By SARA ARTHURS
for the review times
This is the first in a series of written stories, accompanied by a collection of podcasts and a documentary-style video, detailing the experiences of some of Hancock County’s last living World War II veterans. A new podcast will be released every Monday through Dec. 23. For more, see https://thecourier.com/wwii-veterans-look-back
Ken Lentz was a boy who loved basketball and football. Carl Gierke spent his youth roller skating and “running around on bicycles.” And Bill Rowe was just 17, living with his sister.
All three young men went off to serve their country in World War II. Now in their 90s, they’re among Hancock County’s few living veterans of that war.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that, of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, a little over 3 percent were still alive last year.
They have nearly a century of memories in their heads, but can tell you clearly, down to the exact date, what they experienced as young adults. And although they have gone on to have entire lives after the war — careers and hobbies, wives and children and even great-grandchildren — in a way, that span in their young adulthood helped define who they became.
They describe joining the military as teenagers like it was simply what everyone did.
“Well, our country was at war,” said Rowe, who joined the Army at 17 but — like some 16-year-olds he knew — told the draft board he was 18. “And, you know, I wanted to do my part.”
Ray Hartzell served in the 4th Marine Division, 23rd Marines. Asked why he enlisted, he said, “That was a big thing for our country, for our people. It was an important thing. And I thought I could help.”
Mike Mygrant said everyone knew that, when they got out of high school, they would be drafted into the military, “and you wanted to go … for the sake of the country.”
Tom Daley recalled being concerned he wouldn’t be able to serve. “Almost the day I graduated (in 1943), I got the draft notice to go in World War II. And I was all excited. … All the young guys were just eager to go to the service. And they were afraid they wouldn’t be accepted. I was real thin at the time and I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted.”
These men were babies born in the 1920s, who went through childhood during the Great Depression.
“I thought that’s what life was,” said Richard Robinette, who was born in 1925. “I didn’t know any different. We had what we called brown flour gravy every morning, you’d put it on a piece of homemade bread. That’s what we had for breakfast. … Take flour and put it in a cast-iron skillet with a little butter or grease, stir it around till it turns kind of brown, add some milk with it. … Any kind of gravy you could make. You had a cookstove in the kitchen that you fired with wood every morning. You had to start the fire, ’cause it wouldn’t hold overnight. And times just was tough. But we didn’t know any different.”
Ron Ammons said his World War II veteran father once said, jovially, “Our generation had the book thrown at them,” with a childhood in the Depression and then coming of age while fighting a world war. They had to grow up fast, Ammons said.
Pearl Harbor changes everything
When World War II began raging in Europe and Asia, most Americans wanted no part of it.
“People had very keen memories of World War I,” said Walter Grunden, a history professor at Bowling Green State University. Loved ones had come back from that war scarred, been blinded by poison gas, or had limbs amputated. No one wanted to go to war again.
Then Japanese fighter planes attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, killing more than 2,400 Americans.
Daley was with a group of classmates when he heard the news. “We were a year away from going in,” he said. “And we said, ‘Hell, the war can’t last a week. Look how big Japan is compared to the United States.’ But we were hoping we were old enough to go in, so we could fight Japan.”
The next day, Dec. 8, was a Monday.
“The recruiting stations were overwhelmed all across the United States,” said John Haas, manuscripts curator at Ohio History Connection.
University of Findlay history professor Mark Polelle said there was a sense that “We’re Americans and we’re in this together.” And, after Pearl Harbor, the average American was “hellbent on revenge.” Young men who didn’t enlist could find their masculinity or patriotism questioned, or become a social outcast, Grunden said.
Some decided to volunteer before they got drafted, giving them a choice where to go, said Joy Bennett, curator/archivist at the Hancock Historical Museum. Maybe they were interested specifically in being a pilot, or sailing with the Navy.
Many indeed learned new skills.
Robinette was a machinist aboard the USS Claxton, a Navy destroyer. He said he learned “the fundamentals of driving a ship with steam turbines.”
Lentz learned about different types of planes. He wanted to be a pilot. He hadn’t flown before, but “I just like to fly. And I knew that would be a new experience.”
Lentz, a McComb area native who had never been farther from home than Lima, would find himself a prisoner of war in Germany before his 20th birthday.
When the United States entered World War II, “Ohio was a major player,” said Haas, who specializes in military history at Ohio History Connection. About 839,000 men and women from Ohio served in the war, and 24,550 Ohioans died. Haas said in other wars, too, Ohio has had more people in military service, per capita, than many other states.
The population of Ohio in 1940 was 6.9 million, which means roughly 12 percent of Ohioans served in the war.
Many who served had friends and classmates who were in the military, too.
Robinette recalled getting in line for the Navy, but the officials in charge said, “Every seventh man drop out — you’re in the Marine Corps.” A boy from his class happened to be the seventh man, behind Robinette. Later, Robinette heard that boy lost a leg in the war.
Gierke, who served in the 602nd Gun Battalion, described a childhood spent roller skating and bicycling in Findlay. He had never been away from home before, and said being so far away was “real hard.”
Northwest Ohio’s young soldiers and sailors were, in many cases, farm boys who never expected to leave the area. It was considered a big deal if they needed to go to Columbus for some reason, Bennett said.
Suddenly they were fighting in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific. Bennett said enlisting likely meant a “huge culture shock,” not only because of the military itself, but also being thousands of miles away from home, family and sweethearts.
Relevance in modern times
Sarah Myers, assistant professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, said one reason World War II still resonates today is that it’s a war the United States fought and won, with a clear enemy and a clear victory. And “there were visible reminders of the war everywhere,” even for those on the homefront. It was their efforts, too, that contributed to bring about victory.
“Nothing has occurred before or since at that scale,” said Katherine Landdeck, associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University.
Grunden said his BGSU class about World War II fills quickly, and students remain fascinated by the era. He thinks this may be because it’s the one war in recent history that we can look back upon with a sense that “we were fighting the good fight. … People had a sense of clarity about the war.”
And Landdeck said her students realize the soldiers were their age: “These were kids that were fighting this war.”
What we don’t remember, the University of Findlay’s Polelle said, is the “sense of uncertainty.” If you put yourself in the shoes of someone living in 1941, that person had no idea what was going to happen. They didn’t know the Allies would win the war.
Today, some World War II veterans are still in good health. Some are not.
Asked what it’s like to be in his 90s looking back, Ned Ammons said, “Well, first of all, I don’t take myself to be 96. I’m still 19.” Ammons, who is Ron Ammons’ uncle and Mygrant’s brother-in-law, described getting a new driver’s license. “I have to renew it when I’m 100.”
But others spoke candidly about ill health and nearing the end of life.
At “94, looking at 95,” Hartzell wishes he could see and hear better. He said he’s still the same person as he was in his youth, except now, “I think before I act.”
He said “very few people” live to be 94. And if they do, they’re often “in a nursing home, or they can’t talk, or think.”
Lentz, when asked his age this summer, replied that he will turn 95 on Christmas Day — “If I live that long.”
They know fewer and fewer of their generation remain. Gierke believes he’s the only one left of his gun crew. And Daley talked about staying in touch with some close friends he met in the service.
“I know they’re all gone now. Every guy is gone,” he said. “Except me. I’m the only one left. … It’s sad to lose them because we were close.”