History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Monday, November 25, 2013

The WWII generation & Ralph Lesmeister: compelling

The B-26 bomber, what Ralph Lesmeister flew
Observing a list of WWII servicemen from Stevens County is humbling and uplifting. We can remember so many of these people. So many have left us for the afterlife. Others might be debilitated because of the effects of age.
It was actually quite some time ago that we first heard pronouncements about how "the World War II generation is leaving us." I remember interviewing the national commander of a veterans organization who said this, and thinking that his thoughts, while pointing in the right direction, were a little premature.
"There are obituaries for World War II veterans in the paper every day," he said.
Absolutely true. But so many of the Greatest Generation got on board with the war effort, many were going to stay with us for a long time to come. Now, many years later, the words of that commander ring more true.
I remember when the number of World War I veterans dwindled to where the ones that were left became novelties or celebrities at the local level. I remember photographing a group of these at the Morris Legion Club. I remember interviewing Earl Eames and Thore Mathison - wonderful men. Thore's grandson Thore Dosdall keeps the memory alive.
We now see the day coming when WWII veterans are going to be in that same small, exclusive circle. My father Ralph E. Williams left us in February of this year. He was a U.S. Navy vet of WWII in the Pacific Theater. He visited Tokyo when it was a smoldering cinder of a city after the hostilities had ceased and firebombing had ravaged the city. War is hell.
We hear speeches on holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day about the necessity of wartime sacrifice. My generation, unless we've changed, is a little more reserved about the necessity of war. I say "unless we've changed" because us boomers have made up a big part of the political "tea party" which has attitudes so contradictory to what we seemed to stand for when young. We detested the Viet Nam War. We even directed some misguided feelings toward the servicemen of that time. Today I think almost all of us would regret that.
"We were all in it together": the skeptical and emotional protesters and the young men who answered their nation's call.
"Rambo's" commander in the first Rambo movie said, in that impassioned conversation at the end: "It was a bad time for all of us." That synthesizes it.
What a chasm between WWII and Viet Nam in terms of our perception. The "generation gap" itself was an outgrowth of that difference between the two wars, one being the "good war" and absolutely necessary, and the other being at the opposite pole, a hellish nightmare with no purpose.
Some WWII veterans are still among us and have plenty of spunk left. They circulate in the community, attend church etc. But so many have departed from us. I hear their names and can instantly envision them. I can sense their uplifting personalities around me. They were such gentle people.
It has been said of the WWII generation that they "never changed." That's a compliment. They saw the boomer generation with its odd traits and excesses and never commented much. You might say they were enablers. But I have another take: Not only did these older people get through the travail of WWII, they had gotten through the Great Depression that preceded it. I think they were just so thankful for their material blessings post-war, they weren't at all averse to spoiling their own children.
They stood back and just gave thanks.
Ralph Lesmeister: airman of WWII
Looking down that list of WWII veterans from Stevens County, I paused at the name of Ralph Lesmeister. He was a most agreeable fellow. I remembered he had some significant wartime experiences. These experiences are detailed in a book put out by the Stevens County Historical Society.
Lesmeister wrote his own reflections which really paint a picture of his generation. He recalled the 1930s as a time of peace, "and it seemed to us that there were few changes in the world." He noted that "we learned a lot about saving money, getting by with the minimum. Prices didn't even change in the Sears catalog and we still did a good share of the farm work with horses. I remember turning on the radio and hearing a man called Hitler, talking in a foreign tongue. No one paid much attention."
Ralph graduated from high school in 1940. He was on the cusp of incredible experiences. Any placid atmosphere of his high school years would now certainly be disrupted. Ralph recalled that no one was expecting a big war. History books tell us about the "America Firsters" who had Charles Lindbergh helping lead the way, making sure our government wouldn't be lured into a foreign conflict. The sentiment seemed so strong.
"America First" is probably not remembered as well as it might be, because it became politically incorrect. That happened when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The movement seemed to quickly dissolve. Frankly, I think "America First" represented a pretty laudable impulse. It's the idea that war is bad and a total last resort. Recently we seemed to project that impulse when we all rose up and pressured our government not to have a repeat of the Iraq experience in Syria.
But WWII seemed quite another matter. Patriotic fervor erupted. The sense of mission seemed to overwhelm us, although there's the dirty little secret that many young men quietly looked for ways to be exempt from military service. An author who once spoke at our Morris Public Library wrote about this. There were interests seeking to make money off the war in unseemly ways. We are so human an animal.
An eerie prediction
The "class prophecy" when Ralph Lesmeister graduated from high school had him as "a flyer in a war."
"Whoever thought we would be in a war?" Ralph asked. "Nobody would go for that. Strange, but two years later, I was enlisted in the Army Air Corps and we were in a war."
Ralph got into pilot training. After several months of this, he joined a crew of six on a B-26 medium-sized bomber. It was destination England.
He wrote: "It is difficult to comprehend coming from being a farm boy from Morris, and here I was looking ahead to my first bombing mission over the enemy, seeing the first flak shelling burst around me, feeling the shake-up of the ship, and finally coming back to base and getting the holes patched up, only to go out again the next day! We would bomb bridges, railways, factories, air fields, and German troop concentrations."
(end of quote) 
Whatever possessed the German people to go in the direction they did? Were they not rational human beings? Was it the steep economic collapse that country experienced, and the emergence of the National Socialist Party as a savior in effect? Had the German people been overly punished at the end of World War I? Had they become desperate trying to crawl out of a hole? We all call Hitler a madman. But a single individual with insane tendencies shouldn't be able to get a whole country in his grasp. There was a much broader phenomenon, it's just that we like a convenient symbol, and that symbol is Hitler.
"Flying through the flak"
"It all seemed so unreal," Ralph wrote, "flying through the flak."
Ralph and his fellow pilots knew the evasive actions that would up their odds of survival, so he actually felt confidence. The picture changed dramatically just before Christmas in 1944. The Allies were hoping that the Wermacht was on the ropes, but the enemy was pugnacious. The enemy mounted the Battle of the Bulge, the great counteroffensive.
Robert Shaw played a German tank commander in a movie about the Battle of the Bulge. His character was in denial about the war's realities. He was a total reflection of the pugnacious stance. Is there something in a German's DNA that promotes this? I have heard this trait connected to the "Prussians." I don't know. I know the American Revolution vs. England was helped by a Prussian military master brought here.
Ralph Lesmeister and his crew headed out to blow up a bridge on the Ahr River. The Germans were using the bridge to supply their massive last-ditch effort. All of a sudden, enemy Messerschmidt 109s and FW-190s swarmed toward Ralph's group. Ralph recalled an "ME-109" ramming his plane and cutting off its tail. The tail gunner was killed and went down with the turret.
Ralph realized the situation had become as dire as it could be. The Luftwaffe loomed. "Machine gun tracers were as thick as rain, it seemed," he wrote. He added: "Oh God, how I wished I were home!"
Ralph's plane became disabled. The bomb bay was on fire. "I knew we had to bail out or burn," he wrote.
Ralph as the pilot was the last to bail out. He literally jumped through the fire. He decided to fall freely for about two miles to try to avoid detection by the enemy planes.
"I swung only twice and then was in the trees," he wrote. "What a feeling."
He realized he was now in a position to be "hunted like an animal." He eluded some of the locals who were out and about with pitchforks. "Hitler Youth" were poised with their machine guns. Ralph sought desperately to walk back toward the line and away from the enemy. It was impossible. In the blackness of night, Ralph stumbled into a German troop camp.
"The rest is rather difficult to talk about," Ralph recalled. He was marched down the streets, taunted and spit at. The atmosphere wasn't totally devoid of humanity. It is heartening to note that a young Wermacht corporal, assigned to guard Ralph, saved his life from an incendiary lynch mob in Bonn. British planes were showering bombs down on Bonn.
Ralph ended up in solitary confinement, cold and with minimal food and water. This lasted until war's end in May of 1945. Ralph was relieved by the Russian Allies who overran his prison camp at Stalag I on the Baltic Sea. Ralph was free again.
For a long time, Ralph had trouble forgiving, he shared in his memoir piece. But he eventually found his way out of that. He and wife Millie would sometimes watch a movie about WWII and break down and cry, he recalled.
"That was the 1940s," he said in wrapping up. "In the time after the war, life became about starting a family, finding a home and learning a trade. Though it was a great challenge, there was much joy about it. But we will never forget the '40s."
Two Ralphs who had seen a lot
My father, name of Ralph also, could tell his own share of sobering stories. He like Mr. Lesmeister moved on after the war, plotting a new course but never forgetting. My father's military service is acknowledged on our new family monument at Summit Cemetery in Morris. This is a black bench type of monument on the eastern end of the new portion of the cemetery. It stands out a little because only recently did the cemetery give the OK for above-ground monuments (as opposed to "flat stones").
Come and visit. Reflect. The Greatest Generation is indeed leaving us. But they left a legacy.
The Stevens County Historical Society book is called "The '40s, a time for war and a time for peace." Be aware that the publisher appeared to have cut corners, because my copy has fallen apart much too easily, pages coming out all over the place!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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