The Bell Curve: Calmer moments in World War II

I was surfing through cable TV stations Wednesday, looking for a path to write about Veterans Day. I stumbled on "Hoosiers," a film based on the true story of five boys from the tiny Indiana farming community of Milan, who worked, played and bonded together through 12 tiers of school to reach their ultimate goal, the state high school basketball championship tournament.

The Hoosier State in those days didn't classify teams by their school's size. Every contestant was thrown into the same pot. Winner take all. Farm kids or city kids, rich or poor, black or white, Christian or Muslim. Just as it should be. And in 1954, the farm kids from Milan brought it home and Hollywood made a movie about them, set in 1951-52 in the fictional town of Hickory.

The closing shot in "Hoosiers" was of a group picture of the team framed and mounted on a wall in the school's gym. I studied the photo until each player posing for camera came alive for me. I wondered how many of then were now veterans of their own wars — and what I and other members of my generation looked like at their age. That question took me to "Slipstream," my Navy Pilots' yearbook containing the only picture of myself that I still have from my war years. I was surprised that I could remember so many names of the people posing for that group picture.

There was Tom Frazee, whose family owned a dry goods store in Columbus, Ohio. There was Elmer Larson, whose dad was a Chicago cop. Then there was Jack Nicks, who was as Texan as they came and who was my best man when I got married in Corpus Christi, Texas. Finally, there was Alex Banks, who got me in so much trouble when I covered for him. And, yes, the photo on the next page showed a group of aviators that included an 18-year-old future president of the United States, George H.W. Bush.

Those of us who served in the military and are still around are called veterans. We get to go to movies cheaper and to rail against members of Congress — one of them representing Newport-Mesa — who lowered taxes on the rich and picked up the slack by cutting benefits for veterans. The pool of 10 million or so veterans formed by World War II is now disappearing fast, thereby saving the government a lot of money for Goldman and Sachs. At the same time, our rapidly diminishing ranks has fostered more bonding and reunions among those of us who are still here, even though transportation has become a problem with advancing age.

Veterans come in all walks of life. They have nothing to hold themselves together in a potent lobby except their military service, but that can be a powerful motivator. In World War II, that was tested to the limit because ours was a civilian military with a large component of college students straining to go back to civilian life. But even this contrast with today's volunteer military offers common ground for talk, especially if a war is going on.

That glue holds together when there is little else in story telling. Every veteran has a cache of stories — some of which are even true — that he or she can draw on to create an instant bridge to another veteran in a language both understand. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin caught that so wonderfully about his war and the people who fought in it. And that's why as the remainder of World War II vets peel off, those of us left behind treasure those bonds even more. So let's end this with a story.

Dick and Lee Thomas, of Portland, Ore., will be coming to visit my household over the Thanksgiving weekend. Dick and I have been bonding on and off since the early post-war years. He and Lee will pick up the conversation at wherever we ended it the last time we were together. For his part, Dick has the kind of World War II story that's well worth telling and re-telling.

He was 17 when he enlisted in the Army, and 19 when he was sent overseas as a gunnery sergeant. When he arrived in France, he was sent immediately to a line in Belgium that had seen little action. So, for 10 days, Dick's unit dug fox holes before moving to the front line where, six days later, on a frigid morning in December, the Germans burst out in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Dick remembers three retreats with his little band of gunners before they were overrun. That's when part of a second German wave stopped at the edge of Dick's series of fox holes to discuss their options. What the German soldiers saw were two dead American gunners, a second wounded gunner wounded and Dick — with a bullet in his foot — who was clearly unable to walk. At that critical moment one of the Germans stopped a medic and pointed at Dick. And, as he was carried away, the same German said to him in perfect English: "The war's over for you."

Indeed it was. Dick was carried to a German hospital, where he spent six weeks — two in rehab — followed by four months in a POW camp before Germany surrendered to the Allies, and he was was freed.

Dick likes to say that his war lasted only an hour, but my war stories can't compete with a story like his. Most of mine are far less dramatic and tend to take place in officers' clubs on various Pacific Islands, where I learned to drink a martini straight up with two olives, while I was waiting to go home.

I'd like to end today's column with a suggestion. I think that, in all fairness, there should be a special holiday for women who have listened to these stories for years. Since World War II, women connected with the military — either as wives, girlfriends or active duty personnel — have been living their own war stories, which their men mostly listen to politely.

Me, I'm going to celebrate Veterans Day with a martini straight up. And maybe this time with three olives in it.

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