Reflections on the Veterans History Project and our WWII Veterans
With the Vanishing Breed

by David J. Winer

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2015, the Lake County Courthouse hosted its fourth annual Veterans’ History Project. Approximately 30 veterans were interviewed which will be transcribed by volunteer court reporters and archived in the Library of Congress with access by family, researchers and future generations. Spearheaded by Judges/Veterans Phillips, Fusz, Betar and Scully, everybody present felt enormously honored to be amongst these aging veterans. Three years ago this event started out as a small intimate gathering in courtroom C-201, and is now attended by dozens of lawyers, family members, volunteers and the press.

For the veterans and their family, it was a memorable day. For Lake County lawyers and Judges the stark reality of military service came when one of our own colleagues was honored. When Adelia, the daughter of Captain Shane Mahafee who was killed in Iraq, sang the National Anthem the mood dramatically changed from patriotism to deep sorrow as many a tear was shed, including my own.

For our generation, Veterans Day always focused on WWII veterans with their extraordinary achievements. Having known and interviewed many of them I am overcome by their unique persona of selflessness, humility, quiet resolve and deeply ingrained sincerity. Many of the veterans present were highly decorated and had fascinating stories. For example, the 92-year-old veteran I interviewed, Edwin Helman, in 1938 at the age of fourteen, was sent alone by his father from a tiny village in Czechslovokia to the USA. He travelled with only $3.00 and arrived alone in New York and took a train to Chicago to live with an uncle. Four years later he was drafted, received his U.S. citizenship while in basic training and fought with the 99th Black Panther Division in Europe. When the war ended he was in Germany and attempted to visit his parents and three siblings in the Russian Zone, whom he had no contact with for over four years. While in his US Army uniform Ed was arrested by the Russian soldiers and after negotiations was returned to the American Zone. Only six months later did he learn that his entire family was murdered in the Holocaust for the “crime” of being Jewish. I was dumbstruck as Ed told his story so matter of factly. In his mind that was just how things were done in that era.

Many of the veterans I have met and interviewed remind me of the traits encompassed by a GI named Frank Eversole, who was poignantly described by Ernie Pyle in the paraphrased excerpt from his book entitled “Brave Men:”

“I could tell by his eyes and slow courteous speech that he was a Westerner. Conversation with him was hard, but I didn’t mind his reticence for I know how Westerners like to size people up first. His eyes were the piercing kind, his hands – they were outdoor hands, strong and rough. We didn’t talk about the war, but mainly about the West. He is to me, and to those with whom he serves, one of the great men of the war. He is the kind of man you instinctively feel safer with; he is not helpless like most of us. He is practical, can improvise, patch things, and fix things.

His grammar is the unschooled grammar of the plains. He uses profanity, but never violently. Even in the familiarity of his own group his voice is always low. He always says “Sir” to any stranger. It is impossible to conceive of him doing anything dishonest. After the war Buck will go back to the land he loves. He wants to get a little place and feed a few head of cattle, and be independent.

Buck has no hatred for Germans. He kills them because he’s trying to keep alive himself. He armors himself with a philosophy of acceptance of what may happen. “I’m mighty sick of it all,” he says very quietly, “but there ain’t no use to complain. I just figured it this way, that I’ve been given a job to do and I’ve got to do it.”

Every year there are less and less of these exceptional Americans. In the past, I would see them in stores, restaurants, etc and could barely stop myself from talking to them. In fact, in the parking lot of HOBO in Waukegan I stopped an elderly veteran wearing a WWII Air Force hat. We had a chat, I gave him my card and encouraged him to take the Honor Flight, which he did. A few days later, I was called by Probation Officer Chris Morgan and was told that he was actually her father in law!!! Sadly, I just recently learned from Chris that a few years ago he passed away.

These unique men are a vanishing breed. Now, when we see a WWII veteran, they are usually very frail and weak. It is terribly sad to realize that in our lifetime likely every WWII Veteran will pass and their legacy will slowly fade. This is why the Lake County Veterans History Project is so critical and rewarding for the Veterans, family interviewers, court reporters and everybody involved.

When my two sons Benor and Ariel, (age 10 & 12) become adults their Veterans Day will be very different. It is unlikely there will be anyone alive from “The Greatest Generation.” The veterans they will honor won’t be from what Studs Terkel called “The Good War” but rather the wars of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike WWI, these wars were divisive instead of uniting our country. This does not take away the honor of our brave soldiers that fought in those wars, but WWII vets do hold a special place. As each Veterans Day passes, simply reflect for a moment of the passing of this vanishing breed.

A few words about the only WWII veteran practicing In Lake County, my father Harold Winer, If it had not been for the atomic bomb, it is very unlikely that Hal, would be alive today. He was a rifleman with the 7th Infantry Division on Okinawa training for the invasion of the Japan scheduled for November 1945. The 7th Division was slated to be amongst the first Divisions to land in an area called Tokyo Plains. The American casualties were predicted to be in the hundreds of thousands and dwarfed the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Hal is absolutely convinced that he would have been killed in the first few days.

Hal was on Okinawa on August 9, 1945 when the B-29 bomber named “Bockscar” landed there just a few hours after dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. As a nineteen year-old GI, Hal probably heard the low rumble of the B-29 as it landed. Along with his fellow GI’s, they paid little attention as those sounds were commonplace. Little did they know of the significance of this plane and its role in saving their lives.

The Bockscar had initially taken off from Tinian Island and the auxiliary fuel tank failed due to a faulty pump. Being dangerously low on fuel they made an emergency landing on Okinawa. On the ground, the crew was not allowed to tell anyone of their mission. They refueled and returned to Tinian Island. Six days later the Japanese surrendered. Hal vividly remembers the news, but along with his fellow GI’s had no idea what an Atomic Bomb actually was.

On August, 30, 2000, Hal and I met Fred Olivi, the co-pilot of the Bockscar who had just wrote his memoir and spoke at a local bookstore. After the speech, Hal waited until the crowd thinned out and approached Fred Olivi. Hal explained how he was on Okinawa on that fateful day and wanted to personally thank him for saving his life. It was a very emotional moment as these graying WW II veterans intently shook hands and silently looked each other in the eye. I stood there affixed thinking of the tumultuous times these two men had experienced. On the ride home, Hal was uncharacteristically silent with a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat. I could sense his pride as being part of that unique time. It was an unselfish generation that did its duty with firm resolve and determination.

Fred Olivi died on April 11, 2005 and before his death said, “I took no pleasure in killing civilians. After four years of fighting it wasn’t a matter of revenge, it was a just matter of getting them to stop” Upon learning of his death a melancholy overcome Hal, who not only felt Fred Olivi had helped save his own life, but also for the loss of another great American of that vanishing breed, who so richly deserve our respect and gratefulness.

David J. Winer, a partner at the Law Offices of Winer & Winer, and concentrates in DUI defense, Traffic law, Secretary of State Hearings and Criminal Law with offices in Waukegan and Skokie.