The Begining of the End of the Worst Conflict in Human History
Many of us will have watched Brian Williams as he talked with World War II veterans on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day in the”Journey to Normandy”. News about the victory, whispered on hidden radios, spread like wildfire among the people in the Netherlands, who were dancing in the streets, thinking the war was almost over. However, it would be another year before the Germans finally surrendered. Yet, it was the beginning of the end, at least of World War II in Europe.
On the other side of the world my mother, little sister and I were living one day at a time, at the end of our strength, in Camp Halmahera. No news about the allied victory in Europe got through to us in the Pacific. Mamma writes in her secret journal:
“Days and weeks went by. We hardly knew the day of the week and were kept ignorant about the course of the war being fought in and around the Pacific. No newspapers, no radio messages, no news at all got through to us. We were completely cut off from the rest of the world.
At the most unexpected moments the Japs would call us to assemble to listen to some punitive measure, which often affected the whole camp, because somebody had done something wrong. It might be no food. That really hurt, because it included the children. None of us looked well. We had grown thin and our resistance was low. Every time the little ones had a cold, were coughing or had diarrhea I held my breath.
At 9 p.m. all the lights in the camp had to be off, not that there were many lights. We in our little corner were mostly in the dark anyway. In our room we had one bulb hanging from a wire in the middle of the ceiling. We were happy to go to bed because sleep was a blessing, a state of being during which we could forget all our misery and didn’t feel our empty stomachs. We women were always dead tired from the day’s hard labor.”
I thank all those young men and women who fought to liberate us from tyrants like Hitler and Hirohito, who were ready to die for our freedom. If they survived, they are now in their eighties and nineties. And whenever I meet someone who looks like a veteran, I strike up a conversation, eager to hear his story. “Where did you fight? Were you in the army, navy, air force?”
The other day, in the Albertson’s parking lot, an old man with a cane dressed in a sweat shirt although I was in a summer dress, was holding on to a shopping cart, watching me get out of my car. When I asked if I could put his cart away for him, he said, “No, I am holding it for you.”
“Today I am only getting grapes, so I don’t need a cart,” I said.
“Oh. Nice car. (I have a 1987 560 SL) Where are you from? You must be from the old country. I fought in Europe during World War II. I was put in prison at OFLAG 64 in Poland. In January of 1945, the Russians came, and they were cruel, so very cruel.”
“Who liberated you?”
“Nobody. I escaped.”
“You escaped? With how many people?”
“Just me and my bunky.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Robert O’Neill. I served in the U.S. Army’s infantry during World War II near the Siegfried Line, where my men and I tried to cut off German supply lines. It didn’t work. We were cut off instead, and they captured us.”
“When Russian troops approached the camp, all prisoners able to walk were marched out toward Germany. Along the march I saw a barn filled with hay. I told my bunkmate, ‘I’m getting out of here right now’. My bunkmate agreed with the plan. We buried ourselves in the hay, waited until the group left, and then walked in the opposite direction. Polish farm people fed and housed us, and we made our way to bombed-out Warsaw. Our goal was to get to Moscow to the embassy.”
“We rode trains hidden in boxcars, but the Russian police found us and turned us away saying we needed visas. Instead, we went to Odessa on the Black Sea, where we boarded a British frigate to Port Said in Egypt. Later we went to an Italian port, and in April 1945 boarded a ship that took us back to Boston.”
When people found out about him years later, he was invited to Washington D.C. , and they taped an interview with him for television. No, he had never seen it himself, but it was documented in the archives. And he was mighty proud.
He was born in 1923, he said when I gave him a hug, and “call me Bob, we are now friends”. When I looked over my shoulder before entering the store, I watched him get into his Jaguar, cane first. “I always take good care of my car, just like you,” he had said. We had something in common. Another veteran, another friend.
Is there a veteran in your life you can spend precious time with, do something for or thank for his precious time he spent defending our country? I can assure you it will enrich your life.
Until next time,