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.