What does it take to recover distant memories when a loved one is struggling with dementia or other aging issues? Our writer, Eric Wallace, followed along as a daughter used a collection of keepsakes to retrieve her father’s stories of WWII.They discovered that his memories were deeper and more poignant than either of them expected.When I accepted the assignment, I was full of anticipation. On the anniversary of a notable battle, a local veteran was willing to discuss his experiences serving as a belly-gunner in the U.S. Airforce toward the end of WWII. And for me, this was personal.
My fraternal grandfather had also served in the Air Force as a belly gunner. But cancer took my bighearted, loving grandfather’s life when I was just 10 years old. We’d never had the opportunity to talk about the war. I hoped this interview would help reconnect me to his story.
It was his daughter who’d reached out to the newspaper and made all the arrangements. As I pulled into the parking lot of the Sunny Days assisted living community, I reminded myself that she had warned us about her father’s memory loss and increasing dementia. The truth was, I had no idea how engaged he would (or wouldn’t) be.
Deeply Buried Memories
When I knocked on the door, Diana was waiting to greet me. Shaking my hand, she thanked me for coming and ushered me into the room.
“You can’t imagine how much this means to us,” she said, showing me to a chair in front of a plush leather sofa, on which her father was seated. “He’s hard of hearing, so we might have to speak a bit loud, and repeat ourselves a few times, but trust me, he is very adamant about telling his story.”
Laying eyes on Victor Shinpock, I felt a pang of dread. The man stared at the wall as if in a deep daze, and did not acknowledge my presence. His right cheek, eye, and lips sagged to the point they seemed ready to dribble onto his Columbia University sweater.
“Dad?” said Diana, annunciating the word very clearly, at a volume that wasn’t far from shouting. “Dad, this is the re-POR-ter. He’s come to talk to you about the war. Re-MEM-ber?”
I couldn’t help but think of my own grandfather. What if it was him I was interviewing? I’d show him the respect and dignity he deserved and listen. It wouldn’t matter if he made any sense. I’d just smile and nod, and try my damnedest to make sure he felt heard.
“My stohh-hrrr-rheee,” Victor sighed, as if he’d read my mind.
Connecting Through Keepsakes
As I readied my digital recorder and notebook, Diana opened a large plastic storage container resting alongside the sofa.
“Alright Dad, here are your props,” she said, still using the loud voice.
Victor and I watched as Diana pulled items from the container. She arranged three model planes on the coffee table – replicas of the planes Victor had helped crew during the many perilous missions he’d flown over Europe.
Then came maps of the U.S. and Europe. There was Victor’s Air Force uniform and cap. A small cedar box of trinkets he’d brought home from Europe; photo album; and the engineering degree from Columbia University, dated 1952.
Diana opened the photo album, and Victor began to speak. Mostly, his thoughts came in fragmented bursts, which Diana would rephrase.
Along the way, Victor frequently lost track of what he was saying, and became confused. When that happened, Diana was already reaching for a prop – a model plane or a postcard, a photo of him standing alongside his fellow crewmen.
Slowly, like a castle being shaped from a heap of sand, a narrative emerged.
Maybe Dad Is Just Confused
Victor started off by asserting that he and his friends had wanted nothing to do with the so-called Great War. It made him sick to even think of it. In fact, he said, getting drafted had ruined his life.
“Sure, Hitler was bad, but he was Europe’s problem,” he explained. “In that time, war was painted as romantic — so men were interested in it. But we were young, and we didn’t want to get shot. They had to force us to go, otherwise, we wouldn’t have done it!”
Diana’s confused expression revealed that Victor had told this story quite differently in the past. “Are you really sure you, ah, didn’t want to go fight?” she asked, perplexed.
“Hell no!” he blurted. “I was young. I was scared. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I didn’t want to die!”
The room went dead quiet. Then Diana sighed. And said, softly, “I didn’t know that.”
“I didn’t want to tell you,” said Victor, shrugging. “I didn’t want your mom to know. I didn’t want you to know.”
“Well, I’m glad that you told me,” Diana replied. Taking his hand in hers, she traced his finger on the European map, and urged her father to continue.
“Once training was over, I was in agreement: Hitler had to be stopped,” he said. “They showed us so much propaganda. It was brainwashing, but it made us gung-ho: We were going to win the war and get the hell out of there. In our minds, we weren’t out to save the world, we just wanted to hurry up and get back home without getting killed.”
The War Hero Fesses Up
As a B-17 belly-gunner, Victor was charged with climbing into a small, hydraulically operated plastic bubble on the underside of the plane. The cramped enclosure was claustrophobic – too small for a parachute – and extremely vulnerable. In the belly, Victor’s job was to fend off enemy fighters.
Diana handed her father one of the model planes. Again, she turned the pages of the photo album. Tracing his fingers along the plane’s wings, she showed Victor the photo of himself standing alongside a gang of his Air Force compatriots. Victor’s eyes came alive.
“We’d get hit 20, 30 times a mission,” he said. “I could see the bombs dropping from the plane and the explosions from the antiaircraft guns going off all around us. The plane would shake and sputter. Shells would tear through the metal. It was terrifying. All you could do was grit your teeth, pray you didn’t go down, and try not to crap your pants.”
“Dad!” chided Diana.
Fanning a hand in her direction, he looked directly at me. “Everyone on that plane crapped their pants at least once, including me,” he said. “You can’t help it. They’re shooting at you. And you’re so scared. You just can’t help it. It’s how the body responds. It’s something we all had to learn how to control.”
As the war progressed, the crew’s missions delivered them deeper and deeper into Axis territory. The runs were longer, more grueling, more dangerous. “The tension was unbearable,” said Victor. “We were pushing the planes to their limits. We were always afraid we’d run out of fuel and crash.”
Then, on May 7, 1945, the Germans surrendered.
“I’ll never forget it so long as I live,” Victor said. The tension, pressure, fear, all that was suddenly gone. “I was so happy. I couldn’t believe I was going to get to go home and live a normal life. I never thought I’d make it, but I did. All I wanted to do was go somewhere and get a drink!”
Confronted by her father’s candor, Diana looked shocked. “But Dad, you don’t — I thought you didn’t drink?”
“I did that day,” he said. “If ever there was a day for a drink, it was that one.”
Victor Wanders into a Vision
After the armistice was announced, Victor and his comrades headed for the bar. Only, on the way, they had a change of heart, and decided to visit the local church instead.
For a moment, Victor struggled for words. Then Diana handed him the small silver cross he’d brought home from Italy. He closed his eyes and began to describe a church that was inside a cave — how the light came falling through the roof, how the pews, statues, and pillars had been carved from the stone walls and floors.
“Dad, you must’ve dreamed that,” said Diana, in disbelief. But Victor shook his head, and insisted. Pulling her phone from her pocket, Diana searched for Catholic churches in Foggia. Blinking at the results, she stared at the phone. Then quietly apologized. When she showed the images to her father, he nodded. “That’s it,” he said, overwhelmed by emotion. “That’s it.”
The church Victor and the others had visited was the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo, the Cave of Saint Michael. Created by a local nobleman in response to a request from the Pope in the fifth century, the cave was one of the holiest — not to mention aesthetically dazzling — shrines in all of Europe.
“None of us meant to do it, but the moment we got inside, we fell down on our knees and thanked God we hadn’t gotten shot,” said Victor. “It was such an ancient place, and so beautiful, and so quiet, we all just wept and wept.”
When they were done, the group left the church, crossed the street, and entered the first bar they came to. There, they made toast after toast, and proceeded to drink until they fell down.
“Sometimes, I don’t believe it all even happened,” he said. “I tell myself: It must have been a nightmare, a bad dream. I try to hide from it. But it was real. And we have to remember it happened. We’re obligated to tell the truth about what it was really like.”
The Story Isn’t Over
When the final word was spoken, like throwing a switch, the light went out in Victor’s eyes. Sinking back into the couch, he let loose a heavy sigh, and appeared to deflate.
Speechless, I glanced at Diana. Her eyes were wet with tears. It wasn’t the story she had heard growing up, she explained, but it was the story she needed to hear. For the first time, her father had stripped away the glamour of war and shared the true story of a scared boy’s experience.
I started gathering up my notebook and recorder. As I stood to go, Victor gave a sort of wave. His hand lingered in the air for a moment before I realized what he wanted. When I took his hand in mind, he squeezed.
Is this the kind of man my grandfather was? I asked myself, staring into Victor’s eyes as I shook his hand. I wouldn’t have understood this story at 10 years old, but I felt its truth resonate within me. I thought of how terrified my grandfather must have been, his bravery, and how hard he had embraced life and love after his return home. Now that I knew the truth, I would never forget.