I’ve had the privilege over the past 16 years of interviewing hundreds of people for feature stories printed in a handful of newspapers in Delaware, Champaign, and Logan counties. By far, the most memorable and important stories I’ve written as a journalist have focused on World War II veterans — the Greatest Generation.
Today, as we celebrate Veterans Day, I want to thank the men and women who served their nation at a pivotal time in history. If it weren’t for these brave veterans, the world we know today would look a lot different.
Speaking of the times in which we live today, while too many Americans have become caught up in the battle between red versus blue, I can tell you that having been fortunate enough to interview a few dozen WWII veterans, the only colors they’ve ever cared about are red, white and blue.
The majority of my interviews with these true American heroes ended up lasting multiple hours, and I would have stayed all day to listen to their stories if I didn’t have a job to do.
As a journalist, I feel that interviewing the last of a dying breed is not only the best part of my job, but an integral part of American history as their stories need to be documented so their sacrifices and heroic efforts are never forgotten.
Having spent hours upon hours listening to stories of survival and doing what needed to be done for the good of mankind, I’ve learned that along with their undying love for their country, every single one of the WWII veterans I’ve interviewed — many of whom nearly lost their life — always worked into the conversation the fact they would do it all over again to defend our way of life.
In 2020, COVID-19 has taught us all how fragile life is and how quickly our way of life can be altered. It might take a while, but I’m confident the great minds in this country and throughout the world will eventually help us overcome this invisible enemy. When they do and we return to the new normal, whatever that may look like, we will still owe our freedom to the likes of Craig Carmichael, John Bergmann, Charles Allen, and Lee Siegwald — local WWII veterans I’ve had the honor of interviewing while employed by The Delaware Gazette.
In honor of Veterans Day, I want to share bits of their stories for those who may have missed the articles when they originally ran in The Gazette.
It was three years ago today that during a Veterans Day ceremony inside the Powell Municipal Building Council Chambers, World War II Navy veteran Craig Carmichael, who was 94 years young at the time, reminded a packed house that freedom comes at a price and should never be taken for granted.
“We must be prepared as a nation to defend our freedom because freedom is an elusive thing,” Carmichael said.
He added the very freedom he fought for back in the 1940s is constantly tested by foreign and domestic enemies, and he called upon all Americans to unite as one.
“In my lifetime, I have never seen this nation so divided as I see it today,” Carmichael said as he tried to hold back his emotions. “It’s tragic. It’s dangerous.”
After having watched an American hero become emotional when talking about the state of the nation, I recall leaving the building that day thinking to myself that we owe it to people like Carmichael to be a more unified country where we come together for the common good of all Americans, not just those who share the same political beliefs as us.
Unfortunately, while researching information for this column, I discovered Carmichael passed away earlier this year at the age of 97.
Back in November 2017, I was assigned by the editor at the time to cover Living History Day at Olentangy Hyatts Middle School, where Army veteran John Bergmann, who was 97 at the time, told students he was gearing up for a career as an accountant when Uncle Sam came calling in search of mathematicians for a secretive unit.
The unit he agreed to join was so secretive, Bergmann had to use a cover story for everything, so he told everyone he was doing payroll work for the Army. The missions he was part of were so secretive that when he lost his right eye from an explosive device while on a mission in Burma, the injury was documented as being caused by a rifle mishap while training.
Bergmann told the students that 40 years after the war ended, he was finally able to reveal to his family and friends the truth — he spent his time in the Army cracking the enemies’ encoded messages as a code-breaker.
While Bergmann told me he hoped his stories helped students realize freedom doesn’t come free and wars are “not all glamour,” but instead “blood and guts,” he wanted to let them know there is something they can do to make a difference in the life of an active military member.
“The most important thing for people to do today is to write to your families, brothers, uncle, or anybody that is in the service,” Bergmann said. “Write them a postcard or a letter telling them about school and what you are doing.”
As his time with the students was coming to a close, I was able to capture a photo of Bergmann talking to two middle school students who stopped to ask him additional questions. It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve taken as it was refreshing to see young students take an interest in history. I’m sure it also made Bergmann’s day as I could tell he enjoyed speaking to the students.
In November 2018, I spent several hours interviewing a WWII veteran by the name of Charles Allen just days before his 100th birthday.
A 30-year veteran of the Army Air Corps/U.S. Air Force, Allen had plenty of stories to share, and I was eager to hear them all, including the fact he completed a combined 31 bombing missions during WWII and the Vietnam War.
I recall being captivated as I listened to Allen talk about two missions in particular where his life flashed before his eyes — both as a B-24 bomber pilot in WWII.
As he showed me the original mission log sheet detailing the 14 bombing missions he co-piloted during WWII, one entry stood out to me as it read, “Missing in Action April 21, 1944.”
Allen remembers that day vividly — a day when his life was ultimately spared thanks to a group who viewed Americans as allies.
On this particular mission, Allen told me he was co-piloting a newer B-24 that had just been delivered from the States because his unit’s regular plane was out of service.
During the mission, which was changed while the plane was already in the air due to overcast conditions, the crew realized the plane was burning too much fuel and wouldn’t make it back to base, so all 11 people on board bailed out over the coast of German-occupied Yugoslavia, not knowing what fate awaited them below.
Once on the ground, Allen and the rest of the crew weren’t sure if they would be discovered by American allies or Germans.
“I hid in a rocky area until this voice got real close. I looked up and it was a young teenager, probably 18 years old,” Allen recalled. “He had a gun on his shoulder, and on his cap was a hammer and sickle emblem. He said, ‘Marshal Tito’s Partisans’ (National Liberation Army that sought to free Yugoslavia from Axis occupation), and I lifted up my dog tags and said ‘American.’ At that time, I knew pretty well that we were going to have a good chance of getting out because our intelligence briefed us that if you got picked up by Marshal Tito’s Partisans, they did a really good job of getting people out.”
It took over a month, but the group did exactly that for Allen and his crew-mates.
Just a little over a month after Allen was rescued, he found himself once again in a predicament that nearly cost him his life.
Allen shared with me that on July 6, 1944 — his 14th and what turned out to be his final bombing mission during WWII — he was co-piloting a B-24 destined for a target in Northern Italy, which was occupied by the Germans.
“The plane got hit real bad with anti-aircraft fire, and the number three engine got hit,” Allen recalled. “I was the copilot, and I was looking out the window to see what kind of damage had been done and some flak came through the windshield.”
Struck in the left shoulder, Allen recalled the pain wasn’t that bad, but the burning sensation he felt was something that he will never forget.
A week after interviewing Allen in November 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing Army veteran Lee Siegwald, who was 95 at the time.
Early on in the interview, Siegwald simply said, “I’m just built differently.”
In my opinion, truer words have never been spoken as that quote perfectly sums up those individuals who make up the Greatest Generation.
Siegwald, who spent time in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan during WWII as a member of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, survived two near-death experiences: An aircraft mishap in which a Navy pilot crashed his plane into the side of a large U.S. ship, just 10 feet below where Siegwald was standing at the time, and a 20-foot fall from the top of a bombed-out old shoe factory that was being outfitted with a roof in order to house military equipment.
By the grace of God, Siegwald said, his life was spared during the war.
“I thank God every day,” he said. “I wonder how many of us WWII guys are left. There is not a hell of a lot of us left, really.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 16 million Americans who served during WWII, only 300,000 or so remain alive today.
If you ever have the chance to sit down with a WWII veteran who is willing to share his or her story, do it. Trust me, you won’t regret it as these individuals are national treasures who helped defeat tyranny and preserve our freedom.
Joshua Keeran is editor of The Delaware Gazette. Reach him by email at email@example.com or by phone at 740-413-0900.