Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Never ask a veteran what he did in the war. If he wishes to tell you, he will ... and he may, after enough time has passed, and he decides there are things someone else ought to know.
Even then, he might tell you only a part of it. And if he does talk, keep silent and just listen.
I’ve asked only one time, of a longtime friend who understood the reason I asked and didn’t mind. He said he hadn’t talked about it for years, but now and then, he tells me a little more.
It was late in his life, when I called Uncle Abe Goldsworthy on Veterans Day to thank him for my freedom, that he began to tell me some of what it was like.
One thing he told me was that he and the other Army medics carried sidearms (which under the Geneva convention would subject them to summary execution if they were captured) because the Germans would kill them if they got the chance.
Their thinking, he said, was that a dead American medic can’t treat wounded American soldiers and return them to combat.
I never asked him if he had used his pistol, and he never told me.
Nobody talked about the war around a longtime friend who died a few years ago. You didn’t even make any sudden loud noises. When we went hunting, he went off by himself to a place in the woods where the rest of us knew not to go.
However ... little girls can get away with things nobody else can, particularly when they have found their way into the hearts of gruff old men.
My friend’s grandniece was doing a school history project on D-Day (the anniversary of which is Wednesday) and had heard that he’d been part of the Normandy invasion.
She asked him about it.
“Honey,” he said, “I drove a landing craft. All I did was take those boys in to die.” Then he did tell her a little more about it, which so far as I know he never did for anybody else.
One of the men who landed at Normandy recently told me he returned there with his family a few years ago. As they were walking around, he noticed that they were being followed by a crowd that kept on growing.
He asked what was going on and was told that the people knew he was coming and planned a celebration to welcome him. More than 60 years and two or three generations later, he was still their hero.
Another of my friends served in an Army division that helped to liberate two neighboring French towns. During the battle, civilians risked death at the hands of the Germans by hiding three wounded American soldiers and the body of a downed American airman.
Each year, those towns hold a remembrance for the nine Americans who died to free them.
The same happens in Wereth, Belgium, where Aubrey Stewart of Piedmont, W.Va., was one of 11 African-American soldiers who were tortured and murdered by German SS soldiers because they refused to tell which families had taken them in and helped them before they were captured.
Here is part of an e-mail I sent recently to Charles and Yvonne Berkholst, who live in The Netherlands.
Dear Charles and Yvonne,
My name is Jim Goldsworthy, and Beverly Hayes was my father’s first cousin — which would make him my second cousin.
For many years, I knew only that Beverly was an American bomber crewman who died when his B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down over Germany on Aug. 24, 1944, and that he is buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten.
His mother died unexpectedly on Aug. 24, 1980. No one in our family ever believed the date of her death was a coincidence.
Through a mutual friend, I became acquainted with — and recently met — one of your countrymen, Ralph Peeters. He told me about the research he and his friends have done on the American soldiers who are buried at Margraten.
From him, I learned how Beverly died, the names of the other crewmen in his plane and whether they were killed or taken Prisoner Of War. I even was able to find a photograph of Beverly’s bomber.
Ralph said all of the graves at Margraten have been “adopted” by his countrymen, who decorate them with flowers on special days like Memorial Day, Christmas and the soldier’s birthday.
It moves me deeply to think that people who live in a land far away from mine think so highly of our fallen soldiers that they would do such a thing. Particularly when in my country, so many people seem to take our history and our freedom for granted.
Ralph told me that you have adopted my cousin’s grave, and he sent me a photo that shows Beverly’s headstone with the flowers you placed there.
It is beyond my skill with words to adequately tell you how grateful I am for this act of kindness you have shown my family, so I will just say “Thank you. I will forever be in your debt.”
A friend and I dress as Union Army soldiers to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as American Civil War living historians to greet and talk to visitors. We do this because it is rewarding and are not paid for it.
People from many countries have told us they love America because they are grateful for their freedom and the sacrifices made by Americans like my cousin Beverly.
I tell them the feeling should be mutual. Americans should be equally grateful for the sacrifices made by the people of other countries who joined in the effort to free the world from tyranny. They didn’t just help to win their own freedom, they helped to preserve America’s freedom — and Americans should thank them for that.
At the risk and sometimes loss of their lives, partisans took the war to the enemy. Civilians gave shelter and aid to our soldiers and airmen, fed them and treated them if they were wounded and tried to keep them from being captured. Other young men escaped to fight in free armies.
How many of America’s young men came home to their loved ones because of such brave people is something we’ll never know. And today, their descendants tend to the graves of our soldiers.
Freedom is a shared responsibility. It can’t work any other way.
Thank you again for what you have done for my cousin and our family, and for many other American families. May God bless you and grant you prosperity and good health. I hope that someday we will meet in person.