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  1. Opinion

What Memorial Day was like 75 years ago as World War II still raged | Column

In May 1945, the Nazis were defeated, but the war in the Pacific was far from over.

The mad führer was dead, the Red Army was pillaging Eastern Germany, and the world was on the move. The geo-political futures of the Balkans, the Baltic, and the British Empire teetered as the Soviet Union and the U.S. maneuvered armies on a giant chessboard. A new word personified the times: D.P. (displaced person). It was May 1945.

“War,” Mark Twain may have quipped, “is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” If so, World War II was the ultimate geography quiz. Civilians searched atlases for places: Saipan, Guadalcanal and Peleliu; Anzio, El Alamein, and the Hürtgen Forest. More chilling were the haunting names: Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.

World War II captivated anxious citizens who devoured news from radio reports and morning and afternoon newspapers.

Gary Mormino [Courtesy of Gary Mormino (2019)]

Feverish negotiations were taking place at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in Reims, France. Nothing less than unconditional surrender was acceptable. Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest achievement was insisting that the feuding Allied leaders and generals focus on the grand prize: defeating the Nazis.

On May 7, German General Alfred Jodl, desperate to save retreating troops from the Soviet noose, signed the documents. Gen. Eisenhower accepted Jodl’s surrender curtly. Author Rick Atkinson describes the scene: “Jodl saluted, then executed a smart about-face and withdrew under the supreme commander’s cold gaze for an eventual appointment with the hangman.”

Across America, headlines trumpeted V-E Day (Victory in Europe). The war had raged for five years and eight months, darkening Europe and stealing seven million lives.

Tampa Bay greeted the news with more relief than celebration. Ray Wunderlich recalled, ”My father and hundreds of others in St. Petersburg walked ‘arm and arm’ together down Central Avenue in gleeful joy after learning about Germany’s surrender.”

Residents flocked to churches and synagogues for thanksgiving. Dr. Roland Q. Leavell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Tampa, delivered his V-E sermon, preaching, “How we bear ourselves in victory is the acid test of our worthiness of the sacrifices of our brave soldiers on a hundred bloody battlefields.”

Hampton Dunn, a University of Tampa graduate, entered the army as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. On May 8, 1945, he wrote his wife from Italy: “Dearest Charlotte, Thank God, darling, it’s all over, over here. It’s been so long.”

Any giddiness over V-E Day was diminished by the news of a battle raging 8,200 miles away on an island called Okinawa. The bloodiest battle in the Pacific theater, Okinawa claimed the lives of 12,000 American and 110,000 Japanese soldiers. The first casualty reports were grim.

On May 2, 1945, the Tampa Tribune reported, “Pfc. Green Is Killed On Okinawa.” David Green spent his childhood at the Children’s Home in Tampa, enlisting in the Marines at age 17.

My own father, Ross Mormino, was a “Fighting Seabee” at Okinawa. My colleague, USF history professor Raymond Arsenault, was named after his uncle, Marine Cpl. Raymond Arsenault, who died at Iwo Jima in March 1945. When Cpl. Arsenault’s mother saw the film Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), she nearly fainted when she recognized her son in the combat footage.

Al Wederbrand, born in 1925 in Tampa’s Seminole Heights, quit school at age 17 to join the Marines. Advancing along an Okinawa ridge, he was crouched next to U.S. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. Born in 1886, the son of a Confederate Civil War general, Buckner earned a legendary reputation for his insistence to be near the front. Replacing his helmet adorned with three stars with an unmarked helmet, he was immediately hit by an artillery fragment and killed, becoming the war’s highest-ranking U.S. officer killed on the battlefield.

Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. The lives of two local veterans illuminate the story.

The son of Spanish parents, Braulio Alonso was born in Tampa in 1916. He had attended the University of Tampa, becoming valedictorian. Admitted to medical school, he deferred his career plans for one year to marry his beloved Adelfa Díaz and teach chemistry at Plant High.

Wars shatter dreams. Drafted as a private, by 1944 he was captain of Battery A in the Army’s 85th Infantry Division in Italy. The Allies took Rome in June. Alonso described the moment: “Italians were crying, they were laughing, they were dancing. ... I was kissed!” Deeply religious, he and several comrades weaved their jeep to the Vatican. They approached a Swiss Guard, asking to see the Holy Father. Denied, Braulio returned with cigarettes and chocolates and upon reconsideration, was escorted to a small room. “A frail man appeared,” he explained, “His Holiness Pope Pius XII spoke to us in understandable English. He blessed us and gave us each a medal.”

Major Alonso was fighting in the Italian Alps in May 1945 when a German officer offered his baton. Sickened by Nazi atrocities, he insisted “the master race” surrender to his African-American troops. For Alonso, who was awarded two Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, war held little romance. He reflected, “War is unpleasant, vicious, bloody and sacrificial.”

Andrew Hines Jr. was born in 1923 in North Florida. After two years at the University of Florida, he volunteered and became a navigator on a B-17 bomber crew. On Sept. 10, 1944, his aerial squadron left Italy to bomb oil refineries near Vienna. His plane was hit. He parachuted, landing on an island in the Danube River. Captured by Hungarian hunters, he was hustled to the Germans.

He kept a diary, writing on the back of Chesterfield cigarette packs. In March 1945, hearing U.S. bombers overhead, he summoned Noёl Coward’s poetry, writing, “Lie in the dark and listen. It’s clear tonight so they’re flying high.”

The winter of 1944-45 was especially brutal. On one occasion, as the prisoners were being transferred, he noticed a disturbance. A German woman was ladling hot water from a kettle into the POWs’ metal cups. A German guard approached the woman, asking her why she was helping the enemy. She replied, “Because my son is a prisoner of war in America. He writes that Americans are treating him kindly.”

In April 1945, Hines was a captive at Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Germany’s largest camp. After fierce fighting, the 14th Armored Division liberated Moosburg and its 110,000 Allied prisoners on April 29. On V-E Day, Hines was taken by truck to an airfield and flown to Reims, France. The G.I.s were treated to a shower, a delousing with DDT and fresh clothes. Sailing home and entering New York City, he observed, “There was a perceptible list to our ship as everyone crowded to one side when we passed the Statue of Liberty.”

Andy Hines and Braulio Alonso prevailed in peacetime. The G.I. Bill allowed Alonso to earn a doctorate in education at the University of Florida and Hines to finish at the University of Florida. He became a school principal and the first Hispanic president of the National Education Association. Alonso High School in Tampa honors his contributions. Hines served as president of Florida Power and chairman of Florida Progress in St. Petersburg. Humble men who led lives of dignity and humility, sacrifice and service, they graciously shared their stirring stories with my USF St. Petersburg students.

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at Florida Humanities.

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