MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill did a magnificent job in her story today profiling Erling Jonassen of Duluth for Veterans Day. His, like most of his generation, is a life well led and a service dutifully and quietly performed.

My father died in 2004 at 84. He was your typical World War II GI except for the part about seeing combat. He was a medical technician, based in England and other than telling me he sailed over on the Queen Mary, he never told me much about what he did and, compared to guys like Jonassen, I guess he didn’t do much.

At his and my mother’s 60th anniversary luncheon shortly before he died, I refused my siblings’ request to give the toast. “I don’t do toasts,” I said, “but I’ll do an interview.” So there in the dining room of the restaurant, I interviewed my mother and father about their lives and how they met and when my father told the story about jumping out of the window of his barracks when he heard the sergeant coming to give him something to do, I figured my dad wasn’t much of a war hero. He is one of the few people I’ve ever interviewed who didn’t give me a story I could use.

After he died, we found a diary he kept during the war. Day by day he wrote about wanting to get into Officer Candidate School back in the states, not so much because he wanted to serve his country as an officer, but because it was a way to get back to his new bride.

But occasionally tucked into a day here or there was a notation about the bomber crews in his hospital. He said he could always tell how the war was going by the flyboys. He wrote several times about giving a transfusion of blood to one flier from California who, he noted in his last entry on the subject, seemed much better.

Somewhere between jumping out the window and trying to game the system to get away from the war, I like to think my dad had something to do with saving some guy from California, who went on to do great things. My dad? He ended up getting into OCS, and flunked out, continuing a long line of Collinses not ready to lead.

Today, with good reason, the Erling Jonassens and the Quentin Aanensons (the Luverne man featured in PBS’ The War last year), and the Jeff Bibeaus (The Roseville school teacher who is now in Iraq) should get their deserved recognition. They come home with stories to tell from the front line that we will strain to hear.

But people like Fred Collins Jr. are on my mind today — and perhaps people like him are on yours, too — because he was a vet who said “I didn’t do much” and he probably didn’t. Except for the making-a-difference part.

That’s a big buildup to lessen the impact, I guess, of this other Veterans Day nugget that appeared in the Miami Herald this morning. William Doyle has died. And few people are mourning. He left a family the unenviable task of trying to explain him, and us trying to fathom war.

Tell me about your vet and send some pictures and maybe we can extend Veterans Day for one more day.

  • Elizabeth T.

    I once buttoned up the courage at the age of 19 asked my mother why she divorced my father. The answer is immaterial today, other than at the end of the answer there was a brief pause. She added “.. and because he was an alcoholic when he came back from Vietnam.”

    My jaw dropped. Not about the alcoholism (which was news), but about Vietnam. I had no idea. This was 1980, I think.

    I guess time & distance dull the pain. In the intervening years, bits & pieces of that time have trickled out from both parents.

    I discovered he wasn’t home when I was born, because he was on his way to Vietnam. The photo I have of him when I was about a year old must have been taken immediately after he got back. I was shocked to realize it might have been the first time my father saw me.

    Decades later, I was visiting him for the holidays. He had bought a new home and finally decorated the central hallway with the accumulation of family photos one expects. I was looking at the foreign ones (he remarried) and a few of my brothers and myself.

    I stopped and looked at a small frame with medals hanging in it. Not the little ribbons, but the original medals. There were 4. I’m not a wiz about military heraldry, but I stood in stunned amazement at the little bronze star. Hanging next to what I thought was an Air Force Flying Cross. Yes, they were. He informed me of the others, one of which didn’t stick in my mind. He was obviously very proud of the 3rd one, which was something like an army commendation medal. It was apparently something like “congratulations, you didn’t screw up”. My father was a pilot for the Air Force. Of course, I had to ask.

    Apparently the medal was the highest honor the Army could bestow upon someone from another branch of Service without asking for permission. The Army gave him the Bronze Star; the Air Force (obviously) the Flying Cross.

    I had never even considered that my father might have done something particularly noteworthy. I had no reason to, after all.

    He was flying back from some mission in a little “bullsh*t bomber” and heard on the radio that an Army platoon was under fire and calling for help. Being the closest one, he landed, got them on board, and took off. It sounded like something from a movie.

    I’m very glad I had the opportunity to hear this directly from him.