When I first saw him, I had no plans to write a book about Nebraska’s World War II veterans. It was just a few days after Veterans Day in November 2015. I was in a writing slump and sitting in a Fremont restaurant. When I stood to get a second cup of coffee, his cap caught my attention: “World War II—Korea—Vietnam Veteran.” When I approached him and thanked him for his service, his immediate response was to thank me for thanking him.
I remember thinking that man has a story to tell. Writing one story about a three-war veteran soon expanded into interviews with 21 World War II veterans for a book titled Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans.
My veterans include 19 men and two women. Seven were drafted between the ages of 17 and 24, the remainder enlisted between 1941 and 1945. Now, their ages range from 90 to 96.
During my research last year, the following statement from the U.S. Veterans Administration proved that a book on World War II veterans can’t be written fast enough:
“Approximately every three minutes a memory of World War II—its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs—disappears. Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now mostly in their 90s. They are dying quickly—at the rate of approximately 430 a day.”
A recent check revealed that rate of attrition has increased to 492 a day. Four of my veterans have recently added to that statistic.
This is why it’s imperative to preserve the stories from these men and women. However, it isn’t just World War II experiences that need to be shared.
The United States Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Its website states, “VHP’s mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.” Visiting the website loc.gov/vets explains how people can get involved with the project. A printable “Field Kit” includes interview questions.
A story doesn’t have to be submitted for inclusion in the Veterans History Project. Its resource materials can be accessed even if an individual just wants to preserve—written or oral—a veteran’s story for familial records. It’s simply important that veterans’ stories are not left untold.
Not everyone is comfortable with the process of interviewing veterans, but no one should dismiss the opportunity to thank veterans for their service. It’s a simple gesture that’s simply appreciated.
It was my privilege to have 21 World War II veterans share their stories with me. Enjoy the following three summarized stories of those veterans who are “Forever Heroes.”
Ben Fischer, an operations board tracker in World War II
Ben Fischer was sleeping aboard the SS Cape San Juan, a U.S. freighter/troopship, when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine about 300 miles south of Fiji. It was Nov. 11, 1943, and about 5:30 in the morning.
“The torpedo knocked the engine room out and the ship was leaning to one side,” Fischer says. “Oil [from the ship’s engines] was floating around and we were given orders to abandon ship.”
He swam toward a smaller six-man life raft. The raft was framed with wood and covered with wood decking. Barrels, which Fischer estimated to be about the size of 30-gallon drums, circled the perimeter.
When he first climbed into the raft, Fischer sat on a barrel with both legs inside. As more men climbed aboard, everyone sitting on barrels switched positions.
“We straddled the barrel with one foot in the water and one foot inside the raft,” he says. “We could get more in that way. We were just as close as we could make it.”
More men were crouched on the floor. With 33 men on the raft, Fischer recalls that it was “so full that we couldn’t get another person on.” He adds, “The barrels didn’t hold us up floating anymore. Our life jackets kept us floating.”
The next day, Fischer was still stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Then, he saw a seaplane in the air. It was picking up men who were floating in their lifejackets. He stresses it was right to rescue those men first.
“I saw it up in the air, but we were too far away [for the pilot] to see us,” he says, noting that he never saw any sharks in the water and believes the crude oil from the sinking ship probably kept them away.
Ships in the area headed toward the sinking SS Cape San Juan. Men on a destroyer rescued Fischer and the other 32 men after they had been on the raft for 30 hours.
The destroyer took the rescued men to the Fiji Islands. In the hospital for 10 days, Fischer’s eyes were treated because of reactions to the crude oil.
“One man went blind, and three or four were sent home because of eye problems. I was lucky,” he says.
The San Juan was carrying 1,464 men that included Fischer’s unit, the 1st Fighter Control Squadron. Of the 117 men who died, Fischer says 13 were from his squadron. The San Juan stayed partially afloat for another two days after the attack, sinking on Nov. 13. Fischer, and other men in the 1st Fighter Control Squadron, received the Purple Heart.
After about three months in Australia, Fischer’s Army Air Corps squadron began island hopping around the Philippines. As an operations board tracker, Fischer’s responsibility was to determine if planes were friend or foe.
Two different times during the island hopping, Fischer’s ships escaped encounters with a Japanese kamikaze (suicide pilot). While on one of the islands, he received announcement of the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945.
Upon arrival in San Francisco on Nov. 5, 1945, Fischer says he was content to make his way back to Nebraska without boarding another ship.
Ben Fischer died at age 97 on Feb. 20, 2017.
Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell
On May 28, 1944, Ray Mitchell’s 10-man crew in the 100th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force left base in eastern England. Their destination was an oil refinery in Magdeburg, Germany. Each bombing mission included Mitchell’s squadron of 21 B-17s.
“As we approached the target, about 20 ME 109s [Germany’s principle fighter planes] attacked us. We suffered heavy damage and the airplane was on fire,” he says.
The crew was ordered to bail out. Mitchell, a waist gunner, was behind the bomb bay near the middle of the plane. He explains how pulling a cable attached to the escape hatch released it.
“You have super strength at a time like this,” he says. “I pulled apparently at too much of an angle and broke it. This is almost an impossible situation now because you can’t bail out if the escape hatch isn’t gone.”
Finally able to get the escape hatch to release, Mitchell was ready to jump when the B-17 went into a spin. “It slammed me down on the floor. My radio operator landed on my back.” Estimating the aircraft was at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, Mitchell was beginning to see trees and fenceposts and Germans.
“Every time we made a revolution, I could see the sky, and then the ground, then the sky, then the ground, and it isn’t very far away,” he says. “You think about everything you did when a little kid. It’s not going to hurt me; it’s going to hurt the people back home.”
Then the plane broke in half and Mitchell was pulled outside. He managed to attach his chest-type parachute and pull the rip cord. “It was a relief to see 28 feet of silk up there. It was just 700 feet—not 7,000—before I hit the ground. It wasn’t long until the Germans showed up.” Of the original 21 B-17s in the squadron, only one aircraft was shot down on May 28. “That was us.”
He explains, “You’re not supposed to weaken and talk, so it was a lot of Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, USA” The eight-digit number was his serial number. “You say that over and over and over. They ask you what group you’re from, what kind of airplane you were flying, what altitude were you when you came across the Channel, things like that. Then you just repeat your name, rank, and serial number.”
Mitchell was a prisoner of war at Stalag VII A, located just north of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. He says the thought of freedom “goes through your mind all the time. It was never any doubt in our minds who was going to win the war, but whether you were going to be around when it was over.”
On April 29, 1945, around 9 a.m., gunfire was heard. Then, at 10 minutes after 12 in the afternoon, an American flag was raised. It wasn’t long before Sherman tanks crashed through the fence that surrounded the POW camp. “Literally, thousands of prisoners bolted out of there,” Mitchell says.
On May 1, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the Third Army, arrived at Moosburg “in his jeep with his dog, and a pistol on each hip.” It was two days after liberation and Mitchell was still in the camp. “I was a POW about 11 months and a few days, but before I finally got out, another 10 days had elapsed because I was one of the last to leave.”
Now at age 94 and 72 years after his service in the Army Air Corps, including just over 11 months as a prisoner of war, Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, U.S.A., answers his own question: “Was I proud to serve? You bet.”
Infantry Rifleman Mel Schwanke
Am Army officer in World War I probably would have been proud to have his son enlist in the Army during World War II. But what happens when the son wants to enlist in the Marine Corps?
Mel Schwanke knows from experience. He says his father hollered in resistance. And since a 17-year-old enlistee would need parental permission, the paper would not be signed. “So, I talked my mom into signing my papers.”
As an infantry rifleman, Schwanke was trained on firing the Browning Automatic Rifle. The .30-caliber rifle was an air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed weapon.
On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the naval ship carrying Schwanke’s platoon arrived at Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa became the largest amphibious assault, the last major battle in the Pacific Theater, and the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific. There were more than 250,000 total casualties. Together with Schwanke’s 1st Marine Division, the 6th Marine Division, and five divisions of the 10th Army, a total of 183,000 troops fought on Okinawa.
Excessive rain meant slow movement through mud on the island. High temperatures, together with the rain, resulted in high humidity. Also, the Japanese were occupying numerous caves. They had constructed an estimated 60 miles of interconnected passages in tunnels, which Schwanke says made combat difficult.
Seven days before Okinawa was secured, on June 12, 1945, Schwanke had his most life-changing experience of the war. Of his original platoon of 63, he was one of only five men who survived the island.
“We had some Japanese trapped in a cave under us and we were lobbing hand grenades down at them, and they were throwing hand grenades up at us. Sometimes we would catch them and throw them back down and they would explode immediately.”
Because he was on a walkie-talkie to call for a flamethrower tank as reinforcement to help get control of the cave, Schwanke was distracted. Suddenly, a buddy yelled, “Mel, get rid of that thing at your feet.” It was a Japanese hand grenade.
“I went to reach for the sucker and it went off right in my face.” He explains the grenades were made of scrap metal, so metal pieces shot in all directions when they exploded.
“One piece severed my watch band, one went in right next to my eye and my hearing was affected. Lots of pieces lodged in my stomach, in my leg and arms, and a big one by my spine.”
Schwanke lost most of the sight in his left eye, which still won’t rotate in its socket. “I have to turn my head to see,” he says. Pieces of shrapnel too close to his spine could not be removed.
For 11 months, he was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, California. He endured multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel pieces and extensive physical therapy to renew his strength. He was presented the Purple Heart while recuperating.
Reflecting on his almost two years of service during World War II, Schwanke, 91, says, “I was absolutely proud to serve and have no regrets about joining the Marine Corps.” Schwanke adds that, at the end of the war, his father was also proud. “My dad was OK by then that I was a Marine.”
For more information, pick up a copy of Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.
This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.
The graveyard in Normandy.