Thursday, November 11, 2010

World War II Through the Eyes of a 20 Year Old

We weren’t going to publish this piece about the inspiring WWII stories collected by a local vet till the next issue, but since it’s Veteran’s Day it seemed appropriate to post. The story notes that the vet comes from the “tiny farming community of Utica, Mo., near Chillicothe.” If that doesn’t nail it down for our out of state readers, Chillicothe is, among other fine things, the “Home of Sliced Bread.”

Thanks from The Catholic Key to all our Veterans! Story follows:

World War II Through the Eyes of a 20 Year Old

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor1119_WWII_book

LEE’S SUMMIT — The most remarkable thing about Harold J. Braden’s story is that it is so common among the men of his generation.

They lived through the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, then came home to build the strongest middle class and the highest standard of living history has ever known.

Braden, 89, only tells a small part of that story in his book, “World War II Through the Eyes of a 20 Year Old.” But it is a story that Braden had to tell before it went untold forever.

“It’s not going to be a money-maker,” Braden told The Catholic Key. “But I am happy I have written it. Now I have a record of not just myself, but my brothers and brothers-in-law and friends.”

His story centers on the tiny farming community of Utica, Mo., near Chillicothe.

“It was a little town then, and it’s gotten littler since,” Braden said. “We used to have a couple of grocery stores, a filling (gasoline) station, a blacksmith shop and a brick yard. We don’t have any of that any more.

“And we had a Catholic church. The priest would come on the train at first, then he got a car and drove,” Braden said. “We’d get the young priests, mostly Irish. We had one from Holland. He couldn’t speak English too good, but he was a good ol’ boy.”

The story is about growing up when everybody was poor, when farming fathers went broke then took any job they could find.

“You could buy a loaf of bread for a dime, but you’d have trouble finding that dime,” he said.

And it was about how virtually every young man answered the call to military service after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Big brother John Braden was drafted into the Army two months before Pearl Harbor.

“I’d say he was blessed with the Braden big mouth because he never got far in the Army,” Braden said. “He was a leader but the Army never found out about it.”

John Braden would later serve as mayor of Greenwood, Mo., and retire from a career in finance as a vice president of the Bank of Lee’s Summit.

Younger brother Robert Edward — “We called him Ed” — was too young for World War II, but served in Korea where he earned the Bronze Star.

Bill Lightner married Braden’s sister Mary Margaret.

“He volunteered for the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor,” Braden said. “They assigned him to the USS South Dakota, which was just being built. He served the entire war on the South Dakota, sailing to the sound of guns.”

Joseph Dietrich, an Army Air Corps radioman and gunner, married his sister Cornelia, who was nicknamed Corky.

“They got married in 1944 down in Texas after he came back from North Africa and Italy,” Braden said. “He flew 52 missions.”

There was his uncle, Francis Murphy, who was not that much older than Braden.

“He was a tanker with (Gen.) Omar Bradley” in the European Theater, Braden said. “He lost a couple of tanks, and one time, he was the only survivor.”

There was Maurice Dietrich, Joseph’s brother.

“He was a gunner on a B-24 bomber,” Braden said. “He took part in the first raid on the oil refinery at Ploesti (Romania on Aug. 1, 1943). They lost 800 men that day. He was awarded a whole bunch of ribbons and medals.”

There was Ellsworth Lawson, a friend from childhood.

“He was a couple of grades ahead of me,” Braden said. “He went to work for the Burlington Railroad, and they drafted him and put him in the group that took over the French railroad and ran it to the advantage of the Allied armies.”

There was Fred Merryfield.

“He was in the Air Force and spent most of his time in the South Pacific,” Braden said. “They called it the Jungle Air Force. They would just make an airstrip out in the jungle until they got back to Manila, where they had a real air field.”

Every airman who participated in the Ploesti raid earned a Silver Star or higher. Five earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As for Braden himself, he started working for the Civilian Conservation Corps right after he graduated from high school in 1939.

“They paid us $1 a day, $30 a month,” he said. “They’d give us $5 and send $25 home.”

His parents could have used the money, but didn’t. Instead they saved it so that when Harold returned home, he could enroll in classes at a business college in Chillicothe.

The clerical skills he learned there landed him a job in Kansas City for a company that made milk bottles and caps for dairies. After working there for a few months and taking the civil service exam, Braden got a job in October 1941 with the new Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C.

“It was $25 a month more than I was making, so I got on a bus and went to Washington, D.C.,” he said.

The following May, he was in the U.S. Navy, where he would serve until November 1945.

“They just transferred me to the Navy Department,” Braden said. “I was in communications because I could type.”

Soon he was sent to the South Pacific, where a good deal of his service was spent in communications and intelligence, particularly under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

“I was assigned to whatever ship he (MacArthur) would be on to do the extra communication work,” Braden said.

He was no fan of the commander of Allied forces in the Pacific.

“He was a real leader, but he was pompous and arrogant and all that,” Braden said. “He thought the bullet wasn’t made that would get him. He was so brazen that people wouldn’t care to go with him.”

After his discharge from the Navy, Braden returned to classes at Chillicothe Business College.

“Before I got my degree, the Santa Fe Railroad hired me,” he said.

The job sounded real good to a child of the Great Depression.

“I always had this notion that we were going back to the Depression,” he said. “My brother John used to say we had no guts because we never took chances.”

In 1956, he married Lucille, his wife of 56 years, and they had two children. He had by then settled into jobs with trucking companies, and bought a brand-new house in the then-tiny suburb of Lee’s Summit in 1963, three years before joining Yellow Freight, from where he would retire in 1983.

But World War II, Braden said, “was the defining moment in my life.”

“Even now, I think of before the war, and after the war,” he said. “It broadened me greatly. I traveled across the country several times, I spent time in Brisbane, Manila, New Caledonia and lots of jungle spots. It broadened me from being an old country boy. It broadened all of us.”

Braden also said that it was a defining moment for the nation as well.

“There are very few times when the whole country strives together for just one result,” he said. “Going to the moon was another time, but that didn’t last as long as World War II.”

As Braden was putting the finishing touches on his book, he had a chance for another rush of memories.

On Sept. 28, Braden was the guest of the Honor Flight Network of Kansas City that flies World War II veterans, expense free, to Washington, D.C., for a one-day trip to see the new World War II monument.

“It was a great day. They wore me out to a frazzle,” Braden said.

“At 4 a.m., I was talking to a reporter from Channel 9 at the airport, and I didn’t get to bed until 11 that night,” he said. “We were on the go the whole time. I had my two children with me, and that was great.”

Braden said he was no different than millions of men of his generation.

“I’m no hero,” he said. “I was never any good at volunteering. We were all just civilians, but we did what we were told to do.

“Some of us were well-trained, and some were like me — didn’t know nothing,” Braden said.

“But we were going to win the war,” he said. “Nobody I ever talked to thought anything different but that we were going to win.” o

Harold Braden will be a the VFW Hall, 329 SE Douglas St., Lee’s Summit, from 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 21 to sign copies of his book, “World War II Through the Eyes of a 20 Year Old.”