America’s latest generation listened for hours yesterday to the war stories of World War II veterans called the country’s “Greatest Generation” at the Crowne Plaza hotel’s Almasi Temple in Northwest.
One story that brought history alive for the students involved the fat and pompous Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command who, while in captivity, refused to eat a plate of beef stew served to him by a captured German soldier.
The head of the Luftwaffe, who was about to stand trial as a war criminal, demanded it be taken away, saying, “I feed my dog much better than that at home.”
The solider clicked his heels. “In that case, Reichsmarschall, your dog ate much better than German soldiers.”
The man providing the eyewitness account was John E. Dolibois, a retired captain in U.S. military intelligence who was standing next to Goering’s table that afternoon in 1945.
“Six months earlier, the solider would have been killed for speaking to Goering that way,” he said. Mr. Dolibois, 82, assisted in the interrogation of high-level Nazi war criminals prior to the Nuremberg Trials. He spent several months living in the same compound in Luxembourg with 86 Nazis, including Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, in charge of German military strategy; Adm. Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s hand-picked heir; and Julian Streicher, the chief Nazi ideologist of anti-semitism.
Mr. Dolibos, the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, was one of 50 speakers brought together for the fourth annual conference of the World War II Veterans Committee.
Their compelling first-hand accounts of World War II service in the European and Pacific Theater attracted more than 100 veterans and history buffs men, women and teenagers.
The three-day conference which ended yesterday also attracted roughly 400 students from high schools around the metropolitan area.
The mission of the conference is rooted in pre-historic traditions, when story-tellers were used to pass down old truths. These elder warriors preserved the legacy of the World War II generation for future generations.
Marine Jim White landed at Iwo Jima toward the end of the fierce fighting in the Pacific Theater. Still he saw plenty of infantry action. Eventually he joined an intelligence unit.
“Our team was sent to the front lines on February 28th and at midnight, we were almost overrun by the Japanese,” Mr. White, 75, recalled. He unloaded his story fast, like spent shells spewing from a BAR.
He remembered the events at Iwo Jima as if the bloody battle took place yesterday.
Members of his team were killed, others wounded. But he and his fox-hole buddy escaped without a scratch. The fighting lasted all night, he said.
“I killed I don’t know how many Japanese, 20 to 40, with a rifle and hand grenades. At daylight, the Japanese force went back where they came from. We had stopped the charge because they were headed towards [our] headquarters. They [the Japanese] thought they were going to wipe us out,” Mr. White said.
At 18 years of age, Mr. White was thrilled to be a Marine, even after his first day of combat a day on which he nearly died. His keen senses proved to be perfect for his role as a scout.
Frederick D. Gray, 76, also fought in the battle for Iwo Jima, that tiny island 2.5 miles wide and 4.5 miles long. But he fought as a first sergeant in the Army. Back then, because he was black, Mr. Gray was not permitted to join the Marine Corps.
He was a proud member of the 476 Amphibian Truck Company an all-black Army outfit that fought side by side with the Fourth Marine Division.
“It took us 26 days and it was supposed to take 72 hours,” he said about the U.S. conquest of Iwo Jima.
When asked what he remembers most about the battle, Mr. Gray, who lives in Capitol Heights, paused and said, “Lying in fox holes and watching the flag being raised. Also, seeing my friend Samuel Stevenson’s hair turn completely white.”
During his presentation, he talked about the two wars he fought: segregation and the war against the Japanese.
“It took 34 years to be true participants in the victory at Iwo Jima,” he said. After the war ended, his company was denied presidential citations because there weren’t any more left. Some 30 years later, Mr. Gray received his citation, which he proudly showed to a few veterans who came by to offer their congratulations at the conference.
In his closing remarks, Mr. Gray took issue with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s remarks about old soldiers never dying, just fading away.
“I don’t agree with him. We go on to live in that house not made by man but that eternal heaven,” he said.
The riveting stories held Ian Coleman, 17, spellbound as he listened to assorted vignettes held together by one thread commitment to country.
A senior at St. Stephens & St. Agnes High School in Alexandria, Ian hopes to one day become a military officer. He has an interest in military history and those who have dutifully served this country.
He was proud to introduce the Japanese-American veterans yesterday. He said it was the least he could do “since I am one-half Japanese.”
Several speakers served with the 442nd Combat Team, a Japanese-American (Nisei) regiment that was sent to the European Theater. The regiment members suffered great losses but were credited with great valor.
Ian beamed. “The war pulled the country out of a depression. It was unifying. Just as the September 11 [terrorist attacks] brought us together. Men left factories and baseball fields. Americans pulled together to fight a war and win on two fronts,” he said.
He was pleased with the way the conference went. “It has been of paramount significance to me that the history be preserved.”