They've Been Through War Before, And They Remember

Many Seniors Say Persian Gulf Conflict Reminds Them Of World War Ii

February 13, 1991|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

For nine months in 1943, Pauline Nell didn't know whether her new husband was alive or dead.

Nell, now 76 and living in Mount Airy, was then a nurse working in Oklahoma City. Her husband, Richard, was listed as missing in action by the Air Force.

"Everything just drains out of you," she said. "I just kept up hope he would come back. There's nothing else you can do."

Nine months later she received a letter from her husband. Richard was in Central America on a secret mission. He was OK and had been doing Air Force undercover work he wasn't allowed to tell her about.

She didn't question the tactics or secrecy then, she said.

"I didn't even think about it. I was just glad he was alive," she said. But if she was a military wife these days, she said, "I'd want to know more about it."

Richard Nell survived the war, and they had two sons. He died in 1973.

Nell has lived through five U.S. wars -- she was a toddlerduring World War I. She and others of her generation say that despite the many differences between World War II and the current war in the Persian Gulf region, they can't remember the country being so unified behind a conflict since the 1940s.

The Korean War didn't dominate the headlines and broadcasts, they say, and the Vietnam War -- though brought into our living rooms by television, was protested widely.

The pervasiveness of war coverage on TV is the biggest change from World War II, Nell said. She worries that some of the coverage could compromise military strategy. It also scares children, who can't get away from it, say Nell and other seniors.

Blood drives, projects to mail cookies and other gifts to soldiers and made-up songs on the playground all remind Nell and her friends at the Mount Airy SeniorCenter of World War II. They say Saddam Hussein is too much like Adolf Hitler. They say that had the coalition forces not stopped him, Hussein, like Hitler, would not have been satisfied taking over just one country.

The seniors say they supported the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of the second World War. They say they would support dropping one on Iraq, rather than let the war linger and many soldiers die in ground battles.

For many, the reminders of World War II are painful. One county member of Gold Star Mothers -- for those whose children died fighting in World War II -- declined to be interviewed.

"When that war comeson in my living room, I have to turn it off and leave," said the woman. "It still hurts."

No matter what the decade or who the enemy, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's quote that "War is hell" still holds true, said Marine Corps and Navy veteran John R. Ferguson, 66, of Hampstead.

But it's also necessary sometimes, he said, and thisis one such time. Although he's 30 years too old, he can't help but feel the urge to sign up to fight against Hussein.

Although he first signed up as a Marine at age 17 in 1942, he soon joined a special task force in the Navy as a gunner's mate. He now is an active memberof the Westminster Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, having lost most of his hearing and some of his eyesight to an explosion aboard his destroyer.

Howard Wendler,71, of Mount Airy, also would like to do more if he could. Though hecouldn't fight in World War II for medical reasons, Wendler signed up to serve at a military hospital for prisoners of war.

He figureshis age and harmless appearance now could work to ambush the enemy.

"I'd like to get six or seven guys my age, to go over there and shoot Saddam Hussein," he said, only half joking.

His friend Jack Shank, 62, of Mount Airy, laughed at Wendler's suggestion.

"They'd have to carry you," he said.

Carroll has few women veterans of World War II, but one of them is Helen Crandell of Locust House in Westminster.

Crandell, 90, also is a Gold Star Mother. Her oldest son, Jack, died when his Army Air Corps plane was shot down over Luxembourg.

She learned of the news while stationed at an Army base in Texarkana, Texas.

"It was a shock," she said. Even though such news is expected during a war, she said, she had been heartened by the way Jack had survived other dangerous missions without a scratch.

"He was the kind of boy you just thought nothing could happen to," she said.

Still, she declined taking a leave of absence, she said, and made herself go to work the day she got news of his death.

Crandell enlisted in the Army as a cook when she was 42, being assigned those duties because of her experience working in restaurants.

"My oldestson dared me to go in, and I could never pass up a dare," she said.

She has fond memories of pinning Jack's wings onto his uniform after he graduated from flight school, herself wearing a uniform.

Under her breath during the ceremony, "I said to him, 'You don't want meto kiss you, do you?' I didn't think it would be very military.

"He said, 'Just step back two paces and salute,' " Crandell said.

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