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Thursday, November 11, 2021

A Veteran’s Story

Reprinted today, in loving memory of my wonderful father,
Kenneth R. Woolling, M.D.,
(March 6, 1918 – April 16, 2017)

Every day another 1,000 men die — the brave soldiers of World War II. (According to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, the actual figure is 1,025.) Fewer and fewer G.I.’s remain from World War II, a conflict that ended clear back in 1945.

Sadly, with each death, we lose not only another unique individual but also another priceless story. As is true with veterans of earlier conflicts, some of their personal accounts of those days can be found in history books, family tales, and yellowing letters, but many chose not to speak of their experiences. Indeed, the father of a friend of mine never told his wartime story — though we later learned he had earned many medals — taking his war remembrances with him to his grave.

Through their recollections, we’re better able to gain an understanding of what war is really like — what the soldiers were feeling, what they went through, what they sacrificed. Our conception of the conflicts becomes much clearer and more direct. The historic events, which were formerly rather arid dates and places, come alive when we actually hear a vet tell his personal story in his own words.

A few years ago, American television journalist and author Tom Brokaw did the country a great service by interviewing many of the remaining veterans of World War II in his book The Greatest Generation. Though my father was not one of those chosen to be interviewed by Mr. Brokaw, Dad, now 96 years old, is one of those aging World War II vets. I recently conducted my own interview of my father for memories of his military service.

Dad entered the War in 1944, serving in the Medical Corps of the U. S. Army. I proudly present his words herewith:

We shipped out from New York harbor in a large transport vessel which had originally been a German ocean liner. It had been commandeered by the U. S. and converted for our military use.

As I stood on the deck that day, surrounded by strangers, I looked westward toward Manhattan and the USA. The realization suddenly hit me hard that I was leaving my home and all my loved ones behind, perhaps forever. I was 26 years old and had just completed medical school and one year’s internship. As I watched Lady Liberty holding her “lamp by the golden door,” slowly recede out of sight, I had an extremely lonely feeling and deep longing for home.

I remember that my mother had given me a small pocket Bible with a metal cover on it to protect and comfort me while gone. I can still feel that stiff little volume in my left breast pocket and all the love behind it. After a while, I brought myself back to reality and focused on our goal. Not knowing then how the war would turn out, I was aware of the necessity of each of our soldiers to do his utmost to promote our victory. I shall never forget the emotions felt at that particular time in my life.

I remember that we traveled in a convoy and were accompanied for a while by many porpoises. Several days later, our ships arrived in the English Channel, just off Dover, England, where we waited until dark to avoid strafing by the Luftwaffe. Once darkness set in, we started across the Channel and soon reached Le Havre. I was with the 250th General Hospital, serving as a medical officer, general duty. After that, I was reassigned to Innsbruck, Austria, working in a Clearing Company, determining the disposition of ill or wounded soldiers.

I could not, of course, at that time, have imagined the invention of such a thing as an atomic bomb, the surrender of Japan three days later, or our jubilant feelings when it was announced we would not be traveling to the Panama Canal as originally planned after Victory in Europe. But rather we would be re-routed for Boston, the USA, and home!

Looking back, from the vantage point of my present nonagenarian status, it’s difficult to believe that all this happened, but I was there, and I know.

November 11 is Veterans’ Day, the day we honor all those who have served our country in the military through the years. Veterans’ Day originated in 1918 as “Armistice Day,” marking the signing of the armistice, or peace agreement, by the Allies and Germans in World War I. Made effective at 11 a.m. on 11/11 of that year — “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” — the Armistice symbolically ended that war. It became a national holiday, officially renamed Veterans’ Day , in 1954, when President Eisenhower called for an annual day to honor those who fought in all of America’s wars. Veterans’ Day is also meant to stand for a continuation of the quest for universal freedom and peace.

In that spirit, let’s take a moment to remember those who have served our country in military conflicts. And, if the individuals are still with us, let’s seek them out. Thank them for their efforts and sacrifice. Ask to hear their stories.

May we all hope and pray for a permanent world peace one day.

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