The Veteran Who Made Me a Journalist
His name was Jim.
When I was eleven, I was a bit of a World War II nerd.
Let me rephrase: I was a massive World War II dork. To give you an idea of how massive, until I got my own copies I would check out the book versions of Ollie North’s War Stories series from the library about every other week, so I could re-watch the DVD samples in the pocket. (Later, I would be glad to have these, since the series had a limited run and wasn’t always easy to find.) At the bookstore, I spent hours poring over one especially beloved coffee-table book of Medal of Honor citations, which I was upset to leave behind and later got for Christmas. One birthday, I got John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima, which gave me hours of fun writing fan fiction in my head.
As I said, I was a nerd. But then I was homeschooled. This might be relevant.
The Ollie North series made a particular impression on me, because North was sitting in the chair where I wanted to be: Talking to real veterans, asking as many questions as I could, and recording their answers.
So, one day, I decided to play Ollie North. With my neighbor. His name was Jim.
Jim and his wife had lived in the house next door for decades before we moved in. Watching me grow up was one of their chief delights. Many days, they would hang out across the fence while I played on our swing-set and entertained them with Golden Age musical covers. (We’ve now established that I was homeschooled.) Jim had worked at the same hardware company for 72 years, working his way up to manager and treasurer, earning the nickname “Mr. Hardware.”
I had known Jim my whole life. What I hadn’t known was that Jim was a veteran of World War II. Having watched my blooming interest in the war, my dad decided he’d better inform 11-year-old me of this fact. My jaw dropped. I was in awe. Mr. Ippel fought in World War II? Really??
So, naturally, I typed up some questions, sent them to Mr. Ippel, then grabbed a tape recorder and marched next door to collect Mr. Ippel’s answers. Just like Ollie North.
I wound up filling three tapes’ worth of those answers. I still cringe at the sound of my small, precocious 11-year-old voice, mostly being quiet to let Jim just talk, but also eager to punctuate things with a perky “Right,” or show off that I knew a particular bit of war vocabulary. I was eleven, I remind myself. It’s okay. I was eleven, and I was a nerd, and I was very excited.
He had signed up after Pearl Harbor. He recalled for me how his father had come to the foot of the stairs as the radio played, calling “Jimmy, come down quick! Jimmy, come down quick!” It galvanized him, as it galvanized so many young men. After completing his battery of tests, he came home and proudly told his then girlfriend, later wife, “You’ve got an A1 man.” Immediately, she began to cry.
He would serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps on multiple fronts—Morocco, Algeria, Italy, Sicily. He was sent first to Africa, which he had already suspected on a tip from a post-office girl. Letters home were heavily censored, so he would encode his location at any given time into the first letters of each new line. “All is well... For a little while...”
As a photo reconnaissance pilot, he caught many unforgettable sights. In Italy, he flew over Vesuvius as it erupted. But his hours in the air were lonely as well. He missed four Easters, four Thanksgivings, three Christmases. He said he would listen to Bing Crosby in the cockpit, trying not to cry.
Jim became fluent in German and was able to put this skill to use as an interpreter. One day in Africa, it saved him. He had been searching for downed German paratroopers with his men, then became separated and found himself surrounded by Arabs. He knew that they would take Americans to the Germans, Germans to the Americans. So when they asked “Hey you? You American?” he opened his mouth and said “Ja.” It was the truth. But in that language, the truth set him free.
There were light memories from Africa too. A teenage girl in a crowd of cheering French, rushing up to pin a ribbon on his chest. A liquor heist from President Roosevelt’s plane, where Jim and the other guards allowed some of the boys to sneak in and out with good whiskey under their watch. (Jim personally was a teetotaler, but he was also a reasonable man.) After their commander, another reasonable man, had dutifully bawled them out, he leaned back and said, “Okay, there, now I said it.” Then, “Why in the world did you steal that much?” So “that was the end of that little thing.”
One time, Mrs. Roosevelt came and asked the boys what they needed. “Socks!” went up the cry. “Good socks! Like the English boys have!” She noted it and left, and Jim told the boys, “Well, that’s the last we’ll ever hear of that.” But four months later, they each received two pair of the thickest socks they’d ever had.
He nearly died twice in Africa. The first time was a night air raid. Jim remarked that it seemed the Germans always knew when they got new recruits to replace outgoing men. When their convoy was attacked, Jim headed for a ditch, but a number of men panicked and dove under one of the trucks for shelter, “which was the worst thing you could do.” When Jim saw this, he doubled back to yell at them and pull them out. He had to get a little “mean” with them, he said, though he wasn’t gonna “use any Army language” in the retelling. He didn’t link this incident to the first of his three Bronze Stars, but it was probably the action for which he earned it.
The second time, it was a piece of shrapnel, from a landmine over which a soldier had decided to build a fire in the night cold. The shrapnel nearly took Jim’s head, whizzing past inches away to land in the ground behind him. He dug out the fragment and kept it.
In hindsight, Jim said he still admired Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. He recognized a worthy foe when he saw one. Jim’s tone towards the top brass of his own side tended to coolness. The generals had their place, but they weren’t down in it with the regular guys, the nobodies. They weren’t getting shot at, getting their hands and faces dirty.
In all our time together, Jim never talked down to me. He shared some of his darkest memories with me, things he had never even shared with his own children. This was a gift I have only come to appreciate more with time.
One of those memories was of a cave in Italy where he and his men found piled corpses of resistance boys, boys as young as thirteen, systematically machine-gunned down in retaliation for a train bomb. “There was not one person living or wiggling. It was just all dead bodies, two hundred fifty approximately… That was their very sad reward.”
There were other sad epitaphs along the way, for men such as this nameless colonel, who took on a solitary mission to destroy oil fields in Poland:
We had orders that one of us had to go, one plane, because it was so dangerous. And our commanding officer, who was a colonel, said “I’m going. I’m not sending any of my men there. It’s too dangerous.” And several of us wanted to go. When you’re young and in the army, you’re tough, and you don’t take the best care of yourself. You take risks. And so he said, “No, I’m the one that’s going.” Well, he did go, and never came back. So he was shot down over that area, and we never heard from him or about him either. Never found his body or anything.
Darkest of all, the memory of guys he knew who couldn’t take it, guys who were beginning to break up. The friend whose girl didn’t wait for him. The friend who woke the men up one night wildly waving his gun. Jim tackled him before he could use it on anyone, including himself.
Jim would speak of World War II, with emphasis, as a “necessary war.” This was 2004, when 9/11 was still fresh. He had hesitations about the Iraq push. He identified strongly with the men on the ground, directed by shadowy top brass into a conflict of uncertain duration, with uncertain goals. War, in his mind, was a thing to be undertaken as little as possible, as swiftly as possible. “War is terrible,” he would say, simply. “It’s men killing men.” Then, a clarifying parenthetical that “back then there was no women in the war.” Jim admired women like the nurses in the Red Cross, though he couldn’t resist some puckish remarks at the expense of WACs and WAVEs. “The WACs and the WAVEs, well… they whacked, and they waved.”
In Rome, he took a picture of Mussolini’s hanging corpse, which like other pictures he couldn’t place in his large attic to show me. He also received a blessing from the pope, for which his Catholic buddies had pressured him to buy a rosary. I held it in my own hands, the beads made of perfectly polished olive stone, the cross sterling silver. But to Jim, a good Protestant, it had been a needless one-time splurge. As the pope passed by, his two friends were standing on either side. The pope had many blessings to get through and was blessing every other man to save time. And as fate had it, he skipped the friend on the left, blessed Jim, skipped the friend on the right. He was amused, but they were furious.
Some memories were pure light, like his memories of roaming Switzerland with two buddies, in a German-speaking area where he could interpret for them. He remembered sitting down in one restaurant and being served before they could place their order. When he asked the waitress in German where the food was coming from, she pointed to a little old man in the corner who had told her “he wanted to do what little he could for the Americans.” The men slept tucked away in a little mountain village, in a hotel with six rooms. One night, on the recommendation of the owner, they caught a social in the town hall. It was an evening of food, music, dancing, and girls who couldn’t take their eyes off three American boys in uniform—Jim platinum blond, his two friends dark. Jim sat quietly eavesdropping while the girls chattered in German. What happened next was “just kind of a joke, it’s not a bragging thing, it’s just what happened.” As he listened, he heard one girl whisper to the other that she liked the blond best. She’d go for him. “And so,” he grinned to me, “that’s when I talked German to ‘em.” Immediately, he said, “They went ooooooh, hid their faces. So we really had a good time that night.” (At this moment on the tape I hear his wife’s voice, “Is this on the tape?” “Yes, this is on the tape.”)
In the end, it was a back injury from an equipment-moving accident that pushed Jim out of the war. In chronic pain, he would spend the last days recuperating at a Mediterranean R & R spot. But the worst blow was yet to come, after V-E Day, after V-J Day.
It came on a base where he’d been working to refurbish a war-weary plane with three friends, the three closest friends he had come through the fight with. The plane was in bad shape, but they thought they could get it going again. After several weeks, they were ready to take it out for a test flight. But on the day they had planned, Jim was suddenly called into an officer’s quarters. “To this day, I’ve tried to remember. I can’t remember why I was called in.” By the time he had finished and returned, his friends were pulling away without him, not seeing him as he ran up, as he waved wildly for them to stop and come back.
As soon as it took off, he knew something was wrong. It wasn’t going up straight to gain altitude. It was turning right. That was wrong. Something was wrong. An engine wasn’t running properly. Next thing he knew, it had crashed into a red brick farmhouse. He never knew if there were people inside. There was nothing he could do. He could only watch, and remember.
In one of real life’s funny twists, Jim came home to an anticlimactic welcome, impatiently bursting into a hospital ward to see his girlfriend as she lay recuperating from appendicitis. A wan “Hi” was all she could manage, but it was enough.
They were married soon after, and remained married until her death a few years after we recorded our conversation. Unless I misremember, they lived to see one of their great-grandchildren.
I’ve saved the most poignant moment from the tapes for last. It was the moment when he was remembering what it was like as he sailed out to his destiny on a small vessel, passing by the Statue of Liberty. “Of course,” he recalled, “we knew that this was a real war, not just play. Not just make-believe. And as we passed the Statue of Liberty, many of us wondered how many of us would see her again. See, so, I get… I get a little…” Here he paused and choked up. Then, softly, “Turn it off a minute.”
When he’d composed himself, he said one of the men had asked him, “Jim, do you think we’ll ever come back?” “Well,” Jim said, “I’m coming back. You stick with me, we’ll both come back.”
Jim told me the squad had their own personal historian who regularly sent around a census of surviving members. A hundred forty-two of the original two hundred had returned home. At the time we recorded, there were twenty-five men still left. I now wish I’d asked for that historian’s name. Most likely, all twenty-five are no longer with us.
By the time Jim passed away, I was a college freshman. My dad and I visited him a few times in the nursing home where he spent his last days. He was always physically weak, but mentally present. One time, we brought him a book about Ronald Reagan. “He was a great president,” Jim said. “A great president.”
Jim was a humble man, but he was proud of what he did. He knew he was a good soldier. He knew he was a damn good soldier. “They call us the Greatest Generation,” he said as we talked, picking up his copy of the book by that name. “And you know, I think we were.”
“This was a war that America had to be involved in,” he says at the end of the last tape. “It was a war truly for all our freedom…But many times I thank the Lord for bringing me home safely. You know, when the Lord is on your side, you can’t lose. So there you are. A short history of one soldier’s life in World War II. Thanks for coming. My children and I thank you for the tapes. And we’ll keep ‘em for the rest of our lives.”
I still have them, in a drawer somewhere. His kids have copies. I’ve digitized them. Sometimes I have an irrational fear of losing the files, even though I’ve put them on a hard backup drive, stored them in the cloud. But I still have the tapes. I haven’t spoken with his children in years. I wonder if they did their own digitization. My OCD tells me I should get back in touch, just to make sure.
I miss Jim. I wish I could talk to him more about the war. I wish I could talk to him about Afghanistan. I wish I could hear his voice, his wisdom. I miss that voice. I miss his kind eyes. But like Izaak Walton writing of John Donne, I write this not in despair. Rather, I write in the sure and certain hope that I shall see those eyes—I shall see Jim—reanimated.