AS YOU ENJOY THIS STORY—
Getting to know our millions of veterans is a major goal of ReadTheSpirit and PBS this year. With help from DPTV, Michigan’s flagship public TV station, the Michigan State University School of Journalism just published a multi-media book designed to help civilians make those connections. (Read our first story about this groundbreaking project, which is sparking headlines nationwide, and also see some of the videos in the book.) Today, the director of the MSU program writes about WWII veterans and “the hat.” I love this story because my own late father had such a hat, a sign of his service in the Aleutians. And like Mr. Bleich in Joe’s story today—my father wore the hat not to draw praise, but to connect with other veterans. This is especially urgent, because WWII vets are dying at a rate of close to 500 a day, which means less than 1 million of the 16 million who served in that war are left. Please, share this story with friends on social media.
David Crumm, ReadTheSpirit Editor
By JOE GRIMM
When Chester Bleich puts on the hat that announces he is a World War II veteran, he is not seeking accolades.
He is seeking answers.
Bleich’s son, Mike, emailed me after reading an article by Associated Press reporter Jeff Karoub about the new guide, 100 Questions and Answers About Veterans. The guide was written by students in my journalism class at Michigan State University. It answers basic questions that civilians have about veterans. We interviewed veterans to find the questions and veterans edited the final copy. More than 200 news websites, newspapers and TV stations published the AP article for Memorial Day. Mike Bleich read it in The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois.
The guide explains that Memorial Day is more than a day for barbecues and picnics. It is a solemn day for remembering those who have died in military service. It is not the same as Veterans Day, which comes in November, although a lot of people treat it that way. The guide also explains that many veterans are not looking for people to thank them on that day or any other day, although the gesture is certainly well intended.
On Memorial Day morning, Mike Bleich sent me an email:
“My father is a 91-year-old survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He is still troubled by the memories of the battle, and not knowing what happened to the others in his platoon. He wears his WW2 Veteran hat daily, not to be recognized, but in hopes of meeting other survivors of the war. I can identify with your finding that vets feel conflicted when thanked by the general public, as I have witnessed that very situation many times. He is much more comfortable when people ask where he served, listen to his personal story, and then thank him. When someone simply walks up and shakes his hand and thanks him, he typically does not respond and often looks away, almost as if to say, ‘If you only knew …’
“Thank you for undertaking this project, and feel free to share this note with your class.”
That email is laden with pain, loss, pride and a desire to be understood. It is also about civilians misinterpreting the message on the hat. That message is not for them but for veterans who understand and who might know something.
The son, a school principal for 20 years, explained his father’s story in detail on the phone. Chester Bleich was a private in Company M of the 109th battalion of the Army’s 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania National Guard. He was on the front lines when the Germans broke through in the U.S.’ biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II. As many as 19,000 Americans were killed there. Chester Bleich and six other men escaped, taking their machine gun with them. He carried the tripod as they crossed a river on a cable. They walked, not knowing where they were or where they were going, for what seemed like a hundred miles. After reaching a small town that they thought was in Allied territory, they sheltered in a building for the night. In the morning, the seven walked out into the street. A shell fell from somewhere and exploded. “That was the last time he ever saw the other six guys,” his son said. “That bothers him a great deal.”
Chester Bleich woke up on Christmas Eve, 1944, in a field hospital tent. The other guys were not there. He never learned their fate. He doesn’t have their names. He doesn’t even know the name of the town where he was hit with the shrapnel that is still inside him today. Clues that might have helped were lost in a fire at the Veterans Administration records center in St. Louis.
So, Chester Bleich puts on the hat, hoping it will attract answers.
Instead, said his son, the hat attracts strangers. They mean well, but know nothing about the battle or the shrapnel or the missing men. “There are times when I am with him and somebody will just kind of rush up and say, ‘Thank you for what you did,’ and ‘Thank you for serving.’ He doesn’t know what to say. He just looks away.”
An honor flight to Washington, D.C., has helped Chester Bleich. The trip, paid for by donations, had a packed schedule for approximately 40 veterans. They saw the sights, met people and were saluted. On the way back, though, the veterans were caught by one of those annoying mechanical delays that planes have. With no place to go and no schedule, the veterans could only sit around and talk. Mike Bleich said, “the flight was a wonderful, wonderful thing, but his favorite part of it was the four hours where he got to talk to those other guys.”
Chester Bleich talks more easily now. He likes to talk to young people. He tells his grandchildren more about the war than he tells his son. He still doesn’t like to talk about some of the things he saw, either to protect others or to protect himself. But he is talking more, and not just to veterans.
Mike Bleich told me his dad would like a copy of 100 Questions and Answers About Veterans. Although I know it won’t tell Chester Bleich much he doesn’t know, I hope it meets with his approval. I also hope that civilians order the guide, learn some basics and are ready to listen patiently when Veterans Day comes in November. That is the best way to say “Thank you.”
Joe Grimm visiting editor in residence in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. He is editor of this series of guides to cultural competence.