Thursday, June 12, 2014

Remembering WW II at the Josephy Center



Here’s a “blog break” from Indians and Western American History and affairs.

Last Friday was D-Day, and the opening of our special WW II program at the Josephy Center. The program owes in part to the late Jack McClaran, a local rancher and strong friend of Alvin Josephy’s who followed the D-Day landing onto the mainland and fought across the Rhine and into the Nazi heartland as a tanker. He saw half of his battalion decimated, waited for new tanks for a couple of weeks, and got back in—“the hardest thing I ever did was get back into a tank… Tankers weren’t afraid of death, but of being  cooked inside a tank.”

And then they liberated Buchenwald. And due in part to Alvin’s urging—“there are people in the world who don’t believe concentration camps existed; we have to tell our stories” –Jack agreed to tell his, and over 100 people showed up at the local Oddfellows Hall a few years back to hear his calm, reflective, and brilliant account of the War.

Alvin Josephy and Jack McClaran
So Jack passed this spring, and it occurred to me—and to many others of course—that the generation that fought in and lived through that War is leaving us. So we determined to have an exhibit, and to interview the vets and Rosy the Riveters and home-front parents and wives and children who planted crops, bought War Bonds, saved rubber and waited for homecomings. We put out the call, and people responded.  

Alvin’s own war story—something I have touched on briefly but not really explored—is incredible and, I believe, the defining time in his life. It fueled a desire for true, gut-level, untarnished accounts of what really happened to and with tribal peoples and the Euro-American fur traders, missionaries, settlers, and speculators as they threaded their way across the continent. It informed his actions as historian and advocate for Indians for the next 60 years.

On the weekend I listened to the edited—and sanitized—15 minute version of Alvin’s recording of the Guam landing. It was the version that played on national radio networks two weeks after the invasion, cut from 110 minutes that included more graphic accounts of the men who were hit as they waded ashore and on the beach as they dug in under the Japanese pillboxes. I re-read the chapter on Alvin’s recruitment into General Denig’s Marine Corps journalism and public relations crew, marveled again at him wrestling recording gear (a 50 pound machine that recorded on movie film), batteries, Hermes typewriter, weapons and other gear across the country, across the Pacific to Guadalcanal and then into battle on Guam and Iwo.

Alvin must have written and relayed thousands of dispatches for publication in local newspapers in Marine hometowns across the country. And the Library of Congress holds 62 recordings from Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo. We have ordered the first four, and intend to get all of them eventually. But I want the newspaper accounts too! This exhibit lit that fire and I will go to the Marine Corps or wherever to find them. If anyone out there has hints, let me know!

The exhibit includes pictures and uniforms of Alvin, of Jack McClaran, of Rob Kemp’s father who weathered 30 missions as a nose-gunner (which put me in mind of Joseph Heller and Yosarian), of Biden Tippett and Ivan Roberts and many others. Sadly, we’ve missed interviews—Bud Stangel passed away last week after he said he was ready to talk about it all, and others have passed or are became too weak to tell their stories now, as we put the exhibit together.

William Stafford
But we have what we have. And we shared it with Joseph students this week and are sharing with scores of locals and visitors, rekindling memories and kindling new thinking about war.

I will always remember Jack McClaran’s late-aged wondering about the brutality that he bore witness to at Buchenwald—“Rich,” he said, “the Germans were educated, and local citizens knew in their hearts what was going on in those camps… How can we humans do this to each other.”

Jack became a skeptic of all war, which brings to mind another Veteran, the poet William Stafford. This year is the centenary of William Stafford’s birth. Stafford told his Kansas draft board chair that it was he, his Sunday School teacher, who had convinced him that he should be a conscience objector. He spent the War in Forest Service C.O. camps, and spent a lifetime –many years as Oregon poet laureate, a few as the U.S. poet laureate—writing against war and for peace.

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