relevant today, not only on how it connects the dots for baby boomers and their WW II veteran fathers, but also, because so many problems our 21st century warriors face today are there to see. It’s a different war, but same effects. The reader will find themselves either overwhelmed by this book’s modern message or fighting to resist it and deny its truth. Either way, Vento’s “Hidden Legacy” is the other bookend to Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day.”
Note: The download version of the book is available free at Amazon.com for the 2013 Memorial Day weekend.