When you ask the question, “What is a West Virginian?,” one answer is clear: “West Virginians are soldiers.” I would wager that almost every family in West Virginia has at least one member who is currently serving in the military, or who is a veteran. Sometimes it is because of an overwhelming sense of patriotism, sometimes it because the military is the only job available. And every reason in between.
Way back in about 1996 or 1997 I got the idea to interview West Virginia veterans of World War II. The idea was to write a book about these guys that saved the world. I interviewed a bunch of guys. Their stories ranged from frightening to mundane. But these were the guys who stood up, even if reluctantly. It was going to be a great book. Then Tom Brokaw published The Greatest Generation and scooped me. I couldn’t find a publisher.
I kept the interviews, hoping I could someday publish them.
At West Virginia Strong we are interested in what makes West Virginians get up each morning and take on the day. A sense of loyalty plays a part. Loyalty to family, to the Job, to the USA. A sense of pride in what you do plays a part. No matter the job, most West Virginians want to do it well. And a sense of responsibility plays a part. We look out for our family. We look out for our friends. Men and women who serve in the military look out for the people in their unit, on their ship, in their foxhole.
In 1996-97 I was a minister in Meadow Bridge, in Fayette county.
I was standing over the coffin of Woodrow Gwinn at Smather's Funeral Home in Rainelle, West Virginia. Woodrow was in his eighties and had been living in Cleveland for a long time, but he was from nearby. He was a decorated World War II veteran; Silver Star with Clusters, a couple of Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart that covered myriad wounds received in battle. Now he was dead of cancer, "Ate up with it," his brother had told me.
That was about all I knew of Woodrow, I'd never met him, or least never remember having met him. There are a lot of people who die whom I've never met, but it was important that I get to know Woodrow fast: The next morning I would have to preside over his funeral service.
There were about sixty years between Woodrow and me. He fought his last WWII battle twenty-five years before I was born. Who was Woodrow Gwinn? What was it like to be in a tank that took such a devastating hit that everyone in the crew died, except one man. And Woodrow was so blown-up after the hit that he simply assumed he would die. By all accounts, the action that won him his Silver Star with Clusters was not intentionally heroic. Woodrow just figured he'd had it, so he thought he'd take as many Germans with him as he could.
Merle Martin was telling me most of this now. Merle had joined the Army the same day as Woodrow. Merle drove a truck in the war and his wife won't let him talk much about it. It gets to him, even today. He forgets I'm asking about Woodrow, or maybe the stories just merge, and he says, "I spent three birthdays in Europe. When the war in Europe ended they divided us up to go to Japan. Hell, I wasn't scared of goin' over there and dyin', that didn't bother me none, I just hated bein' on those damn boats. But I got selected. And I set down and prayed.
"I said: 'Lord, lots of other guys, better guys than me, have already got kilt over here. I don't know why you spared me. I ain't never asked no favors, and I ain't scared of dyin', but I don't want to ride them boats clear to Japan.'
"Just before we disembarked, they dropped that bomb on Japan. I ain't sayin' it was b'cause of my prayer, but I sure didn't have to get on that damn boat." He smiles and nudges me. Then he says, "World War II vets are dyin' at 60,000 a month now. I've known four that died since June. I'm gettin' right nervous." We both laugh at that. He says he has to go, but he tells me to drop by sometime. He gives me directions and I promise I will.
That night I lay in bed thinking about 60,000 vets dying each month, that's 2000 a day, 84 an hour. It seems hard to believe, but even if 60,000 isn't exactly right, even if that's the number that die every year, it stirs me. That's a bunch of guys with great stories never more to be heard. History is getting buried fast.
I thought about how I was only twenty-eight at the time, and how I'd grown up on World War II movies. My grandfather, actually, had fought in the Russian Revolution during the second decade of the last century so he didn't have much to say about World War II, but 60,000 guys a month have something to say.
There's a certain romance about World War II. A romance perpetuated by names like "The Last Good War," and "Scrap Two." Nowadays we are trying to piece together the Civil War with old letters and diaries. A lot of the guys who fought in World War II were born when the last of the Civil War vets were still alive. Some of the 60,000 who died last month sat on their grandfathers' knees and heard stories of Grant and Lee. I'm not going to sit on any vets knee, but I do want to hear their stories.
As a minister I end up in a lot of hospitals and visiting a lot of dying men. That's how I met Tom Williams. He hasn't smoked a cigarette since they went to .25₵ a pack, but now he's on constant oxygen. His lungs are gone; his heart is going; his eyes; his life. But he was alive all through the South Pacific in the 40's. His voice is muffled, I'm not sure he has his teeth in, and I think he has a chew in. He'll be one of the 60,000 soon.
I never got to talk to Woodrow, but Tom sits on his porch everyday, waiting. And there are so many more. So, I've gone out to ask them, "Tell us one last time what it was like to be twenty-five and full of piss, and far away from home."
In my role as a pastor I have commended many bodies to the ground. A few of these bodies escaped death in Europe, Africa, Asia, and on the seas during the years of World War II. Generally, the burial entails an honor guard from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Fewer and fewer honor guards are composed of veterans from World War II. Eventually, even soon, there will be only one vet standing beside the casket of his comrade in arms. I can't help but wonder who will salute when we bury the last vet standing.
To read Bil's next "Last Vet Standing" interview with WWII Veteran Tom Williams, click here.
Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content, click here.