Veterans remember tight-knit community, something that seems lost

  • Filmmaker John Gfroerer (center) speaks to residents of the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton before showing his film ‘On the Home Front – New Hampshire during World War II’ last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Veteran Andrew Clark discusses his World War II experiences at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Veteran Joe Butler listens intently to Jon Gfroerer during his presentation to residents of the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/28/2016 12:11:07 AM

After a year of harsh verbal jousting, creating a political rift the size of the Grand Canyon, I sought solace at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton.

Ironically, I needed war to find peace.

At the Tilton home, I found men old enough to recall one of the rare occurrences in recent history, when America truly was the United States.

Imagine that. No talk of Crooked Hillary, or an email server, or building a wall, or tearing down trust.

Unity.

The setting was a movie called On the Home Front – New Hampshire during World War II, produced by local filmmaker John Gfroerer. The film, released in 1994 to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, is a close examination of what life was like here, while the war raged in Europe and the Pacific.

Gfroerer’s eye for detail and exhaustive research – he interviewed 50 sources for his film – painted a remarkable picture, one of true camaraderie and common goals, similar to what we felt after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

That didn’t last long. This feeling did.

Once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans had no use for petty squabbles about the size of a presidential candidate’s hands. There was work to be done.

Cooking grease, given to local butchers, was needed for explosives. Mines needed to be laid along the east coast, all the way to the Isles of Shoals. Air observation towers needed to be built and manned. Bridges had to be guarded. Paper, metal and rubber had to be collected. War bonds needed to be bought and sold. Green paint needed to be conserved, used to paint jeeps and tanks.

The mention of Pearl Harbor fueled a spark in these veterans. They paused when asked their ages, but they were spry like colts when asked about military service and the climate in the state when America went to war, from 1941 to ‘45.

One was Korean War veteran Andrew Clark. He graduated from Franklin High School in 1948, meaning he was old enough to remember the home front during World War II and young enough to have avoided fighting in it.

He wore a red “U.S. Marines Corps Retired” hat. Patriotism, Clark said, was everywhere in the early 1940s. 

“Very patriotic,” he said. “All of a sudden it’s Dec. 7, 1941, Sunday, peaceful, quiet, and all of a sudden over the radio Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. It did bring people together. Everyone was gung-ho. You bombed Pearl Harbor, and hey, as soon as you bomb Pearl Harbor, you made a big mistake.”

As for our involvement elsewhere, in Korea and Vietnam, Clark said, “At the beginning they were more toward the war and then it starts to drag out and the people just say, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ We finish one war and all of a sudden we’re in another, not as big, and then there are skirmishes all over the place.”

Joe Bennett, 98, remembered. He grew up in Manchester and recognized a local couple who were interviewed for Gfroerer’s movie. He said he served in a tank outfit, Second Division, under General George S. Patton. He rolled through North Africa and Italy and France and Holland and Belgium and Germany.

Leaning on his walker and moving gingerly forward after the movie, I asked for Bennett’s thoughts on New Hampshire during that time, what he’d seen before leaving for overseas, what his family had told him while he was gone.

“Everything seemed to be coming back together around the country and here,” Bennett told me. “My mother-in-law was standing in line for a half a pound of butter. Sometimes I’d take two pounds of butter home.”

His two children wanted to know about their father’s role during the war. “Oh, they drive me crazy,” Bennett said. “Finally one day I sent back for my service records so they have them and keep them quiet.”

It’s a lost piece of our fabric, I think, this notion of children asking parents about the history they lived through. Gfroerer’s movie showed us something that had never happened before, and the only scenario that comes close were the days right after Sept. 11, 2001.

In Concord, the state house dome’s shine was dulled to hide it from enemy planes. In Portsmouth, Berlin and Manchester, residents shut off house lights and closed black curtains, hiding a state that began to huddle together, as one.

Concord-area individuals were shown in the film, those who had carried on the bedrock traditions of a community, people like John LaValley, who watched the sky from Rolfe Park, and his wife Beatrice LaValley, who recalled hearing the sirens around town.

“The United States has never been more united,” the movie’s narrator, Kevin Gardner, said.

And he was right.

“United, yes,” said 84-year-old Roland Huse, who grew up in the Keene area. “I remember listening (on the radio) to whatever they had going on.”

He grew up on a farm in Alstead, raised by his grandparents, a kid who knew he had more to think about than just school. So he worked with his grandfather at the local lumberyard, where a sawmill cut lumber before it was sent all over the world to make planks and boxes.

“We were making lumber as fast as we could make it,” said Huse, who started working at age 9, the year Peal Harbor was bombed. “That was for all purposes, packaging to ship cargo overseas, you name it. I gladly did it. I did whatever I was told. There was no forklift and the trucks came in and we piled the slabs into the trucks one board at a time.”

I asked these men about Sept. 11., its similarity to Pearl Harbor’s effect. Did the country bond in this manner, after the Twin Towers fell and part of the Pentagon crumbled and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field?

“Certainly unified,” Huse said, “and it made a lot of people sit down and think.”

Huse then wheeled himself out of the room, past a wood, arch-shaped radio with four black knobs, circa 1940.

Like standing together as one, it’s long been forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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