WWII veterans share with students
FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE — Bud Shurson, second from right, visits with family members and NRHEG students during a recent breakfast at the high school. Also pictured: Dennis Dinneen, Brooklyn Hullett, Emmablu Jameson, Ellarose Jameson, Georgia Dinneen, Phyllis Shurson. Bud Shurson and Richard Crumb spoke at the 2016 Veterans Day program and to students in an NRHEG classroom. (Photo by Maci Surat)
By DEB BENTLY
The students are curious: What’s war like?
The two World War II veterans aren’t sure they have the answer. They can’t speak to “war” as a whole, only to the parts of it they knew.
A different question then, “Is war hell?”
This one, Bud Shurson, a 94-year-old former B-17 gunner, can answer without hesitation: “Yes.” Watching his face, his eyes, as he considers the question, one can nearly see the moments he has already described. A sky full of B-17 bombers flying nearly wing to wing. Constant engine noise, the wind through the openings in his gunnery bay. The chance that an enemy fighter plane might appear out of the sky at any moment and begin firing.
He has described how his plane flew at 25,000 feet, so he never saw the bombs from his own plane as they struck the targets below. But that does not mean he could ignore the consequences. “Those were people, and it was our job to kill them.”
Richard Crumb, an infantryman who arrived in Germany shortly after the war ended, also has no doubts. War is hell, and it leaves behind one hell of a mess. Trained as a medical technician, Crumb saw that unmistakably before he even left the United States. “I worked with some of the injured soldiers in the hospital,” he explains. “There were people there with no ears,” he says, cupping his own in his hands. He brushes his face with his fingers. “Some, their noses were gone. Or they had lost a hand, or an arm or a leg.”
Like Shurson’s, his face is highly expressive, but he searches for words until he finds some that can begin to deliver his feelings: “Those fellas, I would do all I could for them.”
Shurson and Crumb were guest speakers last week in an NRHEG High School class which was examining the topic of war. Both were also among the veterans whose stories were shared briefly during the district-wide Veterans Day program held on Friday at the school.
Another question: Was there a moment when you felt like a hero?
Shurson is shaking his head before the question is even finished. “I did my job. There were times when I was scared. There were times when I was worried for my buddies. Mostly, I just wanted to do what I was sent to do, and go home.”
The students are not quick to accept Shurson’s dismissal. He has described seeing the engine shot off the wing beside him. He has told of flying fifty missions, each a possible one-way trip, standing for up to 10 hours at a time with 40-degree-below-zero winds blowing past him. He has told of wearing insulated coveralls and boots complete with electric current meant to keep his legs and feet from freezing. “If one of those wires burned out,” he mentioned, massaging his leg as if he could still feel it, “it was like being stabbed with a knife.” His face has clouded as he remembered the fate of some of his companions. “Some just didn’t come back,” he said. “Prisoners of war, well, they weren’t treated the way they should have been.”
Crumb will not categorize himself as a hero, either, although he has a story which could be classified as heroic. Since the war ended while he was being trained, Crumb never saw battle, only its aftermath. When he arrived in Stuttgart, there were plenty of medical technicians to cope with treating the many hundreds of soldiers who were convalescing in the Stuttgart hospital. In a surprising turn of events, he ended up in charge of about 30 horses which had been captured from the German cavalry, and were kept in a stable near the hospital as therapy and recreation for patients and staff.
“These were well-bred, well-trained animals,” Crumb remembers, shaking his head as though frustrated at the inadequacy of words. Crumb was the only serviceman in charge of the stable, but was assisted by prisoners of war and local citizens. “We took good care of the horses,” he said. “But food was scarce, and people were hungry.”
When he noticed that his store of oats was disappearing more quickly than it should, Crumb received a report that some men living in an old installation near the center of town might be the culprits. Again he shakes his head, this time smiling ruefully. “When you’re young,” he admits, looking at the classroom of faces before him, “sometimes you do things without thinking.
“I didn’t take anyone with me, I just went down to that tower to see what might be going on.” The “tower” was part of a former communications network. Watchmen had been stationed at the top to keep an eye on approaching aircraft and assess the possibility of an impending air raid. In an underground complex beneath, a communication room had disseminated their information.
Things were quiet as Crumb arrived, so he entered the nearest doorway, heading down the stairs.
Suddenly he found himself in a bunker filled with weapons and ammunition of every kind. Knives. Swords. Handguns. Machine Guns. Hand Grenades. One can still see the amazement on his face, followed seconds later by concern. “There were some tough-looking fellows down there, too,” he says. “They looked dangerous, like they might do anything.” He compares the moment to walking into a scene from Star Wars and being suddenly confronted by something both incomprehensibly alien and hostile.
“Let me tell you, I was scared.
“I held my .45 in one hand, and I grabbed a grenade from a box nearby, then I went back up the stairs. I guess my idea was that, if they followed me, I’d throw the grenade and block off their way.”
Once outside, Crumb went immediately to a nearby military police station and reported what he had found. “Who knows what those fellas might have been planning?” he says. Apparently his discovery was regarded as important, since he received a promotion as a result. But since his strongest recollections of the event are how abruptly he retreated and how quickly he ran for backup, Crumb is not willing to classify himself as a hero for his find. He also admits to a lasting regret. The collected weapons had apparently been taken from all over Europe. “Wherever the Nazi army would go, they wouldn’t leave anything valuable behind,” he says.
If he could travel back in time and whisper in his own ear, he would advise himself to pick up a few of the classic weapons.
A new line of thought: Is there glory in war?
Both faces speak volumes as their memories search for images.
Shurson remembers the role he played in D-Day. Since the unit he flew with was stationed in southern Italy, and since planes didn’t have the range they do today, he and his companions did not see the northern coast of France that day. Instead, they provided support by disrupting transportation and communication deeper into the continent. Still, the power of military technology was overwhelming.
“Picture a whole sky filled with planes,” he says, “as far as the eye can see.” That was the day Shurson stood in his station for 10 hours. The plane’s payload of bombs had to be decreased because an extra 500-gallon tank of fuel was needed to reach their distant targets: transportation hubs, factories, power stations, communication lines.
During Crumb’s time with the class, the question is not posed as directly, but his statements imply he has profound misgivings when it comes to the “glory” of war. “About 50 million people were killed during World War II,” he says. “More than half of them were civilians. A lot of them were innocent women and children.”
He admits to breaking a rule: “We weren’t supposed to communicate with the Germans,” he remembers. “But when you saw a child who was hungry, you just had to give him whatever you had.” He remembers an incident from shortly after he arrived in Europe. To get from the coast to their stations in-country, he and his companions were loaded 40 to a car into freight cars. “Those trains didn’t move very fast,” he says. “The transportation was all torn apart because of the bombing, so it took us awhile to get where we were going.”
One night well after dark his train rattled to a stop in Aachen, Germany. The city was “bombed to pieces,” but the train would be remaining there at least until daylight. Wanting to stretch his legs, and with all seeming quiet, Crumb disembarked. He hadn’t gotten far when tracer fire lit up the night. In the sudden brightness he could see a nearby supply train, and on top of it, area citizens trying to steal food.
“My heart went out to them,” he says. “Can you imagine being so hungry you would risk your life?” Clearly, he has trouble seeing glory in anything that does so much harm.
By the time the two veterans have finished their stories, the students seem impressed. Senior Jacob Leibeg, who committed to the National Guard in April and has completed part of his training, finds himself grateful for modern technology. “They had to do so much with so little, compared with the way things are today,” comments Leibeg. “I believe soldiers today are much more safe than what the veterans described.” Still, the veterans’ stories have made him think. “I picture that bunker full of weapons,” he says. “The enemy soldiers right there; I’m not sure I would have known what to do.”
History buff Christian Ferris, a junior, is grateful the two veterans found time to speak for the class. “What an amazing opportunity,” he says. “You don’t get to hear those kinds of stories every day.” Ferris appreciated the insights into the everyday lives and worries of the soldiers. “It gave me an idea of what it was like,” he says. “They did their jobs, even though it meant they might lose their friends. In the end, they were tied together by their shared experiences.”
Junior Sadie Mortensen also expresses gratitude for the opportunity to hear the veterans’ descriptions. Her impression of war had been founded on what she knew of her grandfather, veteran who was unwilling to talk his experiences. “I was impressed with how positive they were,” she says of the two speakers. “I learned that there were some good experiences, as well as the bad ones.” Even more importantly, “I found out that there were both good and people—on both sides.”