Intergenerational Veterans Program Keeps the Dialogue Going
March 14, 2019 | by Tom Harner
This LeadingAge member is helping college students and older adults connect through storytelling.
This LeadingAge member is helping college students and older adults connect through storytelling.
“I was drafted at age 18 in 1944. When I got the draft notice, I had to report to Madison Square Garden.”
Thus began the story of Brooklyn-born Harold Schwartz’s service in World War II. Schwartz, now 92 years old, describes his journey as “just a lowly 18-year-old Army private” preparing to become a replacement soldier in a machine gun unit in October 1944.
“Our infantry training was shortened from 18 weeks to 15 weeks to get us over there as quickly as possible,” recalls Schwartz in front of about a dozen people, most of them fellow military veterans. “When you finished your 15 weeks, you were ready to kill.”
Schwartz and his unit crossed the Atlantic in the early days of 1945 and joined Gen. George Patton’s depleted 3rd Army in France, following the Battle of the Bulge.
“We rode in boxcars for 3 days until we made it to the German border,” he tells the group. Schwartz—who manned an air-cooled machine gun mounted to the back of a jeep—and his fellow infantrymen rode through narrow streets across Germany, taking over towns along the way. He witnessed firsthand the destruction that German cities like Mainz, Frankfurt, and Wolfsburg suffered as a result of Allied bombings. “Frankfurt was completely destroyed, there was nothing left but rubble,” recalls Schwartz. “Wolfsburg had one building standing—a hospital.”
In the final days of the war in Europe, Schwartz’s unit engaged in combat against German forces, “mostly older soldiers at that point,” and were on the receiving end of nightly “Bedtime Charlie” Luftwaffe raids.
“They were largely ineffective, but they would come down and try to strafe the areas we were in,” says Schwartz. By the middle of spring, his unit had headed south toward Munich. “On May 8 when the war ended, I was in the Bavarian Alps and it was snowing.” After 30 days of guard duty in occupied Germany, Schwartz was transferred to another outfit in Czechoslovakia before spending his last 6 months of service at West Point at the United States Military Academy.
Like many veterans of his era, Schwartz did not spend much time talking about his military service throughout most of his adult life.
“Years went by and I never remember talking about it very much,” says Schwartz from the 2nd-floor apartment he shares with his wife Irene at St. John’s Meadows independent living community in Rochester, NY. However, that has changed over the past couple of years. It started when Schwartz’s grandson Michael recently asked about his grandfather’s time in the U.S. Army, and was treated to an extended account of his experiences. Then this past spring, Michael accompanied Harold on the Honor Flight—a weekend trip to Washington D.C for wartime veterans to visit war memorials and reminisce with others who served—where he watched as his grandfather enthusiastically traded stories with several other vets. A few months later, Schwartz was asked to speak at a luncheon held to honor St. John’s Meadows residents and staff members on Veteran’s Day. He told stories from his days in the Army while elegantly paying tribute to the millions of men and women who played important roles in the monumental war efforts that have spanned his lifetime.
In 2018, another opportunity gave Schwartz and many other older adults in the Rochester area an opportunity to speak up about their time serving during 20th-century conflicts. Dialogues on War began as a grant co-authored by Dr. Carolyn Vacca, the chair of the history department at nearby St. John Fisher College. Vacca saw the potential for this program, which connects 1 or 2 student moderators with up to 10 wartime veterans, to greatly augment her students’ classroom studies.
“We wanted to bring together intergenerational discussions about the ideas of war,” says Vacca, who is also the Monroe County (NY) Historian. “The idea is to spark discussions about the past—when young people could be drafted into service—and compare that to today where we have an all-volunteer force.”
Since the program launched last spring, Vacca’s students have conducted over 30 Dialogues on War sessions; including 3 held at St. John’s Meadows and 1 at nearby St. John’s Home for skilled nursing residents. In addition to providing a forum for individual veterans to deliver their own personal accounts of service, the program includes further discussion on topics that give participating students—some of whom who are military veterans themselves—an expanded perspective on conflicts that ended decades before they were born. As an example, students who moderated the Nov. 7 session that featured Schwartz’s story also heard differing accounts of how soldiers returning to the states from World War II were treated with reverence, compared to the lukewarm experience of a Vietnam-era travelling in uniform. These new points of view make Dialogues on War a unique experience for students and older adults alike.
In addition to providing a forum for individual veterans to deliver their own personal accounts of service, the program includes further discussion on topics that give participating students—some of whom who are military veterans themselves—an expanded perspective on conflicts that ended decades before they were born.
Herb Spencer is a Korean War Veteran and St. John’s resident who also travelled on a recent Honor Flight tour. He was surprised there were so few participants on his trip who were older than him. “I counted only 2 World War II vets there,” says Spencer.
“You’re right,” replies Schwartz. “That’s because there are so few of us left.”
Schwartz is correct; the number of living veterans from World War II is dwindling. According to the National World War II Museum, there are just shy of 500,000 veterans from the “Greatest Generation” living in the United States, and an estimated 348 die every day. With many surviving veterans now in their 90s and perhaps unable to travel great distances, we are starting to see attendance at division and battalion reunions that once attracted hundreds now shrinking to the point where many have now met for the final time.
Garland Cummings brought up the WWII reunions he attended with his late brother Doral when he participated in the Dialogues on War session held at St. John’s Home in July 2018.
“I wanted to make a career of it,” says Garland, who also shared with the group how that same brother encouraged him to re-enlist as a way to make more money and improve his chances of moving up through the ranks in the Army. Unfortunately, an extended illness cut Cummings’ training short, and his life soon took a different route away from military service.
Lin Hooper described his excitement to enlist when he gathered with a group of 7 other veterans and 2 St. John Fisher College history students during an April 2018 gathering at St. John’s Meadows. “I graduated high school in ’42 and couldn’t wait to go in,” he says proudly.
Unfortunately, both of these St. John’s residents have since passed away. Dialogues on War gave them one last chance to tell their personal stories of service and express how those experiences changed the course of their lives. At the same time, exposure to these accounts has given participating students a new perspective on these wars and the heroes who selflessly joined the war effort so many years ago.
Following the war, Schwartz made use of the G.I. Bill to cover the costs of his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He enjoyed a long career as a school and clinical psychologist and taught at several Rochester-area colleges, including St. John’s Fisher for 4 years as a lecturer. Schwartz gives Dialogues on War high marks and believes the program better equips the next generation of teachers and historians to paint a more vivid picture of what war really looked and felt like to those who fought.
“Before, these kids had no idea of the depth of the experience,” says Schwartz. “Eating K-rations overseas and looking for fresh eggs instead of the powdered eggs we had to eat. Taking your rifle and marauding through the forest to see if the enemy was still out there. These students—particularly because of the careers they may choose—ought to be more knowledgeable about these things.” He feels these sessions will help provide students a more well-rounded education that they can then pass on to others.
Evaluations completed at the end of every session reinforce the notion that this program has been a positive experience for the older veterans. In 2019, additional offerings will be scheduled at senior communities across Rochester. Vacca also has plans in place to offer Dialogues on War at the Veterans Outreach Center and the Rochester Public Library. She hopes to expand the program to reach other places where veterans gather, including area Veterans of Foreign Wars locations. Overall, she is delighted with the positive feedback she has received about the program over the past few months: “The students have been really impressed with how open everyone is to sharing their stories. The discussions have really taken off.”
At the same time, exposure to these accounts has given participating students a new perspective on these 20th-century wars and the heroes who selflessly joined the war effort so many years ago.
While St. John Fisher College students have visited several senior living communities in the Rochester area through this program, Vacca says the Dialogues on War sessions at St. John’s have been some of the best-organized and most well-attended discussions. Funding provided by the National Endowment of the Humanities has allowed Vacca the opportunity to offer stipend money for partners that have embraced the program and put in the effort to make it succeed. As a result, organizations that identify the importance of this initiative are given an opportunity to make an even greater impact on the veterans they serve. In the case of St. John’s, program dollars were used to create framed photo biographies for more than a dozen residents with the help of a dedicated volunteer from the community. These keepsakes will surely be passed on to family members as another way to honor and remember each veteran’s unique contribution.
Michael Lang, one of 2 student moderators from the April 17, 2018 session at St. John’s, summed up the program’s importance to emerging historians like himself while explaining the concept to veteran participants.
“These stories are so important for us to remember and understand,” says Lang. “That’s really why we’re doing this. To get a dialogue going and keep our collective memory strong.”
Editor’s note: For more on Honor Flights, see the article, “Honor Flight: Glory Revisited and Gratitude Renewed,” in the July/August 2014 issue of LeadingAge magazine.
Tom Harner is marketing communications manager for St. John’s, Rochester, NY.