Artifacts offer invaluable insight into veterans' experiences in battle
For every known story of military heroism, bravery and sacrifice, thousands of others remain untold.
“It's a countless number,” said retired Army Col. Keith Nightingale, 71, a two-tour Vietnam War veteran who writes about military history.
The number of World War II and Korean War veterans is in sharp decline in Western Pennsylvania and across the country, making it too late for many of the stories to be told by the men and women who lived them.
But increasingly, people going through the belongings of deceased loved ones are finding important mementos that provide fuller pictures of their relatives and the wars in which they fought.
“The items might not provide any new tactical information about a particular battle or a war. Often it goes deeper than that. It's personal,” said Michael Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
Kraus is transcribing more than 30 letters written during World War II by an Army Ranger from Clarion to a girl back home.
“He shares his personal feelings about having to kill people. He said he didn't enjoy having to do it, but it had to be done. It adds to the liturgy of that time and makes it so much more personal,” Kraus said.
The Ranger wrote that his unit detested the patches it wore during the D-Day invasion — so much so that it lobbied successfully for new ones. He mailed both back home.
The Ranger, James P. Kerr, got through the war unscathed and married the woman to whom he wrote the letters, Nancy Smathers. Kerr earned an architecture degree from Georgia Tech and worked at Carnegie Mellon University. The couple lived in Shaler.
Kerr died in 1977 while trying to save people from a New Castle hotel fire. His wife died in 2005, and their only son, Chris, died two years later.
Contractors who were gutting the Kerr home to prepare it for renovation found his letters under a flight of stairs, Kraus said. A picker obtained and later sold the letters for $800. They then came to the attention of officials at Soldiers & Sailors.
“That history very easily could have vanished forever,” Kraus said.
Soldiers & Sailors hopes to display the letters by the end of summer.
On Memorial Day, the museum will display a Medal of Honor — its sixth — that someone recently donated, Kraus said.
Army radioman John J. Pinder Jr. of Burgettstown earned the medal for heroism on D-Day. He established a vital communications link on the beach near Colleville-sur-Mer despite being wounded several times. His brother, Harold Pinder of Ross, a B-24 bomber pilot and prisoner of war during World War II, kept the medal until he died about five years ago.
Sally Granlund, 51, of Belle Vernon has become the de facto curator of her family's military history.
“My father-in-law didn't speak of the war at all, not even to his son,” Granlund said of Arthur J. “Rip” Granlund, a World War II paratrooper.
His experience during the war came to light after he died in 1990, when his son, Arthur A. Granlund, found military records, medals, a yearbook and a parachute. The younger Granlund learned more about his father's service in the ensuing years, especially his involvement in the Battle of Graignes — known by some as the Massacre at Graignes.
Nightingale, the retired Army colonel, wrote that the story is “known to only the most ardent World War II historians and a fading number of veterans who served in the 82nd Airborne Division's 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment during the D-Day invasion,” as the elder Granlund did.
According to Nightingale, the 507th was dropped miles off target on D-Day, into a swamp. Within a couple of days, 182 of them had reunited in Graignes, where villagers voted unanimously to aid the paratroopers despite the risk of German retribution. Women cooked for the soldiers, who established defensive positions.
The paratroopers killed about 500 Germans and wounded 700 in fighting on June 10 and 11, but the Germans captured much of the village by the second evening. The U.S. commanding officer ordered survivors to escape. The headquarters company of the 17th SS Panzer Division arrived late that night.
Germans executed wounded troops, medics and a doctor, along with two village priests and two housekeepers. They torched the village, including its church.
Rip Granlund is pictured on the Southwestern Pennsylvania World War II Memorial on the North Shore. His son gave organizers a photo to use, but he never got to see the memorial that opened in November. He died on April 8 of an extended illness, leaving Sally Granlund — whose father served in the Philippines during World War II — to keep the stories alive.
“If we wouldn't have found those papers, we would be ignorant of what (Rip Granlund) did, because he never talked about it,” she said.
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.