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Witnesses to World War II History

Survivors remember some of the conflict's remarkable moments

Iwo Jima Flag Raising

AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File

U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima.

En español | World War II ended three-quarters of a century ago — in May for the war in Europe and in August for the Pacific. The generation that lived through those memorable events is fast fading from the scene. Only about 2 percent of the men and women who served in the American armed forces from 1941 to 1945 are still alive.

But there are some who can still describe thrilling, iconic moments — a man who is the only surviving witness of the German surrender signing, another who saw the raised flag on Iwo Jima, yet another who worked on the Enola Gay, the B-29 airplane that delivered the first atomic bomb and hastened the war's end. And children whose mothers were the women in the legendary Rosie the Riveter posters and photos also remember.

Here are stories about some of the most unforgettable moments of World War II.


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I saw the raised flag on Iwo Jima

Hershel “Woody” Williams was a 21-year-old U.S. Marine training on the island of Guam and preparing to invade Japan when he heard that the atomic bombs had been dropped and that the war was finally over. He says there is only one word to describe how he felt: exhilaration. “We sort of went crazy. We all had weapons and we had ammunition in the camp, and so most of us ran out of tents and started shooting into the air, running around like a bunch of idiots.”

For Williams, it was like being released from a death sentence he had lived under since earlier that year, when he'd experienced the horrors of the battle on Iwo Jima.

Hershel Woody Williams

Courtesy Department of Defense

Hershel "Woody" Williams

"It's not possible to describe the hell of Iwo Jima,” says the 96-year-old Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II in the Pacific. “It's like trying to explain how a mother feels when she is giving birth. Unless you've been through it, there's no way you can adequately understand it.”

On Feb. 23, 1945, as a corporal in the 3rd Marine Division, Williams destroyed several Japanese positions using a flamethrower, repeatedly risking his life as young riflemen around him were slaughtered in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. That same February day, from afar, he saw the Stars and Stripes fluttering atop Mount Suribachi — the flag had first been raised that morning.

Williams says he endured the horror of battle, thanks to superb training and, he stresses, because he had an unshakable belief that he would make it off the volcanic island in one piece. “I never let myself think I was not going to survive. You have to keep convincing yourself you'll make it. I heard Marines say, ‘I'm not going to make it,’ and they didn't.”

Williams was wounded by shrapnel and received a Purple Heart. Almost 7,000 Americans were killed and 20,000 others wounded by the time the battle ended.

Williams received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House in October 1945 and was honorably discharged from the Marines a few weeks later. For many years he struggled to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. It was not until he recommitted himself to Christianity that he began to recover. He went on to serve for 35 years as the chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Most days, the war feels very distant to him. “I have attempted to wipe from my mind the bad things that took place.” But sometimes it all comes surging back. One memory in particular cannot be erased — the faces of two young Marines fighting beside him that fateful Feb. 23. “I didn't even know them. They sacrificed themselves for me. I have asked the same question thousands of times in my life: ‘Why me?’ Why was I selected to be the person to receive the Medal of Honor, to have all the accolades, when they gave all they had — their lives?”

"It's not possible to describe the hell of Iwo Jima. It's like trying to explain how a mother feels when she is giving birth. Unless you've been through it, there's no way you can adequately understand it."

— Hershel "Woody" Williams

    


I watched the Germans surrender

Germany surrenders at the end of World War Two

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

It was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. And it is thought that only one man in the U.S. is still alive who witnessed it: the moment the Germans formally surrendered in a small schoolhouse in Reims, France, early on May 7, 1945, marking the end, in Europe, of the most destructive conflict in human history.

Twenty-year-old Luciano “Louis” Graziano had been living in East Aurora, New York, when he was drafted in 1943. After landing on Omaha Beach and surviving the Battle of the Bulge, he became the utilities foreman with the 102nd Infantry Field Artillery Battalion, Special Headquarters Command. It was his job, in early May 1945, to keep buildings used by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in good order. One such building was the famed Little Red Schoolhouse.

Luciana Graziano

Courtesy Graziano family

Luciano “Louis” Graziano

Graziano, now 97, says he can still clearly remember seeing German Gen. Alfred Jodl enter a crowded classroom in the three-story brick building in Reims. “The British, French, Russians, Americans had already signed. The Germans were the last to sign. [Jodl] wouldn't sign [the surrender] until the others had.” It was 2:41 a.m. when the steely-faced Jodl finally signed the formal surrender documents with a Parker 51 fountain pen.

Master Sgt. Graziano and other personnel then escorted Jodl along a corridor to a room where Eisenhower was waiting. Graziano watched Jodl walk into the room and “click his heels” and salute Ike, who had refused to ever shake the hands of a Nazi and wasn't about to start now. Jodl was soon dismissed. Later that morning, Eisenhower sent the historic message: “THE MISSION OF THIS ALLIED FORCE WAS FULFILLED …”

Given that Graziano was in Reims, heart of the Champagne region in France, it was only natural that, later that day, he celebrated with some Champagne. “Everyone was really relieved, having a good time … looking forward to going home.” V-E Day was all the more joyous and emotional given that he was also madly in love. Earlier that spring he had met Eula “Bobbie” Shaneyfelt, a Women's Army Corps sergeant. The couple got married in, of all places, Reims, in October 1945. They honeymooned in Paris and went on to have five children and many grandchildren. “She was a staff sergeant [when I met her],” Graziano remembers with a chuckle. “I was a master sergeant, so I pulled rank on her. But when we got home, she pulled rank on me.”


My fellow nurses died in a kamikaze attack

old sepia toned world war two photo of a group of six american nurses on board a navy ship

Courtesy Doris Howard (second from right)

When Doris Howard, 100, saw scenes this spring of the hospital ship USNS Comfort arriving in New York Harbor, where it had gone to aid COVID-19 patients, it brought back memories from three-quarters of a century ago, when she was on the ship's namesake, the USS Comfort, in the perilous waters off Okinawa, Japan.

Then, the danger was kamikazes — the Japanese suicide planes intent on destroying the American fleet.

"You never knew if you were going to be next,” recalls Howard, who served as an Army nurse aboard the hospital ship during the Battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II. “You just knew that the odds were that you were going to get hit. It could be any second."

A Wisconsin native, Howard had joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps a few weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed. She had spent more than a year as a lieutenant aboard the Comfort, working 12-hour shifts with just one day off a month, by the time she began treating some of the tens of thousands of young Americans wounded during the battle. “Planes would come over at night, flying very low, horribly noisy, making the ship rock when they would drop bombs. If another ship was hit, we would expect a big surge of patients."

"You never knew if you were going to be next. You just knew that the odds were that you were going to get hit. It could be any second."

— Doris Howard

During the three-month battle that claimed 12,000 American lives, kamikaze attacks accounted for the sinking of 26 U.S. ships and for thousands of deaths. Even though the Comfort, carrying more than 500 wounded, was painted white and identified by red crosses, it was still a target. Howard's luck finally ran out on April 28, 1945, when, as she tended to wounded Marines, one of the suicide planes hit the ship. Twenty-eight people, including six of her fellow nurses, were killed in the deadliest strike on U.S. servicewomen in World War II.

Today, Howard still vividly recalls the moment when the kamikaze hit the smokestack and then plunged deep into its operating rooms belowdecks. When the plane's fuel tank then exploded, Howard was thrown eight feet and slammed into a bulkhead.

She was deafened and temporarily numb, from her neck to her waist. But she was back at her station within hours. She suffered permanent damage to her hearing and spine. Despite the loss of life and considerable damage, the Comfort was not abandoned, and Howard was able to stay on duty until the ship docked in Guam for repairs and to evacuate the wounded. Her fellow nurses were then buried in a deeply moving ceremony, the Stars and Stripes draped across their coffins.

Howard returned to the States after the attack and was working in a hospital in Oakland, California, when she heard that the war had ended. “We all just felt great happiness that it was over,” she says. “Tremendous relief. We couldn't believe it. No more maimed bodies that we were trying to mend. It was over, and everywhere it was ‘Peace!’ “ Howard married and worked as a nurse in a doctor's office in the Bay Area before moving to Reno, Nevada, in 2005, to be with her son.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, she's been in strict quarantine. When she saw this spring that the USNS Comfort had deployed to New York, it generated strong feelings. “There was a call for retired medical professionals to return to duty, so I was trying to figure out what I could do on the new Comfort. But, being in a wheelchair on board a ship, I'm afraid I would be more of a hindrance than a help. But I sure would go if they needed me and would have me."


I saw defeat in the faces of Japanese prison guards

The submarine U S S Tang

Arkivi/Getty Images

United States Navy Submarine USS Tang at sea.

Early on Oct. 25, 1944, Bill Leibold stood on the bridge of the USS Tang, World War II's most lethal American submarine, on its fifth and final patrol. He watched in the darkness through binoculars as the submarine's very last torpedo broached the surface of the ocean and began to porpoise, with phosphorescence trailing it. To this day, the next seconds are indelibly etched in his mind.

“There goes one! Erratic!” he shouted.

The torpedo malfunctioned, circled back, and hit the Tang with an enormous explosion. Of the 87 crewmen, just nine survived. All nine survivors were fished from the cold waters off Taiwan, brutally interrogated by vengeful Japanese and sent to a notorious POW camp, in Omori, Japan. That's where Leibold and his fellow submariners were working in caves when, on Aug. 15, 1945, they heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito on a public address system: “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”

Leibold understood from the faces of the Japanese guards that the war was over. He had lost 70 pounds in captivity and that night celebrated with other “elated” Americans with horse-gut stew. The prisoners weren't immediately released — that day came 13 days later when American forces reached the camp. But the abuse ended after the emperor's words. And U.S. planes were able to drop rations into the camp for the starving men.

Today, Leibold is convinced that it was love that kept him and the Tang's other eight survivors alive all those decades ago. “Seven of the nine were married,” he stresses. Some had small children, and they fought ferociously to stay alive so they could see them again. All the men aboard the submarine had been reported lost. But Leibold's wife, Grace, had clung to hope for a miracle. He was finally able to hold her in his arms in Los Angeles in late September 1945.

As the coronavirus raged across the United States this spring, Leibold was expecting a lonely 97th birthday, restricted to his room in a care facility in California and barred from seeing his family. “It's like being incarcerated. To be perfectly honest, the situation is far stricter than it was at times [as a POW].” He is the last man alive from the 87 who served aboard the USS Tang on her final patrol. “I'm still here, and they're all gone ...”

What will Leibold do to mark the 75th anniversary of V-J Day this summer? Not much, he says with a sigh, given that he's in strict lockdown. “It'll be just another day for me.” He looks forward to the next time he is released from a hellish confinement — and again holds a loved one tight.


I helped build the Enola Gay

In 1944, Russ Blauvelt was a Nebraska high school student working part time on a secret government project. He helped build modified B-29 bombers, including the Enola Gay. It took him 75 years to see the famous finished product. The U.S. bomber was manufactured at the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Co. plant in Fort Crook, Nebraska, where Blauvelt helped assemble wings.

After two weeks of training in the fall of 1944, the 16-year-old was a “bucker” for seven months as he assisted wing riveters. Every morning, Blauvelt rode a streetcar and a bus from his home in Omaha to Fort Crook (now Offutt Air Force Base). He worked a 4 1/2-hour shift and started at 60 cents an hour.

"I felt good that the Enola Gay stopped the damn war. Hey! They started it, and we finished it."

— Russ Blauvelt

On Aug. 6, 1945, the plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At the time, Blauvelt had no clue that he had worked on the Enola Gay, only later matching the plane's serial numbers to his memory.

Last year, at 91, Blauvelt climbed into the Enola Gay, preserved at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C. “I got inside the plane and into the cockpit,” he says. “I was surprised at how big it was. It was an emotional moment — tears came to my eyes."

Blauvelt says he gave a “little spiel about aircrafts ... what I did, what we did. We stopped the damn war. The Marines were [planning] to invade Japan; I would've been in one of those divisions hitting Japan. I couldn't celebrate because I was in boot camp. But I was grateful. I felt good that the Enola Gay stopped the damn war. Hey! They started it, and we finished it."

Blauvelt was among a group of 14 veterans treated to the Washington, D.C., trip by Wish of a Lifetime, to view memorials erected in their honor. “It's about achieving that dream for seniors,” said Jeremy Garver, manager at the nonprofit organization. “Once you get to a certain age in our society, you are no longer valued. That's something we want to change."


My mom was Rosie the Riveter

She is one of the enduring symbols of the second world war, the strong, independent woman who stepped in to build America's war machine when millions of men were overseas.

But, it turns out, there are different versions of that legend.

For many during the war, Rosie the Riveter was the woman in the Norman Rockwell illustration that ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day, 1943.

His subject was 19-year-old Mary Doyle, a telephone operator in Arlington, Vermont, near the painter's home. The artist admitted that he took some “privileges” with the painting. The petite Miss Doyle became a husky woman wearing overalls and welder's goggles below her red hair. She holds a lunch box marked “Rosie,” and her right shoe rests on a copy of Hitler's memoir, Mein Kampf.

Mary's daughter Barbara Boska, in Sparta Township, New Jersey, recalls that when she and her siblings were children, “we didn't think it was a huge deal. But as we got older we understood more of what it meant to people during the war — the women went off to work; the men went off to war.” She remembers her mom in her later years “sitting with a smile, signing posters. People treated her like royalty. She did her part."

But Rockwell's Rosie wasn't the first image of Rosie the Riveter. Another, earlier poster has become even more associated with the legend. It shows a stern young woman, wearing a blue work shirt and a red polka-dot bandanna over her hair. She flexes her bare right arm and clenches her fist. We Can Do It! appears above her head. J. Howard Miller created the poster for Westinghouse's war effort.

We Can Do It! Poster

John Parrot/Stocktrek Images

Iconic J. Howard Miller poster

So who is that Rosie? There are at least a couple of candidates.

Stephanie Gregg, 75, grew up believing it was her mother, Geraldine Holt Doyle, who looked amazingly like the girl in the poster.

When Geraldine turned 18 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she started work at a local factory. “She was very glamorous,” says her daughter, “beautiful brown eyes, dark wavy hair.” A UPI photographer came to the plant and made several pictures of Geraldine.

She left the factory soon after, married her husband, Leo Doyle, in dental school and moved to Maryland.

Later in life she embraced the Rosie persona, speaking at schools, union halls and before the state legislature about the ethic embodied by “We can do it!”

"The essence of her being was all about perserverance, courage, an unspoken confidence,” her daughter says.

But there is another candidate for the Rosie of Miller's poster: Naomi Parker, working in the Alameda Naval Air Station. Her photograph was taken by a UPI wire photographer and sent across the country in 1942. She, too, looks remarkably like the woman in the iconic poster.

Her daughter-in-law Marnie Blankenship, 70, remembers Naomi telling stories of working at the Navy plant repairing damaged planes.

It wasn't until 2015 that the woman, whose married name was Naomi Fraley, found out she was a likely candidate for Rosie the Riveter. She had only three more years to live. In a documentary video she made before her death, she talked about the famous motto: “We all said, ‘We can do it,” she noted. As for the famous red polka-dot bandanna, “We got those at the five-and-dime."

That no one Rosie has emerged may be fitting. During World War II, around 5 million women worked in the defense industry and other sectors, according to the Defense Department site, and another 350,000 served in uniform.

"Rosie and the real women she represented were essential cogs in the war machine,” says James Kimble, a professor of communications at Seton Hall University. “Their effort is every bit as important to remember as the many other sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation."

A letter from World War Two

Center for American War Letters Archives

Millions marked the end of the war with letters home to loved ones

The Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in California, directed by Andrew Carroll, works to seek out and preserve correspondences from every U.S. conflict. Within the center’s collection are thousands of World War II letters. Here are some excerpts:

Medical Officer Allen Boyden writes to his wife from Europe on V-E Day, May 8, 1945

Dearest –

The war is over! It’s hard to believe when I look back on the state of the war at the time I left for overseas — exactly 29 months ago. At that time I’m happy I did not realize that it would take so long….

It is wonderful to know that Germany at last is completely beaten.... The wickedness and bestiality has finally ceased, aside from a bit of sporadic fighting here in this country. These people have been oppressed 6 long years ... and their genuine welcome of the Americans brings tears to our eyes. They are truly grateful. We walk down the streets to have flowers thrust upon us, people smiling and waving and saluting us from all sides….

 Seeing the joy on the faces of these people — free again after so long — has taught us something of the meaning of freedom. Enough for tonight. I love you, and know in my heart that we will soon be together.

Allen.

Lydia Klepac, in Detroit, Michigan, writes to her husband, Cpl. Walter Klepac, about their infant son, who was born after Walter had deployed

Dearest Walter: Oh my darling! You are really coming home to see us! Gee, I can hardly believe it and I keep reading your letter of May 28 over and over. But I’ll really believe it when I can touch your face, honey, and feel your loving arms around me once again. Will you please pinch me hard — to see if I’m only dreaming. Okay I’ll wait until you get home, then we shall see.

Oh happy days. Sonny will really be with his dear daddy.

You’ll have to take it a little slow with him at first, honey, but I’m sure it won’t be long for you two to become real pals. This will be the first time he really sees you, Daddy, and naturally you’ll be a stranger to him at first. He has heard “Daddy” repeated so many, many times that I’m sure he knows that such a person exists... Besides, he can say “ta-ta” perfect now and he has kissed his daddy’s picture a millions times already….

I’ll close with God’s blessings and a Good-nite.

Bye, Darling!...

1st Lt. William Lee Preston writes a more reflective letter to his brother John about the news of the German surrender

May 10, 1945

Dear John —

Yes, the war in Europe is over. I don’t know what the reaction was in the States as a whole. Over a patched-up radio, we heard that ticker tape and paper floated down from New York buildings. We heard that there were wild celebrations in the streets in London by civilians, English and American soldiers. But, John, the frontline troops didn’t celebrate. Most of the men merely read the story of victory from the division bulletin sent to the troops, and said something like “I’m glad,” and walked away. Perhaps it was a different story in their hearts, or perhaps they were too tired, or thinking of home too much, or thinking of their buddies who didn’t live to see the victory, to do much celebrating or merrymaking. But I’m sure of one thing — the troops were glad they wouldn’t have to fight anymore — I was.

What our future is, we don’t know, but everyone is sweating out the South Pacific troop movement.

My love to Eleanor and Troy.

Your brother,

Bill

1st Officer Henry “Hank” Ketchum describes to his loved ones on hearing about the Japanese surrender — and the unexpected (and somewhat lighthearted) reaction some soldiers had about returning to the States

August 13, 1945

Dearest Family,

I got the urge to write early this morning and so thought it would be a good idea to get a long letter off to you....

We were in Luliang, China, at a movie when they stopped everything and announced that the Japanese had offered to surrender....

 The whole camp, or rather, base about blew up. Anti-aircraft guns shooting, flares going up, tracer machine gun fire, pistols, rifles, and every noise possible could be heard....

Everyone was ready to go home and be a civilian again, and then most of us stopped dead in our tracks. Be a civilian? Earn our own money? Look for a job? What kind of a job? ...

Well, all for now! Love and miss you all.

Your loving son,

Hank

Assistant Army Physician Robert S. Easterbrook writes to his parents about tending to Hideki Tojo, after Tojo’s failed suicide attempt

(12 Noon) 12 Sept. 45

Dear Mom & Dad: —

I don’t imagine you could ever guess where I am as a write this letter. At present, I’m sitting in a chair about 3 feet from the bedside of the ex-premier of Japan — Hideki Tojo.

We were in duty last night, in surgery — when he arrived at approximately 9:40 P.M.  ...

As there was no whole blood available at the moment, we gave him 600 cc of blood plasma, after which he perked up enough to make a statement. He told Gen. Eichelberger (thru the interpreter) that he was sorry to cause so much trouble. He had planned on shooting himself in the head, but had been afraid it would muss up his face too much — so had decided on the heart. He used a 38 caliber automatic, & the bullet entered just below & medial to the left breast & emerged from the back about 2 inches higher. I’m damned if I know how it missed his heart.

It’s almost 1 o’clock & time to check him. Back in a few minutes...

2:25 p.m.

Blood transfusion started. It will take about an hour….

3:40 p.m.

The transfusion has ended & everyone except the two nurses, the guard & myself has cleared out. Tojo is resting quietly & the color is coming back a little....

something’s wrong

4:25 p.m.

Phew, that was nice! He developed a severe chill & pain in the heart & wound from the blood given him. It was a little questionable there for a while, but he came out of it OK. (dammit). You know, it’s funny to be taking care of someone & not knowing whether you want him to live or not.

Well, folks, it’s almost time for my relief; so I’ll close off for now, take another check on him & call it a day.

Love,

Bob

P. S. In my next letter I’ll send a piece of his shirt. It has blood on it—but don’t wash it. Just put it away in my room.

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