Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thanks, Dad.

PFC Louis W. Kooistra, 18, in 1944

I've been glued to the television set this week from 8 to 10pm, forsaking even my much-anticipated nap before work each evening, so I could watch The War, filmmaker Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary on World War II.

It's been time well spent. It's certainly put the war in a greater context than anything I've come across before, and opened my eye to what "sacrifice" really means. It's also given me a much greater appreciation of what the war meant to people of my father's generation. . . and most importantly, given me a greater understanding of my father's life.

The War views World War II largely through the eyes of residents of four United States cities: Luverne, MN; Sacramento, CA; Waterbury, CT; and Mobile, AL. But the stories and perspectives from these towns aren't any different, the series points out, than those of countless other American cities. . . including Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my father grew up.

Lou Kooistra was born in 1925, just a tad bit too young, thank God, to participate in the opening years of the War. While older able-bodied men and his high-school upper-classmen headed off to war, my father, 16 years old at the time of Pearl Harbor, had to stay behind, finish high school and wait until he turned of age to join the war effort overseas. Wanting to fly planes, he tried to enlist early in officers' training for the Army Air Corps, but his mother wouldn't sign her permission to his early application; when he finally was drafted in 1944, he went into the Army infantry, something that probably saved his life, when you compare it to the mortality--or lack of--among air crews in Europe.

Dad took his basic training in New Jersey, and was set to ship out for the European front just after Christmas, 1944. The Allies had landed in France at Normandy six months earlier, and the push to Berlin was stalled in western Belgium and eastern France. Our troops were being decimated by the heavy fighting that winter, and Dad was being trained as a replacement soldier to shore up our fontal assault.

Dad made a frantic return to Grand Rapids by train while on a weekend pass to see his family for what he assumed would be the final time, barely making it back to New York harbor in time to embark on the Queen Mary for the trip across the Atlantic.

He arrived in Europe and immediately moved to the front line to join Company F, 71st Infantry, 44th Division, 6th Army in the waning days of the Battle of the Bulge in the Sarreguemines region of southeastern France. His company then pushed east towards Germany, seeing heavy action in taking the town of Mannheim, amid sniper fire and small-arms street fighting. Dad in fact, was hit by a sniper's bullet, which gave him cause for concern when he misinterpreted the warm water from his canteen, pierced by the sniper's bullet, for blood as it ran down his backside and leg. Not too long after this, Dad was wounded by a piece of shrapnel from a German grenade, and returned to service. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze star, among other citations, during his time overseas.

Thankfully for Dad, Germany surrended not too long after that, soon after the 44th reached Austria. By late July, after some leave time in France and England (and plenty of chances to get acquainted with the local girls--it wasn't all war!), Dad and his company had returned to the States on the Queen Elizabeth, to await training and reassignment to the Pacific, where the US was preparing a ground invasion of Japan. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened the Japanese surrender, however, and Dad never had to go to the Pacific, much to his relief. He spent much of the next year on base in Missouri awaiting his discharge from the Army.
This is just the barest outline of dad's military career. As he looks back on it now, he recalls the war as being filled with unspeakable horrors; but it also created friendships and memories that have lasted his entire life. In retrospect, he now says he wouldn't have traded the experience for a million dollars, though he certainly didn't feel that way at the time.

At Ease: Austria, 1945

Over a thousand World War II veterans a day are dying off in this country. My dad is 81 years of age, and nearly all of his fellow soldiers from Company F are no longer on this earth. It won't be long, sadly, until all the World War II veterans, Dad among them, will be gone, and then the war will go from an experience shared by the living to the pages of history. It is truly amazing the effort this country took in fighting the second World War. Straight out of a depression, our country wasn't prepared militarily nor economically to undertake such an ordeal, but leadership in Washington "spread the misery"and made this truly a war that everyone participated in, whether they actually fought or not. It was a war the citizens agreed as being necessary and right to fight. And though parents didn't send their sons overseas, many to their deaths, without hesitation, they saw a greater good in the cause.

The war profoundly changed America, the US emerging as an economic and political powerhouse afterwards. The role of blacks and women in American society changed as well, as did the largely agrarian United States population, moving en masse as it did to the city for war jobs and staying on afterwards as American industry reached its zenith.

And my Dad was part of it.

So, before it isn't too late, thanks, Dad, for everything. Thanks for the sacrifices you and your family and your neighbors in Grand Rapids made on the homefront, and for the service you gave to, at least temporarily, eradicate tyranny and fascism from the world. Four years into our nation's little adventure in Iraq, it's clear they don't make wars like they used to. And, as a whole, they don't make Americans like that, either.

Dad and E. and I.--two boys enjoying the freedom their Grandfather fought for.


Greg Brown said...

Thank you for your service, Lou Kooistra.

It is sad to think of the WWII generation passing on. They were a huge part of my childhood - VFW picnics, parades, and Veterans Day.

BEK said...

Greg, Thanks for looking.

What a huge change this country has made since I was a kid. I was looking at my dad's home movies from around 1962-63 in Suburban Chicago. . . all these stout, cigar-smoking, flat-top wearing veterans milling around the park, drinking beer and cooking hamburgers on the grill. The parades were an assemblage of local democratic candidates (and their wives) waving from a shiny new Chevrolet (supplied by the local dealer), VFW groups proudly marching, and high school marching bands. And in Homewood, Illinois, not once in the movies of the parade did you see anything by middle-class white folks.

It wasn't too long ago--well, it was, but it doesn't seem that long ago--that I photographed some of the last World War I vets. That was in 1986. . .and now we're rapidly getting to the same place with our WWII vets.

World War I always seemed so out of reach to me, in terms of history. World War II, though, since my dad lived through it, did not. I'm sure before too long even the Vietnam Vets will be looked upon as relics of a different era.