WAR & MEMORY

Fifty years after World War II, four sons and a daughter remember their fathers’ sacrifice.

THE 50th anniversary of World War II this summer is causing many Americans who grew up in the post-war era to reflect on the lessons of that war. This is more than an exercise in history because the men and women who won that war are our parents. We look in a mirror, and we see them, World War II DEMANDED OF AMERICANS loyalty, courage, and sacrifice. And most gave freely to the effort. Mote than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during the war years. Many volunteered, like Lieutenant Colonel James I. Hopkins; many others were drafted, like Private first class Louis Villasana and Naval Lieutenant John J. Gerst. Some 400,000 of them never came home. FOR THOSE WHO RETURNED, surviving the war meant picking up the remnants of their former lives. Helped by new government benefits, some resumed studies interrupted by the hostilities; still others bought that first home. Many would marry the girl they left behind and start a family. WHILE MOST MADE THE TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE with relative ease, many of our soldiers-turned-fathers didn’t like to talk about the war. When they did, they were less likely to talk of the glories of battle than about the buddies they’d known. Esprit de corps. Often, in the shoe boxes containing their war mementos would be the cloth shoulder patch emblazoned with their unit logo, the only swatch of color allowed on those olive-drab or khaki uniforms. Sometimes, looking at a weathered black-and-white photograph, your father would grow sad and gray, That GI standing next to him, he might explain, didn’t get to come home and finish school or start a family. Even as children, we perceived something of the nightmares of war and the complex emotions lurking in those shoe boxes. THE MEN IN THIS STORY, like so many others who fought with them, risked their young lives against an evil the tikes of which this world had never seen. And they left their children grateful for the gift of freedom.



Lt. Col. JAMES I. HOPKINS, Chief of Operations, 509thCom-posite Bomb Group, 1945. North Africa, the Pacific. Died 1951. Jim Hopkins, 53. Associate Professor of History at Southern Methodist University.

IT MIGHT SEEM STRANGE THAT A BRITISH HISTORY SPECIALIST teaches a course called “Atomic Energy in the Modern World,” but it comes naturally if your father headed up planning for the unit that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.

Lt. Col. James I. Hopkins loved to fly. He was already a seasoned Army Air Corps pilot when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Leaving his small son and wife in Texas, he was assigned to fly B-24s in North Africa, completing over 20 missions and receiving the Distinguished Hying Cross. Then he was picked for the assignment that would end the war and forever change the world.

Jim remembers his dad coming home in uniform, a big, powerful man of great authority. At 25, his father was already a highranking career officer and hero, especial-ly back home in Palestine, Texas. As father and son walked the streets of that small East Texas town, folks would come over just to shake James Hopkins’ hand. “He was an iconic figure to me,” Jim explains. His father died when Jim was 9.

Years later, Jim’s turn came. But Vietnam-he served stateside as a captain and hospital administrator—was a very different war. While walking those hospital wards and talking to wounded soldiers, Jim began to understand what had changed since his dad piloted the B-29 observation plane over Nagasaki. America, it seemed to Jim, inherited not only the leadership of the free world by winning World War II, but also immense political and moral responsibility-and our involvement in Vietnam had compromised our position. But while there may be no more “good wars,” Jim knows his father’s actions at Nagasaki helped bring that terrible war to an earlier end, saving thousands of lives and making a hero of a young man from Texas.

Capt. JOHN J. GERST, Communications Officer, Landing Ship Tank (LST)-94l – Pacific theater; saw action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Died 1991.

Candace Gerst Tyson, 47 . Judge, 44th Judicial District Court.

World War II found John J. Gerst in law school. Before he knew it, he’d been drafted, sent to midshipman school, and was waking up each morning at 4 for brisk drills along Lake Michigan. Soon, as American forces island-hopped toward Japan, Gerst’s LST-941 was assigned to the Pacific, carrying equipment, supplies, and men ashore on island assaults. It was dangerous duty-LSTs were, as sailors joked, “Large Slow Targets,” and because Gerst’s LST usually carried large gasoline supplies, his ship was essentially a floating bomb, The stress took its toll on the men of LST-941.

When she was growing up, Candace Tyson always saw on her mothers dresser a picture of her dad in his uniform. Information about her father’s role in the war, however, had to come from her mom. Her dad didn’t like to talk about his experiences. It was her mother who told her how Japanese planes had crashed into two LSTs on either side of her father’s craft, sinking the ships and killing most of the sailors aboard. From then on, “9-4-1” would be her dad’s lucky numbers.

From her mother, too, Candace learned that her father had taken command of LST-941 from the captain, who snapped under the pressure and was subsequently court-martialed. She saw how the experiences haunted her father until his death. Throughout his life, he’d bury his feelings, even with his family. He became, like many soldiers who returned, one of the walking wounded. To his daughter, John Gerst seemed to have lost so much of himself under that relentless Pacific sun. Now a Dallas judge, Candace Tyson prays that her own children will never be called on to make such a sacrifice.

Col. JAMES H. ROBINSON, Battalion Commander, 366thInfantry Regiment, 92nd Division. North Àfrica, Italy. Died 1979.

Maj. Gen. Hugh Robinson, P.E. (U.S. Army Ret.), 62. Chairman and CEO, The Tetra Group.

JAMES RORINHAD TAKEN HIS WIFE OUT FOR her birthday when they heard the news. It was December 7, 1941, and the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. By January, Major Robinson was one of the few African-American officers in the 366th Infantry Regiment of the segregated 92nd Division.

Hugh Robinson was only a small hoy at the time, but he remembers lite with his father on the segregated military post–an indignity somewhat mitigated by the tact that, unlike most black soldiers, the men of the 366th were being trained for combat.

The War Departments ongoing debate about sending black troops into combat delayed the 366th’s departure for North Africa. After the unit was deployed, Hugh recalls, his mother cried as she read his dad’s letters. They all feared he’d be killed.

After duty in North Africa, Lieutenant Colonel Robinson rose to the rank of battalion commander as the 366th was sent into combat in Italy. He would later tell his son how the Army’s only black general, Benjamin O. Davis, would visit the African-American units and exhort them to be prepared to die for their country. The black soldiers would ask General Davis how things were back home, how their wives and children were being treated. General Davis would V confess to them that attitudes hadn’t changed, that the fruits of full citizenship were still not enjoyed by their families despite the soldiers’ brave contributions.

The proud men of the 366th thought their valor in combat would be the key to changing old attitudes once the war was over. That didn’t happen, of course, and Hugh remembers his father’s disappointment. Colonel Robinson and the veterans of the 366th would work for years after the war for the Army’s full integration.

Hugh’s father was his role model. Sitting in his comfortable office, surrounded by walls adorned by his own awards and honors, Hugh recalls, in particular, his father’s pride when Hugh was promoted to general. With visible emotion, he talks of his father’s death and of the unique legacy he left to Americas military.

Maj. FRED R.EDGAR, Chaplain, 36th Texas National Guard Division and 34th Infantry Divsion, North Africa, Italy. Died 1984.

Fred Edgar, 48. Owner, Edgar & Associates.

Fred Edgar never knew his father could ride a motor-cycle until, years after his dad’s death, he came across a photograph of him astride a captured German hike. Major Edgar could have been riding out to bury the dead or to offer battlefield communion to frightened boys.

As a Methodist minister, Major Edgar’s first calling was to do the Lord’s work, wherever that might be, After Pearl Harbor, that meant providing spiritual comfort to American soldiers even though he personally abhorred war. Not surprisingly, the war reinforced Major Edgar’s dislike of killing. An avid bird hunter before the war, he never took up a gun again after seeing the carnage in Italy.

Next to his love of God was Major Edgar’s devotion to his family, and the 36 months away from his wife were hard on both of them. Fred’s mother often told about listening to an Allied radio broadcast of an Easter service from Rome. Suddenly, through the crackle of the radio, came her husband’s voice reciting the Psalms.

Major Edgar’s ease with people was passed on to his son, who has the easygoing charm of a salesman. Fred holds dear the letters from the old soldiers who wrote after his father’s death, expressing appreciation tor the comfort his dad had given them in their darkest hours.

Thanks to his father, Fred’s remembrances of World War II evoke both feelings of pride and images of good deeds. With equal affection, he remembers two photographs: In one, his father receives the Bronze Star; in the other, wearing a Santa costume, he entertains Italian war orphans.

Private first class LOUIS VILLASANA, Medic, 423rd Medical Collective Company, U. S. First Army. Northern France, Centrai Europe. Battle of the Bulge.

Sol Villasana, 42. Assistant General Counsel, Suite Bar of Texas.

I WAS RUMMAGING THROUGH A DRAWER, LOOKING FOR WHAT-ever idle 6-year-old hands look for, when I found it. The uniform’s olive-drab wool was coarse, the silk ribbons above the breast pocket frayed. It was my first link to my father’s experiences in World War II.

My dad’s unit fought its way across northern France into Germany. As an infantry medic, he patched up the wounded foot soldiers as they advanced along the front line. The summer of 1944, spent amongst the hedgerows of the French countryside, gave way to winter in a Belgian forest, the Ardennes. Then, in mid-December, Hitler threw everything he had at the line held by the First Army, starting what would be called the Battle of the Bulge. My father still recalls the bitter cold and the numbing exhaustion. After almost six weeks of combat, during which 81,000 Americans were wounded and 19,000 killed, the Allies pushed the Germans back.

By the spring of 1945, the war was all but over. But my dad was to receive one last shock as he helped to liberate the Nazi concentration camps. He remembers the ghost-like survivors fighting over bones, and the dead piled up like wood. The inhumanity of those camps haunted my father more than any other atrocities of the war.

During the war my father was treated, first and foremost, as an American, a liberating, heroic one at that, not as a second-class Mexican as was the practice back in Texas. Yet he also noted ugly reminders of Americans’ own intolerance toward each other. He painfully recalls coming across a segregated Puerto Rican unit. These wartime experiences caused his generation of minority fighting men to come home with new expectations as to how they should be treated by the dominant Anglo culture.

Years later, as I protested our country’s military involvement in Vietnam, I was reflecting that same skepticism about our government’s policies that was triggered in my dad’s mind by those segregated military units. My father’s Bronze Star, proudly displayed on a wall of my parents’ home, reminded me then, as it still does, of the need for tolerance and appreciation of ethnic and cultural differences-those differences the Germans sought to erase in the death camps.

FIFTY YEARS 1945

AGO…

May 2: Berlin talls to Russian troops.

May 7: Germany surrenders to the Allies. May 8: V-E Day.

May 26: American B-29s bomb Tokyo, destroying the royal palaces.

June 21: After 83 days of tierce fighting, the island of Okinawa falls to American troops.

June 26: United Nations formed.

July 16: First atomic bomb tested at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

July IS: American planes bomb Yokusuka Naval Base, destroying the last of Japan’s navy.

July 26: At Potsdam Conference, Allied leaders issue ultimatum to Japan to surrender or “lay her-self opera bo complete and utter destruction.”

July 29: Japan turns down surrender ultimatum.

August 6: The Enola Gay drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, destroying 60 percent of the city and killing nearly 100,000 people.

August 9: An atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, killing approximately 35,000 people.

August 15: V-J Day declared.

September 2: Aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese surrender unconditionally. The war is over.

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