I grew up in a household where both grandfathers were World War II navy veterans. War stories trickled down through my parents and because of these circumstances, I felt a sense of familiarity with the war early on. This, in part, was what stirred my curiosity and prompted me to seek out dozens of veterans to record their stories beginning in my early 20’s.
Last December I was introduced to two World War II veterans from the Wisconsin-based Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Chapter. The Honor Flight Network transports America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices. (More on their inspiring story) Based in cities across the U.S., neighbors, family, friends, or grateful strangers can donate to Honor Flight so that participating veterans may visit their memorial without charge.
The Network’s mission was so powerful, it inspired a young filmmaker by the name of Dan Hayes of Freethink Media to produce a documentary that followed four WWII veterans from the Wisconsin-based Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Chapter on their journey to D.C. The documentary premiered last winter receiving critical acclaim and even set the world record for most attended move premiere of over 35,000 people.
Now unexpected independent film stars, veterans Joe and Julian, two of the four central characters, returned to D.C. once again- this time as guests of the United States Congress. A special screening was organized in honor of Pearl Harbor Day and was attended by senators, congressmen and women, and Hill staff. It was during this trip that I met Joe and Julian on December 6th, the day before Pearl Harbor Day.
Every soldier has a good story, even if they say they don’t. However, I was unprepared for the memories these gentleman would have me privy to. In short, my time with them revealed so many of their traumatic and heartbreaking experiences, but also their unbreakable human spirit.
I came away from the interview having learned two very important lessons:
- Everyday is a bonus.
- The enemy loves his mother too.
December 7th 1941, Joe was at the movie theater celebrating his 16th birthday with his parents when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor spread like wildfire. Three years later, Joe was part of a wave of replacement soldiers sent to the Battle of the Bulge, the costliest battle in terms of casualties for the United States.
Despite desperate need, the army waited until Joe graduated from high school before he and swarms of other very young soldiers headed to Europe. As history goes, the battle claimed thousands of lives. His division broke through enemy lines and shortly thereafter, Joe was captured just one day before his 19th birthday. Joe was confined to a nomadic German POW camp (a “stalag”) for the next three months. Prisoner of war (POW) conditions were abysmal. At this point in their flight, the Nazis were fighting rear-guard actions to keep their ground, and constant battle had severely depleted Germany’s war-making resources.
“I always tell people I’ve been to hell and back,” said Joe. “We would be locked in a boxcar for four or five days. If there was food, they fed us bread that was one part flour, one part sawdust, and one part leaves.”
When asked what kept him going, Joe offered this response: “I had the rest of my life ahead of me. You learn how to pray and you talked about what you’re going to eat when you got out.”
Not everything was hopeless in the camp. With each new POW, the men would bring news of advancing allied troops. It was only a matter of time before the camps would be liberated, but time was running out for many dying prisoners.
By the time the Americans reached the camp, three months after Joe’s capture, only three POWs were still alive. Joe was 70 pounds when a LIFE magazine reporter discovered him. A photo of Joe was later published in LIFE with the caption, “The Human Skeleton”. The photo became an iconic image from WWII.84-yr-old WWII veteran Joe Demler holds a photo of himself as “The Human Skeleton” taken shortly after
his liberation from a German POW camp in 1945. Photo Credit: Freethink Media.
Joe recalls his liberation as a day of joy. “I was one of the lucky ones. I pray for the POWs that didn’t make it everyday,” he said. “For me, everyday is a bonus.”
Like Joe, Julian also enlisted in 1942.
“I didn’t even know about Pearl Harbor until two months after,” remembered Julian who at the time was working in complete isolation at a logging camp. He was commissioned as a cook in the navy, responsible for feeding sometimes up to 9,000 men. Julian soon discovered what other jobs he would undertake.
“I didn’t know what war was about until February 2nd when we landed on the beach at Roi-Namur,” said Julian. After a successful American assault, only 51 soldiers of the Japanese defense at Roi-Namur Island survived of an original garrison of 3,500.
“The skipper walked up to us with a pair of rubber gloves and a shovel and said take care of all the bodies. The American bodies you bury over there, then put the Japanese bodies on that truck… That was my first experience with war. Not very glorious war.”
This lasted for three days. “The stink from that was something. It stays with you for a long, long time. It’s an eye-opener, I’ll tell you. That is what war is about,” Julian said.
“You know the thing that startled me?” he continued. “The first day I was picking up the Japanese soldiers, I picked one up and there in his hand was a picture of an old woman. And so that guy was probably thinking of his mother before he died.”
In this moment, Julian realized this Japanese soldier was just like him. They were both sent to war and they both loved their mother.
Despite their circumstance, Julian and Joe have remained remarkably positive and even forgiving. “That’s what we need to be, you know?” said Julian. “I think our generation was just that kind. You just left everything behind you and you just kept right on going.”
Every year I attend the wreath laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. Since my meeting with Joe and Julian, I think of them periodically and how lucky I was to share dialogue with them. This Veterans Day I’ll think of them, as I likely will for all Veterans Days to come.
Neither of my grandfathers made it to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II Memorial before the time of their passing. But I am thankful that, in this race against time, so many of our veterans are able to embark on one last mission to see their memorial.
I’m sure many will understand when I say, taking a moment for our veterans on this national holiday is the least I can do. To Joe and Julian and all our veterans, my gratitude is immeasurable. Thank you for serving.
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