“The Last Good War” Celebrates World War Two Veterans
Thursday, December 2, 2010
In the new book of photographs and essays called THE LAST GOOD WAR, we see pictures of over 100 World War two veterans as senior citizens, some from here in San Diego. And in the essays, they tell their stories, what their missions were during the war, how they were injured, who they met and who they lost.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Preserving personal stories and histories has become very popular in recent years. Efforts like public radio's StoryCorps and even websites like ancestry.com are examples of how much people are intrigued with their links to the past. Another worthy entry into that effort to honor and preserve the past is a new book of photographs and essays called the last good war. In the book we see pictures of over 100 World War II veterans issue sometimes holding pictures of themselves as young men and women in uniform. And then the essays are their stories, what their missions were during the wary, how they were injured, who they met, and who they lost. San Diego plays an important role in the creation of this book. Two senior centers in town opened their doors to allow photographer Thomas Sanders take pictures of all veterans living there. And we are honored to have two of those veterans in featured in the book with us today. I'd like to welcome my guests, first the pair responsible for the book, the last good war, photographer Thomas Sanders. Thomas, welcome to these days.
THOMAS SANDERS: Thanks for having us.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And essayist Veronica Kavass. Hi, Veronica.
VERONICA KAVASS: Hi. How are you?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just fine. Thanks for being here. Now, joining us in studio are the two veterans I talked about. Eleanor Conlon who served in the US Marince Corps. Good morning, Eleanor, and welcome to these days.
ELEANOR CONLON: Good morning and I'm very happy to be here.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Bill Snyder, formerly a pilot with marine aircraft group 25 south Pacific combat air transport. Bill, good morning. Thanks for coming in.
BILL SNYDER: Good morning to you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, let me start with you, Thomas, if I may, because I read that you started photographing World War II veterans while you were still in college. What got you interested in these veterans?
THOMAS SANDERS: Well, I had a college assignment to photograph a portate. So I went to a local retirement community, and I met an army ranger, Lt. Randall Harris. And he told me this battle story. [CHECK AUDIO] and in the legs. And this is quite graphic, but his intestines started to come out of his stomach, he pushed them back inside, he took his canteen belt, he cinched it around his belt, and he continued fighting. [CHECK AUDIO] worrying about the small things in life, and with Randall in my age, he was hoping and praying to live until the next day. So I made [CHECK AUDIO].
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so, tell -- so learning about this story of Lt. Harris, it makes me think that the people of this generation, the veterans of World War II have been called members of the greatest generation. Now that you've met so many of them, what do you think makes this generation so great, Thomas?
THOMAS SANDERS: I think these World War II veterans don't look at themselves as heroes in any way. But as a job that needed to be. And so I think they are very humbled by their very eventful lives that they have had.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Veronica, you're the essayist for the last good war. Are the veterans you listen to good at telling their own stories?
VERONICA KAVASS: Yeah, of course, they're very good at telling their own stories of it's just a matter of getting them to tell the story. And some of them were more either to do it than others. Some really didn't want to open up, but once they did, they had incredible insight into areas of world war two, and experiences that I had never heard about. And it was fascinating to listen to their stories. And I think I asked the questions that led them into these places where they could really recall these details of what happened and what it meant to them. And that's what made these stories really heart warming and meaningful for me to hear.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So they didn't -- these stories didn't just start spilling out in a lot of ways. They had to be coaxed out?
VERONICA KAVASS: Yeah, I mean, it's a pretty long time ago. It's a pretty heavy subject. So it takes a while to ease into it and to find your entrance point. And then once you're in there, it's a matter of searching through those memories, and I would listen to them go through all those different memories, and some of them were selected to be included in the book.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, what -- were this any common patterns to these stories?
VERONICA KAVASS: There were. Everyone discussed their pride in this country. So that was what made it really neat because I had never heard of -- I had never spoken to a generation that was so proud of this country. It's clearly the most proud that I'd ever encurrented of and also they also discussed their relationship to fear and of in this really unique way. So there was a common pattern that they'd say they weren't scared at all, and then there was the common pattern that they said they were very scared. And then also there's the pattern that they really cherished their loved ones. So I remember hearing them talk about whoever was left back at home or whoever they were looking forward to returning to, that was definitely a part of everyone's story as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're talking about the new book, it's a coffee table book full of photographs and essays issue it's called the last good war. And it's photographed by Thomas Sanders, and the essayist is Vernon Kavass. Two of the people featured in this book are living here in San Diego, and they're in the KPBS studios right now. Eleanor Conlon and colonel bill Snyder. And Eleanor, the story that you tell in this book is about trying to gain your respect as a woman in the marines. Now I'm gonna ask you a question you probably heard a lot. . Why in the world did you want to be a marine.
ELEANOR CONLON: I guess because I was -- thought they were the best.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you wanted to be the best?
ELEANOR CONLON: And I guess I wanted probably a lot bit of attention.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, how -- when World War II broke out, did you say, okay, I have enter -- I have to get involved in the military? And did you wait until the marines opened up to women to make that commitment?
ELEANOR CONLON: Well, I -- probably it took me that long to make up my mind. And by that time, I thought by -- I'd have to join the auxiliary. Whereas the marine corps opened up the corps rather than joining an auxiliary.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. So you were a member of the marine corps. Upon what was your rank.
ELEANOR CONLON: I -- from the private went to staff sergeant.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what did you do.
ELEANOR CONLON: I was destined to work in the mail room in headquarters. I -- we were asked where we were assigned, and I stated that I would like to go to any place except Washington DC. So while they were going to send me temporarily until the burography school opened up. Then I had to be released from there to go to the orography school. So I completely enjoyed my tour of duty.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: These were the days, Eleanor, if I may, where the idea was women were gonna do these jobs to free up men so they could be freed up to actually fight the battles and be in the theatres of war and so forth. But did you have to even under those conditions work to gain respect?
ELEANOR CONLON: I think from the male marines, they -- because it was only the second class of women that went through the training, and I think we did have to have -- gain respect
BILL SNYDER: The next morning after I bedded down with my crew for the night, everything, we had a couple three hours of sleep, and I ended up calling
Ms. Rowan, and she told me, she said we'll take the money over there at that time. She says, well, just leave it the at the desk and I'll come down and pick it up. And I said, no, it's too much money. How will I know you when you come over, I said? Well, I'm wearing a white rimmed hat, and I'm carrying a Brawley. And I said, well, pardon my ignorance, but what's a brawly? And she paused and said, an umbrella, you dummy.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 'Cause she was Australian, speaking in that Australian language. So you saw this woman in her hat, in her straw hat.
BILL SNYDER: We got off the elevator that morning, my copilot and I, I looked across the lobby and saw two charming girls over there. And one with a big white hat on, and I told my copilot, I said, you get the one on the right, I get the one with the white hat.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you got the one with the white hat for the rest of your life.
BILL SNYDER: Right.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you were flying seriously wounded marines in the south Pacific. What other kinds of transport missions did you do? Did you bring ammunition and foods and supplies and things of that nature?
BILL SNYDER: Oh, yes. We brought all kinds of supplies all the way from torpedoes, ammunition, torpedoes for the submarines docked up in the islands. We would carry lots of -- all the way -- always out of Guadalcanal, and Munda, we carried seriously wounded marines that could not be handled on a hospital ship.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. How dangerous was your assignment?
BILL SNYDER: Well, it was pretty good. We got shot at a few times by Jap fighter planes. But we had security in the clouds, if we could get up in the clouds, they wouldn't catch us.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, what colonel Snyder just said, Veronica, is one thing that you address when you're talking about your essays in this book, and you devote some time talking about whether or not to use the phrase Jap. Tell us about that.
VERONICA KAVASS: Yeah, after I completed the stories, I met with the editors and we talked about whether or not to keep that or change it. And the thing is that Jap was an acceptable term to Americans during World War II, it was in the headlines of newspapers. It was in certificates, you know, honoring the soldiers or a sailor's performance, and it would say way to go for beating the Japes. So there was nothing wrong about it then. But over time that has changed and now it seems as though we pay much more attention to the political correctness of terms and derogatory terms. So when we were -- we decided -- we thought it would be weird to not maintain it as it was. And World War II veterans continue to use that term to this day. Of not because out of being prejudice or anything of that nature of that's just because that's how people referred to them back then. And it wasn't even considered remotely wrong. So we -- in certain areas we would change it, and other areas we would maintain it if it stayed with the tone of the story telling. But it would be really unauthentic if instead of saying just like Bill Snyder just said right now, they would never say a Japanese fighter plane. They would say a Jap fighter plane. So it was about keeping it authentic.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Part and parcel of a world at war at that time. Thomas you right in your intersection to the book that many of the veterans that you photographed came to the photography session and they pushed aside their walkers, they got out of their wheelchairs if they could, to stand and be photographed in their uniforms, if they could do that.
THOMAS SANDERS: Right.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What does that tell you?
THOMAS SANDERS: It tells me that these men and women have a lot of pride about World War II. As I mentioned kind of before, that they did not look at themselves as heroes in any way but as a job that had to be done. And these men and women have a lot of -- a ton of pride about saving the world from the axes powers. And another thing I would like to mention, is a lot of these World War II veterans, they always say we're not the heroes. Of the true heroes are the men and women that do not come back. And that's something that all of them, all of them say.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Eleanor, or should I say staph sergeant Conlon, what did you think about this picture in this book?
ELEANOR CONLON: Well, I'm getting old. But I -- I'm still able to get around. And I generally enjoy life. And I think all my associates are in the same position.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
ELEANOR CONLON: And they're proud to have served or -- the civilians that were at that time did their parts. And I don't think we felt exceptional. I think it was -- our children probably didn't -- I think our grand children probably think we're more exceptional than our children did.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isn't that always the case? Yes. And so I'm wondering when you heard about this project, and that you were gonna be photographed for a book, did you sort of say to yourself, well, it's about time? Or why? Which reaction did you have?
ELEANOR CONLON: I had no reaction. In fact, I was just gonna by pass it. Until my daughter said, well, you're going. And I entered the program.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to mention this again too, colonel bill Snyder, the fact that you spent your essay talking, basically, about your -- meeting your wife, and about the whole ark of that meeting and then trying to get married, trying to convince her father that you weren't just some fly by night pilot, and then seeing that as one of the -- one of, if not the best thing that came out of this entire war experience for you. Why did you decide to do that in this essay?
BILL SNYDER: It's hard to say. I really didn't pay much attention to it until somebody kind of talked me into it, and let's get your picture up, we're gonna put the pictures up on the wall down at the Belmont Village and we'll call it the rogues' gallery. So those were all the military personnel that were picked at that point in time. But there's a lot of stories out there that would make wonderful reading if somebody just jot down the notes. I know from experience. I've written several articles for aviation magazine and the marine corps gazelle and so forth that, after the war was over, we discovered that my squadron was originally the first squadron of the first mass flight of twin engineered planes ever in the world that flew from San Diego to Hawaii, 18 hours and we didn't discover that until about the time of Korea, I was doing some research work, and we ended up finding out from the national aeronautics association that we had set a world's record. And they made a plaque out of it, and the paque is hanging in the Naval Station there in Mira Mar, and I have a copy of it in my room.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, my two guests in studio here, Thomas, Eleanor and Bill are hale and hearty, but you make the comment in the beginning of your book that we are losing a lot of World War II veterans. Is that why you thought it was so important to document the faces and the stories of these people?
THOMAS SANDERS: My grandpa was in World War II, and his brother was killed by a [CHECK AUDIO] in World War II. And both their stories were lost. Because my uncle of course died, he didn't get to live this full life. And my grandpa told me 3 or 4 stories, and that's it. Because he didn't want it talk about it. And I don't know if that's because his brother died or maybe he killed someone. But it's just so incredibly important that we appreciate these men and women and that they have the opportunity to tell their stories before they move on.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Veronica, you talk with the fact that you were overwhelmed by the patriotism coming from the stories of these people and what these veterans said to you. Do you think that that is one of the reasons is that there is really some nostalgia for this time, as bad as it was that all Americans had a common purpose?
VERONICA KAVASS: Yeah, absolutely. And as I said before, I never experienced hearing stories from another generation that exuded that sort of nostalgia. And I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they were coming out of very dark times and there was an air of desperation in a way. And suddenly a very dramatic war. And going from one to the other, you know, only, like, the only thing they could do was to suddenly all unite and all work together on one cause. Of and I -- I don't know what that's like. I've never seen that in my lifetime. So to me, it's almost romantic, and of course toem this, it's nostalgic.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and one thing I think, Eleanor and bill, if I might ask you both, you know, to us, this is history. This is something that happened. We know how it began, we know how it conducted itself. And we know how it ended. For the both of you living in the middle of this war, Eleanor, was this a scary time?
ELEANOR CONLON: I had no fear. And my father had been in the army before the World War II -- World War I. No, it was after World War I of and that was one of the happiest times of his life. And he was so proud that I would volunteer. And everybody seemed to be proud in the service at that time. I think we all had a lot of patriotism. And we showed it in different ways.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. Bill, people didn't know how this war was gonna end though. I mean, really, you didn't know. It looked for a while that, you know, the Germany and Japan were winning.
BILL SNYDER: Uh-huh. Correct.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was this a very unsettling time? Do you remember feeling afraid?
BILL SNYDER: Frankly, I don't recall being concerned about an unsettling time. I went back over seas in 1944 and went on into Okinawa, and then went to Nagasaki as an occupation squadron. I didn't feel the deal was not any hurt in my body, my mind, of thinking about those times. Because we were glad it was over. And we were glad we could put it together that way.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Glad it was over and glad you won.
BILL SNYDER: Right.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Let me ask you two both, finally, you know, this book uses the name that historian Studs Terkel used for World War II, the last good war. Bill, do you think this was a good war?
BILL SNYDER: In the essence of it, no war is good because of what the ending results are, the missing and the fallen, and so forth. Those are the ones we should look back on, give thanks for their sacrifice.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thomas, did you have any hesitation about using that title?
THOMAS SANDERS: I did not. Just because it was the last war where the country was together as a whole. I mean, it was more of the publisher's idea. And I had to think about it. But I mean, looking at past or wars after World War II, are the country really came together as a whole.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Thomas, what kind of reception is this book getting? What kind of comments have you heard?
THOMAS SANDERS: Oh, during the question and answer portion of our presentations, it is my favorite part of the book tour. People stand up, and they tell stories about their World War II relatives. People sometimes get emotional. And the best feeling I think for Veronica and I is when little kids come up and they start asking questions about the book and about the war and that is such a good feeling of.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all for coming in and speaking about this today. And I want to let all of our listeners know that tomorrow Thomas Sanders will be signing copies of his book at the Navy exchange at naval base San Diego on 32nd street from noon to 2:00 PM, and 2 and tomorrow, the two Belmont village senior living centers in San Diego will have book signings. And if you want more information on that, you can go to Belmont village.com. Thomas and Veronica thank you so much for speaking with us.
THOMAS SANDERS: Thank you.
VERONICA KAVASS: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And staff sergeant Eleanor Conlon.
ELEANOR CONLON: I appreciate the effort that was made.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I appreciate you coming in. Colonel Bill Snyder, thank you.
BILL SNYDER: You're jolly welcome. It's a pleasure.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, if you have comments you can always go on-line and put your comments on KPBS.org/These Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.