GREENFIELD — With the death of every veteran, America loses a vital piece of its history. An estimated 680 World War II vets are dying each day, taking with them eyewitness accounts of battles that shaped the war and helped preserve the freedoms we enjoy today.
Of the 16 million American soldiers who served, only about 1.5 million are still living, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In honor of Veterans Day, the Daily Reporter spoke with two local World War II veterans and their families about how they are honoring those who fought and working to preserve their memories.
‘You can’t imagine’
Keith Crider still cries.
It’s been nearly 70 years since Crider, 89, of Greenfield, fought in the Army, but there are some memories time cannot erase.
The Battle of the Bulge.
People he had come to think of as family, dying all around him.
Crider had a front-row seat to some of the war’s most historic battles, and his memory of those moments is crystal clear.
The tears stream down his face when he tries to put into words what he saw.
“It was awful,” he said. “You can’t imagine how it was. The tanks were burning – and the Germans! It was awful.”
Crider was a member of the 247th Engineers Combat Battalion and fought in five battles from March 1943, when he was drafted, to December 1945 when he was honorably discharged.
When it comes to war stories, Crider’s mind is sharp, his daughter-in-law, Martie Crider, said. He might forget what he had for lunch yesterday, but he remembers the names of the men he fought alongside a lifetime ago.
But it might not always be that way, the family knows. And one day, the man with the unfailing memory will be gone.
And so, one day, Crider’s family asked him to sit down with a tape recorder.
Today, 19 pages of transcribed narrative, bears the simple title, “My War Memories.”
“We had no idea he was doing some of the things he was doing until we read that because he’s never talked about it,” Martie Crider said. “These guys came home; they were encouraged not to talk about it. The whole world was in unrest, and they were encouraged not to talk about how many people they shot and this, that and the other.”
Crider’s primary responsibility during his time in the service was to build bridges to get tanks across rivers.
He also helped clear minefields.
Crider remembers having cleared a minefield one day when he looked up and saw a German plane, swooping right down at him.
“I looked up, and he waved at me,” he said.
Crider’s eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but for the most part, he is healthy. He lives on his own and walks two miles a day with his dog, a Shih Tzu named Sassy.
“I don’t cross the streets,” he said.
Crider applied and was selected to participate in September in the first Indy Honor Flight, which flew a group of veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
He lights up, talking about it.
And for his family, seeing his excitement was emotional.
“There were no dry eyes in the place,” Martie Crider said. “Every one of ’em got that long-overdue hero’s welcome.”
Proud of service
Sitting at the kitchen table on a recent afternoon, Bill Walden flipped through a photo album of people and places he can’t always remember.
The stories are there, locked inside his mind somewhere. Sometimes, an image will spark a memory, and Walden, 87, of Greenfield, will start in on a story from his days as a sailor on a warship.
One thing he knows for certain is the date he returned home: Nov. 9, 1945.
“Never forget that,” he said. “We just thought about getting home.”
In the back of the album is a list of places Walden visited – Okinawa, Guam, the Philippines.
“A lot of this stuff, I’ve forgotten,” said Walden, who enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and spent 30 months in the Pacific. “Once in a while, it comes back.”
Every November, Walden looks forward to joining his fellow veterans for local programs that honor their service. To Walden, being a veteran means one thing: “I survived,” he said.
Walden’s daughter, Sandy Holliday, 65, of Greenfield, said her father has always been proud of his service and has often invited family members to read war books he checks out from the library.
“He has always mentioned it, intermittently,” said his daughter, Sandy Holliday. “As he’s gotten older, he talks about it more.”
None of Walden’s immediate family members quite share his enthusiasm for the country’s history and the part Walden played in it, however. And so, when Walden’s memory lapses, they can’t fill in the blanks. They know the basics, but Holliday admits when it comes to her father’s days in the Navy, it’s difficult to keep the details straight.
“It’s sad to say that it doesn’t interest me a lot, but I know he’s proud of his service,” she said.
While Holliday isn’t a history buff, she said she does her best to honor her father. She has a T-shirt with a picture of her father’s ship on it and enjoys taking him and Geraldine, his wife of 67 years, to events for veterans.
“He’s proud every time he salutes,” she said. “You can just see it – it’s like he was 18 again.”
In September, Walden, too, participated in the first annual honor flight to Washington, D.C.
Walden carried around a photo album of the event for the next three weeks, telling everyone who would listen all about it, Holliday said.
“Everything was first class, all the way,” he said. “Just couldn’t ask for anything any better.”
A rich history
As president of the Hancock County Historical Society, Brigette Jones knows something about preserving the past.
Whenever someone drops off an artifact for the society’s collection, Jones said she is sure to request a biography to go along with it.
That’s the secret to keeping history alive, and bringing it to life for others, she said.
“It makes it so more much relevant,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just a thing.”
Recording the story now of a veteran whose time is limited and whose memory might be fading fast is especially important, she said.
Many veterans still have artifacts from the war – uniforms, medals and the like – but that memorabilia is given special meaning through the personal stories of the person to whom it belonged.
Relating that history later will help future generations empathize with the sacrifices of their ancestors, Jones said.
“In order for people to really connect to an object, you have to connect to that person something on more of an emotional level,” she said. “You have to kind of key into that sense of home or that sense of freedom or that sense of pride. The object itself can only be part of the story.”