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Remembering WWII 

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

A faded black-and-white photo of two U.S. military men in fatigues and helmets is propped up next to an open pack of Camel cigarettes. There are no flowers, no medals, no notes with names or explanations, but this poignant war remembrance speaks volumes.

The World War II Memorial (, dedicated just over a year ago, is a repository for mementos like this—some left to remember those killed, some to honor those who served and some to be a part of what has become an impromptu shrine to the Second World War. All tell a story, some partly revealed through what is left behind, and others that will never be fully told.

Things Left Behind

On Memorial Day 2005, Laura Frederick of Washington, D.C., placed two red roses from her garden at the memorial. She said she did it for both her grandfather who served in the Army during the war and for her grandmother who died a year ago, after raising her three sons by herself.

A week after the holiday, red, white and blue flowers, photos and news clippings still dotted the memorial, nestled between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

“As long as one of us lives, what you gave will be cherished,” reads a note attached to a write-up on the U.S.S. Suwannee, an escort carrier.

“They make movies about men like you,” reads another note attached to a modest bouquet of pink flowers. Signed “Joyce,” the note was to her uncle, Dominic Capobianco, 1916-2005, who was with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

A delicate china plate with a single gold star and pink flowers leaned against the granite of the Atlantic theatre side of the memorial. A few stones, twigs and a piece of blue fabric sat next to it.

“This is the first time I’ve seen that,” said National Park Service Ranger Doug Demmon, as he gestured toward the plate. The Gold Star Mother’s plate, made for the mother of someone lost in the military, was left at the memorial earlier that morning. Demmon shared what he knew about it. It was made to honor Pvt. John B. Barnes Jr., who was killed November 19, 1944, in Hurtgen Forest, Germany. His mother kept the plate all these years and, when she passed away recently, her husband decided to have it placed at the memorial.

Demmon said items left are picked up by the night crew and boxed. If it is something unusual, they photograph it before they collect it so they can recreate the display. The National Park Service will decide what to do with these items, perhaps including sending them to the Smithsonian.

The flowers are left in place until they decay. Most of the artifacts are medals, ribbons with notes, photos of uniformed military and other personal mementos, usually placed at the various state columns.

These notes come in all sizes. A handwritten note taped to the wall with a small flag read, “In memory of Barnard Theodore King, Born Nov. 16, 1925, N.Y., Died May 4, 2000.” King had served in the Army Air Corps in China, Burma and the Indian Theatre. The note was signed, “Max King, Grandson, May 30, 2005.”

“We will never forget,” reads a note left with a single white flower in honor of U.S. Army soldier Leonard Querques, 1910-45, who was killed in action in Belgium.

A newspaper clipping tells the story of Pfc. Harry S. Scott. With a Neponset, Illinois, dateline, the story said Mrs. Ethel Scott received a telegram from the War Department informing her that her 26-year-old son “has been missing in action since March 18.” The article went on to say that Scott had enlisted in the Army Air Corps on January 19, 1942. In September, “he left this country for overseas service. He has been stationed in New Guinea for one year and five months.”

A soldier who did make it home wrote, “Memoirs of a Combat Marine,” a half-inch of bound papers covered in plastic and left at the memorial. The author, Clyde V. MacMaster, was a former U.S. Marine in World War II.

Another note reads, “In honor of Sgt. Robert Butterfield, who at 81 is just beginning to tell us of the sacrifice at the Battle of the Bulge, himself a recipient of the Purple Heart there. Much love, Dad.”

Since the memorial opened a year ago, Demmon said the National Park Service estimates that there have been 4.7 million visitors.

Very few of these visitors spotted what Demmon calls “World War II graffiti” on the memorial. “Kilroy was here” is engraved on the monument in two places. Demmon said, “They are hidden away just like they were on the ships and throughout Europe, but are an official part of the monument.”

‘The People of WWII Are My Heroes’

All the rangers have a knack for personalizing their tours, but if you want the memorial to come to life, ask for Ranger Lowell Fry.

Fry tells stories that few will forget. Ranging from fascinating to humorous, Fry’s stable of stories comes from chatting with veterans and their families, and from what he calls his “extensive library of unread books.”

Though Fry never served in the military, his great respect for veterans and the importance of Washington, D.C.’s new memorial are evident with every step he takes through the columns and around the water fountains.

The people of World War II “are my heroes,” he said, “whether they served stateside or were slogging it out overseas, not knowing if they’d make it home or not.

“They did their job, they went overseas, they came home and they didn’t talk about the blood or the guts, or the horrible parts,” he said. “They still don’t talk about it, they just tell other stories.”

At the memorial dedication in 2004, a veteran asked Fry, “What about those who didn’t come back?” and then began to cry.

“War made them older faster,” Fry said. “When you look at the statistics of how many people were killed, it must have been awful,” he said, shaking his head.

“They didn’t just go through the war, they went through the Depression. Their lives were shaped by something different, something other than I-Pods.”

And now, as the World War II veterans are dying at 1,100 a day, he said it’s hard to answer the question of why it took so long to get this memorial built. When people ask him why the Korean and Vietnam War memorials were built first, he says that’s “a good question.”

Fry, 52, calls himself a frustrated college professor with a degree in history. He started as a seasonal employee in 1996 and a year later he went fulltime. Although he “came to teach,” he said he learns more from the visitors and relishes the opportunity to talk with those who were there.

Often, who is brought to the memorial makes more of a statement. Fry said recently a group of Boy Scouts from Washington State raised $14,000 to bring 18 veterans to see the memorial—their way of saying thanks to the “Greatest Generation.”

This past Memorial Day, a man was pushing his wife in a wheelchair, both wearing hats that read “World War II Vet.” They seemed surprised and pleased when people stopped to shake their hands and thank them for their service. A little boy stopped in front of the man and saluted. The vet nodded and quietly said, “Thank you.” Fry said that schoolchildren sometimes ask the veterans for their autographs.

“Everybody had a hand” in the war effort, Fry said. A dozen bas-relief panels depict the war effort at home and abroad. Even though the scenes are quite detailed, Fry described them, from the “Rosy the Riveter” to the people gathered around the radio listening to the president, to scenes from D-Day and jungle warfare. “People look at those panels and say, ‘I did that.’ It must evoke many memories.”

For Fry, the farm scene evokes memories of his childhood on a farm in western New York. This was how his dad served the war.

Fry likes to end his talks about the memorial at the wall of stars. The stars are reminiscent of the flags that families placed in their windows—a blue star meant there was someone serving in the military, a gold star meant someone had been lost.

“At night, when the water in the fountain is still, you can see the 4,000 stars reflected in the water.” Each star represents 10,000 killed—a visible reminder of the 400,000 American military lost in the war.

The Foxhole Rosary

“Any good Catholic in those days had a rosary. You carried your religion in your pocket. You couldn’t forget that you were a Catholic.”

For Bernard J. (Bernie) Burns, Jr., a combat medic in the Army’s 33rd infantry division, it was his rosary that got him through the dark nights holed up in foxholes on the frontlines of World War II.

“We would get into the foxholes at night. It was pitch black. You couldn’t see a thing,” he said. All they had was what was in their pockets. For Burns and many other soldiers, it was a rosary.

“You’d say your rosary until you fell asleep, or maybe you’d even say it all night, but if you fell asleep, then you’d have to dig around in the morning to find it.”

Burns calls the rosary, “one of the advantages that a Catholic G.I. had during time of war. I don’t think any other religion had that comfort.”

Burns’s aunt sent him packages that always included a rosary. The chaplains also gave them out, and Burns said that even Protestants had rosaries, whether or not they knew how to use them.

During rest breaks, the troops would congregate in a certain area. “A chaplain would drive up in a jeep, and use the front fender as an altar,” he said. “He’d put his missal and candle and cross on the fender. Someone would serve Mass. I served Mass a few times.” Even Protestants would attend.

“Someone told me that Catholics made the best soldiers,” Burns said. “It was because we believe in the hereafter. If we lost our lives, we knew where we were going. The others thought if you die, you die. We knew there was another life.”

Burns’s life in the military began at age 18. Although his older brother had joined the Navy at 17, their father insisted that this son wait until he graduated from high school. Burns, who had asked for immediate induction into the Army, left his native Washington, D.C., for the first time in the summer of 1944 and reported to Fort Meade Army Base in Maryland.

At Fort Meade he went through tests and did KP duty. Then one night he was loaded on a troop train and, three days later, arrived in Florida at Camp Blanding for basic training.

“I could do probably anything when I was 18,” he said, adding that those physically able were put in the infantry, and “that was that.”

Burns was sent to the South Pacific, a part of the northern Philippines Campaign, and eventually into Japan. “We didn’t know what Japan was going to do. [They] had nothing, not a thing. They were demoralized.”

When the Japanese surrendered, it was August 14, 1945, in the United States. “Most people don’t know that, since they were a day ahead over there, it was August 15, the feast of the Assumption” in the Pacific Theater, Burns pointed out. This is a coincidence Burns appreciates, since he has a devotion to Mary.

Woman Photographer Taught Them

“I taught them how to stay alive with a camera in their hands and a gun in their bag.”

Lorraine Dieterle, 81, taught combat photography as a SPAR in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. A photographer prior to the war, at age 20 she decided to leave her home in Detroit to join the nearly 400,000 women serving in the military.

The only woman photographer in the Third Naval District, Dieterle said that, despite it being considered a man’s job at that time, “They recognized my expertise in photography, and put me to work.”

Dieterle taught the troops how to prepare their equipment for the jungle and for hard landings, how to darken their cameras for night shooting and how to mix developer with sea water. She taught them aerial and still photography, plus motion picture techniques.

She herself traveled the East Coast photographing dignitaries, from Truman and MacArthur, to Admiral Halsey and German submarines, lighthouses and aboard liberty ships and, at war’s end, the victory parades.

On V-J Day she was sent to photograph Times Square. “There were so many tears,” she remembers. “We were so happy. We were going home. We were going home. We were going home.”

Dieterle said it was love of country and the example her Polish immigrant father set for both she and her sister that led her to enlist. Her father served under General Patton in World War I. “He was a patriot to beat all patriots.” And after her brother died, “I was my father’s son.

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “I was scared silly.” It took her three days to get from Michigan to Florida on the troop train. The whole time she asked herself, “Oh, what did you do? What did you do?”

Once she got to Florida, she was too busy to worry or to think. “You just marched and learned.

“The men treated me like their sister, or their aunt, or their mother,” she said. “They treated me with respect. As you respect yourself, so shall you be respected. I was careful of my deportment, to not put myself in a position to embarrass the women in the Coast Guard.”

Other than her marriage and her sons, she said her service in the Coast Guard was the greatest experience in her life. “It made me a better person,” and she learned to be “more understanding and more objective.

“A lot of women had a hand in the war,” she said, adding that many served in the U.S.O. or the Red Cross, or other groups that worked with the military. “It was a time when everybody pulled together.”

Dieterle now volunteers at the Women in Military Memorial (WIM) in Arlington, Virginia ( During her 12 years as the Michigan state WIM chairwoman, she worked to locate women vets and raise funds for the memorial. In 1994, when her husband passed away, she was asked to move to the Washington, D.C., area to work at the WIM. Her sons, graduates of West Point and Annapolis, encouraged her to do that.

She is now the staff photographer, she leads tours and she teaches the ropes to the young docents. And she lectures about the memorial and her military experiences.

“Everything in my life happened by accident,” she laughed. On one of her first days in the area she was driving through Arlington Cemetery on a particularly foggy morning. She stopped to take some photographs, and when she processed them, she thought they looked pretty good. The superintendent of the cemetery encouraged her to do a book. Three years and some 4,000 photographs later, Arlington National Cemetery: A Nation’s Story Carved in Stone (Diane Publishing Co.) became a reality and is now in its fifth printing.

“It was a labor of love,” she said. “It is not a sad book. It tells a story of the men and women who lie there.” The book also details little-known places, such as the areas of the cemetery set aside for slaves, nurses or astronauts. Dieterle donates most of the royalties to the memorial, which she said, greatly needs the funds.

Recently, a young Coast Guard woman visiting the memorial stopped to thank Dieterle for her service. “I was just a little cog in the barrel,” she said. “We started it, but they sure carried it on.

“I told her, ‘You have done as much as I have.’ And I hugged her,” she said. “I am so very proud of these women, in every branch. We are sisters of the service.”

From Sailboats to Landing Crafts

George Peabody spent the early part of his wartime service on a Coast Guard yacht on sub patrol in the Atlantic. Most of the sailing vessels were on convoy to England, so some of the troops were put aboard sailboats. The practice proved handy, as they couldn’t be detected by the enemy.

“We had various adventures,” the Massachusetts native, raised in Philadelphia said, in a slow, thoughtful manner of speech. “It was very sporting.”

Peabody , now 82 and living at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., tells war stories like a Travel Channel script. His military career began after college, when in 1942 he applied to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Ct. He was accepted, but only after cheating on the eye chart which, to this day, he has memorized.

He skipped boot camp, and trained at an amphibious base in Norfolk. When his ship was finished being built in Pittsburgh, he sailed it down the river “all the way to Japan, 65,000 miles, at six and one-half knots.”

Peabody served on the LST (landing ship tank), about the size of a football field, for nearly two years.

“We got shot at occasionally,” he said. One night, while on watch on deck, a shell went right over his head. “It was a curious sensation.” He heard it hit the water behind him.

They staged their invasion of Japan three times, twice on Hawaii and once on Guam. Finally on their way to Okinawa for the invasion, he said they were attacked by kamikazes and shot down a few.

Despite what he calls “some interesting encounters,” Peabody says it was a typhoon that was “the most frightening part of the war. “We were at full sail into the wind in a terrible sea, going one mile an hour.” Peabody had the watch. He was 23 years old. “We were all kids, that was the funny thing.” They lost their electricity, the radar, the radio, the steering, the main and the auxiliary engines.

“There was a quietness about the ship. We fell into a trough of waves and were rolling,” he recalls. An ammo truck chained to the deck had broken free of two of the four chains holding it. He called a Marine in charge of the vehicle up to the deck that was now “rolling awash with a foot of water.” The Marine and another man climbed under the truck and secured it with chains. “I was awfully proud to know them.”

Peabody said most of his military service was “pretty easy and uneventful. There were only a few sea stories to tell in the many months we were there.”

One of his stories, now memorialized in Arlington, Virginia, was the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. “The whole fleet went crazy. They blew their whistles and horns, made (quite) a racket. It was a great morale boost for the Marines. It really stirred them. They felt they could do anything.” Although Peabody didn’t know it at the time, the flag had come from his ship.

A few days later he wrote to his parents post-dating the letter. He told them that things were boring and nothing was happening. His father wrote back, saying he was glad he was bored since there had been this battle at Iwo Jima. His parents later learned the truth when they saw a photo in The New York Times that showed Peabody’s LST in the thick of things at Iwo Jima.

Memorial Hides Memories

The memories of World War II swirl around the Washington memorial like a gentle breeze. And as the sun sets just over the wall of stars, and the last of the tourists make their way to their waiting buses, an eerie calm descends.

One wonders if the spirits of fallen heroes might visit during the coming night, wandering past the fountains and through the state columns, looking for notes, old photographs or, perhaps, the last of the Camel cigarettes.

‘Pretty Happy’ to Hear War Was Over

Richard Kenney, 81, needed to find a place to sit before he could share his thoughts on the war and the memorial. On his first visit to the memorial, he checked out the computer touch-screens—the memorial’s database of veterans who served in the war. His daughter Peg Muelhaupt made sure his service information was entered in the database, and after a quick look, they found him, and then looked for other names.

His wife of 54 years, Annmarie, filled in some facts as the veteran’s humility made his war service seem like no big deal.

Kenney enlisted in the U.S. Navy in October 1942 “because everybody else did.”

At age 19, he said “it was something different,” and for a boy from the St. Paul suburb of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, who had never left home until them, it was scary.

“Oh yeah, no question about it, it was scary for everybody,” he said. His brother, Bud, was serving in the Army overseas.

He, though, began his service in Alaska, and later throughout the South Pacific as a boat coxswain for the Navy’s amphibious landing crafts—the all-important link in getting the troops where they needed to be. He said the troops had it worse than he did.

A Catholic, Kenney said they often “caught a ship that had a priest, or in a port.” He said they got to see many churches in their travels through Japan, the Philippines and New Guinea. One day he had liberty and he hiked up a hill in New Caledonia to see a Catholic church. He still sees that same church now and then on the Travel Channel.

Kenney reminisced about a young soldier who couldn’t swim. “I told him if we got strafed, to throw the life jackets in, then jump in and swim down deep.” That way, they wouldn’t be sitting ducks. “We were very fortunate that we were not strafed, but we came close a couple of times,” he said quietly.

From a kamikaze air attack on his boat, to running aground on top of another small boat, Kenney seemed to take it all in stride. He was in San Francisco when the end of the war was announced. “The ship was being outfitted for the invasion of Japan,” he said, adding that they were on their way to Hawaii to pick up the invasion forces.

“We didn’t see the papers, and didn’t know much of what was going on,” he said, but they were “pretty happy” to hear the war was over.

Ann M. Augherton is the managing editor of Arlington Catholic Herald in Arlington, Virginia. She is the daughter of World War II veterans. Her father, Thomas G. Augherton, Sr., served in the U.S. Army in Japan and the Philippines, and her mother, Elizabeth M. Harmon (Augherton), served in the U.S. Coast Guard in the port of New York. This article first appeared in the September 2005 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.