Memories still sear after 70 years

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Barbara Ruben

Robert Kaufman spent much of World War II on a submarine in the Pacific, and witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, Kaufman and other World War II veterans recalled their service in interviews with the Beacon.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

May 8, 1945 dawned warm and drizzly in Washington, D.C. Unlike the day when cheering conga lines snaked past the White House three months later as victory was declared over Japan, the May day that become known as Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) retained a muted, business-as-usual air in the nation’s capital.

One bright spot was the re-lighting of the Capitol dome, which had been darkened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor more than three years earlier. Author Peter Hart described it in his book Washington at War this way: “A loveliness appeared on the night sky. The dome of the Capitol gleamed in a bath of light, and the light flowed upward over the gown of the goddess,” the Armed Freedom statue that stands on top of the dome.

More than 4,000 miles away in Austria, Army nurse Bernadine “Brownie” Plasters was helping liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp. Robert Kaufman was in the Pacific, and in September would be aboard the USS Missouri witnessing the signing of the Japanese surrender.

The Beacon interviewed these two Washington-area residents and several others about their remembrances of the war and its end. Seventy years later, they are all in their 90s. But each can instantaneously remember dates of shipping out and battles, even meals eaten on the battlefield.

“I have retained details that go way, way back,” said Robert J. Berens, 93, of Springfield, Va., whose recent self-published book The Second Time Around devotes seven chapters to his war experiences. “Some people said you must have referred to notes. I said, ‘No I didn’t. I remember things so vividly.’”

Under the sea

Pennsylvania-born Kaufman spent much of the war submerged under the ocean on a Navy submarine. After graduating from high school in 1936, he went on to the Naval Academy, graduating about a year and a half before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Because he was not supposed to get married less than two years after graduation, he wed his wife surreptitiously on Valentine’s Day in 1942, and was aboard a ship sailing for British waters two days later.

Kaufman’s first foray into submarine school ended in disaster when he tried to do a simulation of escaping from a submarine in distress at the ocean floor. He was put in a pressure chamber, but his ears wouldn’t clear properly halfway through, and he was sent home — but not for long.

Kaufman, who today is 95 and lives in the Vinson Hall Retirement Community for retired military in Arlington, Va., was called in for surgery on his nose that would allow him to work on a submarine.

He was sent out on an old sub from the 1910s to Pearl Harbor and on into the Western Pacific.

“Now things started to get interesting,” he quipped.

How interesting? As Kaufman puts it, one day they were “heavily worked over” by artillery from Japanese ships. They submerged, resurfacing at twilight to hear something loose on deck.

“I can remember this so vividly,” he said, recalling that there was an unexploded 500 pound anti-submarine bomb — a depth charge — sitting on the deck. Fellow sailors gently rolled it onto a rubber boat, and they got away as fast as they could.

“Had the seas been rougher and we had a bit more rolling, it would have exploded and I wouldn’t be here,” Kaufman said.

By war’s end he had reluctantly taken on the role of flag lieutenant, a job he calls “being a kind of flunky to an admiral.” But that job took him to the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945. Kaufman is in the back row of the famous photo that shows Gen. Douglas MacArthur signing the agreement — but all that can be seen is his hat. See the photo at http://bit.ly/japanese_surrender.

By the end of the year, Kaufman was back in Pearl Harbor with his wife. He continued with his Naval career until 1970.

A “lucky son of a gun”

For decades after World War II ended, William Peacock didn’t say much about his experiences in the war — either the “shrapnel coming down like black rain” or meeting King George VI when he inspected the ship Peacock was on.

But Peacock, now 93 and living at Riderwood Retirement Community in Silver Spring, Md., started giving talks to groups about his experiences in Normandy and Sicily once a colleague remarked that he had no idea Peacock had been in combat.

“I just didn’t talk about it. I saw some things that are hard to talk about,” Peacock said.

But despite being involved in intense ship battles with heavy casualties in Europe, Peacock himself was never wounded.

“I was a lucky son of a gun,” he said recalling the battles to land in Salerno, Italy, in which Allied troops saw 3,000 killed and 7,000 wounded.

“Two torpedoes were shot in front and behind [the ship]. One went right under the ship. I watched it all standing on the starboard side. All those exploded on the beach,” he recalled.

Peacock spent most of the war as a quartermaster helping with navigation on a Tank Landing Ship (LST) nicknamed Palermo Pete (after a stuffed stork that two of the officers found in a bombed-out house in Palermo, Sicily).

Pete’s image was painted on the port and starboard bow, and the ship’s motto became “we deliver” — a play on the stork’s association with delivering babies and the ship’s delivery of troops and muscle to defeat the enemy.

On May 25, 1944, England’s King George VI made a visit to Peacock’s ship, and Peacock was told to show him around the quartermaster’s area. He admits to being a bit nervous, but said the king was very nice.

Just two weeks later, Peacock’s boat made the first of 18 trips between England and Normandy before D-Day, bringing fresh troops in and dispersing them on “Ducks,” amphibious crafts, toward Omaha Beach. The ship also ferried groups of German prisoners back to England. Peacock still has the photos of several of them and says he harbors no animosity, wishing he had gotten their addresses so he could have written to them.

On one trip, several other LST’s were torpedoed by German e-boats. “We could see flames and hear the screams, but we couldn’t stop or we’d be targets,” he recalled. “It was a very scary time as we saw those ships at sea and all those planes in the air and thinking, ‘How could we possibly escape without a scratch?’”

One torpedo missed the ship’s stern by just 15 feet. But it turned out the ship didn’t get through the battle without being scathed. There were six casualties after Peacock’s ship was hit.

Peacock was allowed to return to the U.S. just before VE Day. “Up and down the streets in Columbia, S.C., people were celebrating all over the place. You’ve seen the pictures of guys kissing girls. That was us. We were so happy,” he said.

Peacock met his wife soon after the war, went to college to get a degree in electrical engineering, and had a 30-year career with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Nursing the wounded

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Chicago nurse Brownie Plasters said to herself, “Well, what am I doing here? I should be in the Army doing my part,” she recalled during a 2011 Dept. of Defense interview. (A few of the quotes from that interview, along with ones from an interview with the Beacon, are included here).

An aunt who trained at Walter Reed Hospital inspired her, and Plasters said neither she nor her family had any qualms about her joining the military.

After spending a few years working in an Army hospital in Florida, she was sent to England to help treat the many wounded after the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

Times were different then. She said they were not given any advice or preparation for going into war zones, or counseling after they returned.

“The first day I was assigned to an operating room, and they wheeled in a handsome young man. They sawed off the cast, and I took one look and my breakfast returned to my mouth.

“I took off out of the operating room like a flash out of a gun and the surgeon was yelling at me, ‘come back here, come back here.’ I gave myself a pep talk and said, ‘This is what you joined the Army for, to help wounded soldiers.’ So I went back in. I saw many a battle casualty after that, but none that affected me like that,” said Plasters, who is 97 and lives in Virginia’s Fairfax Retirement Community.

Later, she was sent to Nuremburg, Germany. “It was the first time we heard planes overhead. Some of the other nurses were screaming, but I just reached out, got my rosary, put on my helmet and said, ‘If this is it, this is it.’”

Just before Germany surrendered, Plasters was sent to help liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The conditions there were so horrendous that they had to evacuate those still alive to a makeshift hospital two miles away, where all they had for beds was canvas on the floor and one blanket and pillow per patient.

“They were skin and bone, and all of them had a type of dysentery caused by starvation,” she said. “Daniel Webster doesn’t have enough words in his dictionary to describe those patients. They were tremendous. I feel very honored to think that I was there to do a few things for them.”

Plasters said she took a special interest in one young man whom she helped nurse back to health. They reconnected many years later after he immigrated to the United States and had a “wonderful reunion.”

Putting it into words

In his memoir, Robert Berens writes, “The whole world was coming apart in 1941 — seething with war.”

So in February of that year, the Iowan joined the National Guard, who were the first to be called up to fight after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“They looked around and happened to find me in a local restaurant on a Friday night. I had just turned 18,” Berens said in an interview. “They said, ‘Why don’t you come with us?’” he recalled.

He soon found himself fighting in North Africa, and said he had to march hundreds of miles from the north of the country to the south.

Later, Berens fought in Italy — for a while with no boots or coat in frigid weather. One day, he was asked to escort famed journalist Ernie Pyle, whom he describes as “a plain little man who drove his own jeep and presumed nothing.”

Berens was sent back home in 1944, glad to be home, but shaken by his war experiences.

“I was very morose. I had lost friends and felt I lost opportunity. I had what you’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder — not from a single event but from the whole ordeal,” he said.

What saved him was taking up boxing (he fought in 60 matches around the country) and going to college.

“To me, the GI Bill was the greatest thing that happened to me in my life. I was the third veteran in line in Iowa City in 1945. No one in my family ever went to college, and my mom and dad didn’t finish high school.”

Berens found he had a knack for writing and got a master’s degree in journalism. He has worked in communications at the Pentagon and as a writing professor at colleges in Virginia and Florida.

Battle of the Bulge

Robert Calvert spent two years at Oberlin College in Ohio before enlisting in the reserves and heading for England and France in 1944, soon before the Battle of Bulge — the largest and bloodiest battle of the war.

The battle lasted more than five weeks, from December 1944 into January 1945, in a densely forested area of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It was fought in bitter cold, with troops wading through snowdrifts.

Calvert recalls the miserable conditions as “damn cold.” He got pneumonia. Men died all around him, and when he got shot in the leg during a German ambush he counted himself as lucky because he was able to go to a hospital.

Calvert learned of the war’s end in a Paris hospital where he spent two months recuperating. “I was very pleased, because I was certain I was going to die in the war. I thought there was no way I was going to make it,” he said.

At the same time, he didn’t feel the war’s ending in Europe was a huge cause for celebration. “It was not a surprise. Hitler had killed himself. It was a foregone conclusion,” Calvert said. “I did not do a cheer.”

After the war, Calvert finished college and worked in administration at several colleges, including the University of California, Berkeley, before heading to Washington for a career in the Peace Corps office and the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Calvert, who is now 92, lives in Riderwood. “I think about the war every day of my life. It was damn interesting; the most interesting thing I’ve done in my life,” he said.