A family recalls toll of two wars

Tribute: Memorial Day is a quiet holiday for a father and son who served in vastly different but equally harrowing conflicts.

May 28, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

HAVRE DE GRACE - The father survived three bloody amphibious landings in World War II and a year in Nazi prison camps. The son was an "invisible" warrior in Vietnam, part of a top-secret team of electronic eavesdroppers perched in a far-flung outpost called Ben Het.

Their wars, defining events in their lives, presented profound contrasts. The "Big War" from 1941 to 1945 was conventional and righteous, waged against three world tyrants. The other was an insidious, dirty counterinsurgency campaign that ripped this nation apart and claimed 58,000 lives.

Today, Arthur H. Way, 80, his son Vincent, 53, and Margaret Way, 79, the woman who endured both wars with a grinding worry as wife and then mother, will join others at Tydings Park near their home in Havre de Grace and observe Memorial Day.

While American flags splash the town's stately Union Avenue, the Way family will quietly remember their personal investments in war's pain and triumph.

Arthur Way can call up in his mind's eye the brutal beatings at the hands of German guards, an untreated infection that nearly left him blind and, 55 years later, meeting a fellow POW and joking that he had only two teeth remaining when he was liberated. Though a half-century in the past, the nightmares still steal into his sleep.

Vincent Way, who served two years in Southeast Asia, will recall in 1969 hunkering down in the Ben Het Special Forces camp, a member of the clandestine 509th Radio Research Group, and listening to North Vietnamese radios and Morse code keys crackle and click with potential intelligence bonanzas.

He will remember the constant barrage of artillery and mortar fire aimed at the camp near where South Vietnam bordered Laos and Cambodia. And he will be thankful he left Ben Het just days before North Vietnamese tanks attacked, beginning a siege on the tiny fortress that would last six months.

"World War II was different; we had to do it because our freedom was at stake," Margaret Way said, pausing. "Vietnam was stupid, awful. I almost died when Vincent called me and said he was going back for a second tour. I could have smacked him."

The two men also remember vastly different homecomings.

Hospitalized several months, the elder Way returned to a united nation "very grateful for peace and for what everybody had done, all the sacrifices. We had our freedom and everywhere you went people just appreciated you."

The son quickly discovered Vietnam veterans at home would be treated like lepers as the tumultuous 1960s slipped into a new decade.

"Like my second night home, my friend picked me up and we went to a club," Vincent Way said. "I asked a woman to slow dance, and we were talking, and she asked me what I did. I told her I was nearing the end of my Army enlistment and that I had just returned from Vietnam.

"She stopped dancing, pushed me away and walked off the dance floor," he said. It would be years before he would again talk about Vietnam.

Most veterans hold Memorial Day sacred. It is a time to share experiences and avoid the side of a national holiday that many say has become overly commercial.

"You say war and people today don't know what you are talking about," said state Del. Nancy Hubers, an Essex Democrat who will take part today in a Memorial Day ceremony at Holly Hill Memorial Gardens in eastern Baltimore County.

For Arthur Way, today's recollections are seared in his memory. At sunrise, he will unfurl an American flag and display it outside the family's deck, facing tranquil Concord Cove.

"Do not call me a hero," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "The only heroes are the ones who sacrificed their lives, the ones who didn't come home."

Arthur and Margaret Way grew up in East Baltimore and married 58 years ago, during World War II. As noted in a yellowed diary he maintained through combat and his 14 months in Nazi POW camps, Arthur enlisted in the Army in February 1942 and was assigned to the 45th Infantry Division.

He landed at Sicily in July 1943 and at Salerno two months later. After months of combat and terror, he was in a landing craft headed for Anzio. What he and his mates did not know was that seven German divisions were waiting.

Cpl. Way was captured within days of his first patrol. He served time in three camps and was beaten regularly by guards. He worked, mostly on farms and in forests. He was fed "air raid" soup, he said jokingly. "It was `all clear.'"

He thought all the time of going home. "I knew the Allies would win the war. There was no doubt in my mind."

On the home front, Margaret Way tended to their young daughter, Peggy, and internalized her deep concerns for her husband and a nation at war. Several months after her husband was captured, "I received a telegram saying Arthur was a prisoner of the Germans. I didn't get his first letter until November of '44.

"I worried an awful lot, but all I could do was put us in the hands of the Lord," she said.

On May 1, 1945, Way and fellow prisoners were liberated from Camp 7B near the Austrian border.

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