(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)
AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars, and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is John Wukovits.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS “HYMN TO THE FALLEN”)
He's an author and historian who specializes in the events and people of World War Two. He's been researching and writing about it for more than 30 years. His many books include Tin Can Titans, Dogfight over Tokyo, and Soldiers of a Different Cloth, which tells the untold story of 35 chaplains from the University of Notre Dame, where Wokuvits was also a student. Recently, John Wukovits joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios. John Wukovits, welcome to Profiles.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure talking about a passion of my life here.
AARON CAIN: Speaking of that passion, we may as well dive right in because you've been researching the history of the Second World War, especially the Pacific theater of operations, for more than 30 years. So what sparked your interest in this chapter of history?
JOHN WUKOVITS: When I was in, say, fourth grade in Akron, Ohio - I was born there - I read a history book that was about the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War Two, a battle in the Pacific. And it was for kids, obviously, but I was hooked. I thought, “this is fantastic stuff, the different planes and the pilots and the ships and everything.” And I thought, “I wonder if there's more out there. Are there any more books about World War Two?” Well, obviously, there are a ton. And I just kept reading through the years. I love history of any era, but particularly World War Two. Then when I went to university, I majored in history and became a teacher for 30 years back home in Trenton, Michigan, teaching junior high history and language arts. Midway through that teaching career, I thought I'd look into some writing. You know, can I do that? You know, I had this sort of dream. Wouldn't it be cool to have a book out there? But I never really jumped toward it and took the first steps. And it was actually something I said in the classroom that led me to take that first step. Because with my eighth graders, I was very big on follow your dreams, pursue what you want. Don't let anyone say you can't be whatever you want to be kind of stuff. Well, one day I was saying that and I thought, “OK, Wukovits, you're telling them to do something you haven't done: take that first step toward writing.” And that was a day I thought, “let's get serious and see if I can get first an article in a local newspaper,” which I did, and then an article in some major Detroit newspapers, which I did, and then magazines on the national scene and then on up to the books. So it led step by step through the years that way, in part because of the advice I was giving my students.
AARON CAIN: What was that very first article that you wrote for the local paper?
JOHN WUKOVITS: That first article - back home, there was this newspaper in Wyandotte, Michigan, called the News Herald. And I had driven into Wyandotte often and used their library. The library was named Bacon Memorial Library, and I said, “who’s Bacon?” And so that was the little article. And it was a fascinating guy, a politician in Washington, D.C. So I did a story on that man and they published it. And I got my first paycheck for twenty dollars. I think Mom and Dad and me read the story and maybe not too many other people, but to see the name in print, the very first article is a feeling that you never get over. And to this day, even with my most recent book to see the name in print is a powerful event for me.
AARON CAIN: Speaking of powerful things, I'm still captivated by these two passions, the passion for the Second World War as a historical era, as a font of amazing stories, and this passion for writing. You walked me through how you took your own advice, the advice you gave your students to follow your dream to become a writer. But what about that moment where those two things really connected, when it was like, “no, what I want to write about is the Second World War.”
JOHN WUKOVITS: When I decided, you know, that day, I thought, all right, I'm a little bit older than a kid coming out of university or graduate school. So maybe I have to outwork them and outsmart them. And as far as how I worked, outworking them was no problem. You just rearrange your day to fit it in. And so I started getting up a lot earlier than I used to. And then by the time I went to school to teach, I had already put in a couple of hours of work on my - when I say “writing,” that encompasses reading, research, all kinds of different things. But it all is toward the final goal of writing. As far as outsmarting them, I wrote - and this is in the day before email and texting, you know, the actual letters that we used to write more frequently - I wrote to 40 Top World War Two historians and just asked their advice. I thought, “here's my situation. What can you tell me that will help me pursue my goal?” And with each letter, I also put in a little blurb. I said, “and by the way, if you need any assistance with research or something, I'm available.” Well, I mailed them out and a little more than half replied. And again, this is on the day of mailing kind of a thing. And so I was happily surprised because some of these were very well-known historians like William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and John Toland and Walter Lord. They all offered very nice, you know, tidbits of, “hey, do this,” or, “do that,” or, you know, “you're on your way” kind of thing. Well one man, Tom Buell, he said that - and also said, “hey, by the way,” you know, he lived in North Carolina. He said, “I'm from Michigan as well, as you're living in Trenton, Michigan now. My grandfather was in the Michigan House of Representatives. I'm doing something on my family. Would you go to East Lansing and into the state archives and do this bit of research for me?” So I did. It was overly thorough. I mean, I wanted to impress this guy so much. And I sent it back. And he really loved it. So he replied, “OK, here's the deal,” said, “when I got started,” when he himself, Tom, got started, “an established historian took me under his wing and helped me out and gave suggestions.” He said, “son, I'm willing to do that with you. Any questions you have, if I can toss a project your way, I'll do that,” which he did. And that project eventually grew into what was my first book for Naval Institute Press. And it was all because of those letters. And I just struck gold. And Tom became my writing mentor until he passed away. And shortly before that he called me. And, you know this guy, award-winning historian of Pacific biographies, beautiful, wonderful writer and person. And he called me down, you know, he knew he didn't have long to live. And he said, “I want you to have my World War Two library of books.” And so I have them at my house today from that man - wonderful, wonderful person. So working smart was a key step for me. Thinking about what specific step can I take to maybe jump ahead of some of these younger kids coming out of university and graduate school and get a foot in. And writing those letters sure paid off because Tom Buell is so well esteemed. There was this one editor I wrote a chapter for, this one book. He said, “I don't know you, John,” he said, “but if Tom Buell recommends you, that's all I need.” And so I was off and running.
AARON CAIN: Wow. What strikes me about what you just said - two things, really. First of all, following your dreams, you know, there's a lot of sunshine and rainbows and unicorns usually when you hear that phrase. But you just described a very systematic approach, very broken down, very specific. You had a plan for following your dreams.
JOHN WUKOVITS: I did. Each year I would revise that plan. You know, what are my goals? I did a 10-year plan to start with. And then within each year, I'd revise that. And so when I tell my students from that point on to follow their dreams, I made sure to add that. I said, “all right, having a dream as one thing. Now you got to work for it, and you got to work according to some kind of a structure.” And how many kids listen to it, who knows? But I'm sure a few of them did anyway.
AARON CAIN: The other thing interesting about your story about when you got started was what you describe about how you met Tom Buell and worked with him, how he became your mentor and how he got his start. It sounds like you're describing a trade – craft work - instead of something that you would learn at a university.
JOHN WUKOVITS: That’s correct.
AARON CAIN: Is there something, do you think, about studying history that lends itself to the craft or the trade approach?
JOHN WUKOVITS: Whenever someone emails me these days and asks for advice in writing, I'm very willing to give that and tell them what to do. Like Tom Buell did with me. I haven't had someone take the steps that I did and actually get into writing where I would help them along like Tom did. A lot of people are, you know - they want to try something in writing, or any field it can be, but they may not want to put the work into it. Because writing is hard. It's a lot of fun, I enjoy every minute of it, but it's really hard. Teaching was difficult too. But writing is its own level of difficulty. And a lot of people shrink from that. They'll maybe write one page and then the second page is half filled and then they stop. It's hard to follow through on that. And I find that many people who consult me are happy to ask for my advice, but then they don't follow it because they find out it's tough. I mean, just sit down. It's a lonely job in many ways when you're actually writing. You're at your computer and there's no one standing over you saying, “you stay at that computer for x number of hours each day” kind of a thing. You do that yourself. And that's where a lot of people fall down, that self-discipline.
AARON CAIN: Well, you certainly don't fall down because you seem, especially over the last several years, to write, gosh, at least one book a year. And each book is more than just a chronological recounting of events. They are painstakingly researched, and they're presented in great detail, but they also have a lot of personal stories woven throughout. So, especially taking into account that level of detail and the inclusion of personal stories, If you don't mind me asking, how do you maintain this pace?
JOHN WUKOVITS: Yeah, I usually take two years to write a book. There are a few that came out real close to each other. Like a year ago, this book on chaplains came out and now this one. But I actually started that chaplain book six or seven years ago. I worked on it part time. It was a love of mine. A major publisher would not have been interested because it's such a small market. And so I thought, “all right, I'll just work on that while I'm working on some of my other books.” So, for instance, my most recent book, I started two and a half years ago by contacting family. And what you need to do to finish something within two years and get it the way I want it, you have to get started and keep to your schedule. You can't have this thought, “okay, it's not due - deadline's two years from now. I can wait.” No, no, you're dead if you do that. So you keep right at it. And I start with reading all the basic material out there on whatever topic I'm working on. For instance, the last one, the Dogfight Over Tokyo, about the last four men to die in World War Two in combat action - I read everything about the air group that they were in from the aircraft carrier Yorktown. I read everything I could about Yorktown itself in that stage of the war. I already had known the background to the war at that stage in 1944 and 45, because I'd done all that research for some of my earlier books. So I get very familiar with the details. Now, some historians will stop there with details and then write the book with details. I like to add another layer, the personal layer. I find that when I'm researching. I don't get grabbed by a story unless I connect with a character, a person, an event, something has to grab me. If you think of the movies or TV shows or whatever that you most enjoy. I would bet that it's almost because there's a character or two that you like a lot, or maybe you don't like them, but you find them fascinating.
AARON CAIN: You have a strong reaction.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Yeah, strong - very good, strong reaction to them. And that draws you into the story. Instead of just saying, “Company A did this and Company B did that.” I try and say, “Billy Hobbs did this and Charles Nader did that,” and keep that going throughout the whole book to draw not only me into it while I'm writing it, but the reader, when they're reading. That personal touch, I think, is the key to any success I've had, because the readers, when they respond to me, usually mention that, “you made me feel for the people in there.” And I love reading that because that's the goal that I have, to get them to feel one way or another about the characters.
AARON CAIN: You alluded a moment ago to your one of your most recent books, Soldiers of a Different Cloth, and in that one you tell several untold stories from the battlefields of World War Two. You mentioned it was about four or five years ago you started. But how did you first come across these particular stories?
JOHN WUKOVITS: I'm a graduate of Notre Dame. And I was reading a history of the university that was published in 1947, two years after World War Two ended. The author said - you know, I'm paraphrasing, but he said, basically, “in World War Two, there were 30 or some chaplains from Notre Dame serving in both theaters. Maybe someday someone will write their story.” And I read that. And I went, “Yeah. That's me. I'll do it.” But I thought, “it won't work unless there's two things that I can get. First of all, there has to be a record of these men. Did they leave something behind?” Now, the military chaplains always have a monthly form to fill out. So I knew that existed. But it's basically how many counseling sessions I conducted, how many religious services, how many, for Catholics, rosaries I passed out. You know, it doesn't give you a story as much as just detail. I thought, “I have to have something beyond that.” Well, the second thing, besides do they leave a record was did they actually serve somewhere of notice? They couldn't all be in stateside posts. They had to be in the combat zone, at least some. Well, I soon found out these...
AARON CAIN: Oh, you got more than you bargained for there.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Oh, man. Oh, man. They were all over the place. I mean, one guy parachuted into Normandy on D-Day with 101st Airborne and then was captured at the Battle of the Bulge. Another two were on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Nine were in prison camps throughout the war. One went all the way through Italy, southern France, and ended up being with the first American unit to liberate Dachau concentration camp. Some were on battleships in the Pacific. So I thought, “perfect.” My only issue is I have to narrow down to - you know, you can't tell the story of 30 plus people. You have to narrow down. So I knew that they were somewhere. And then when I looked at these records at Notre Dame, these priests would write letters to their superiors at Notre Dame, Father Steiner. They weren't required to, but he asked them whenever they could to fill them in. Well, some just wrote very short things. But a number of them wrote lengthy letters divulging everything the soldiers are going through. And I went to Notre Dame. And the archives had all these folders ready for me to look at one for each chaplain and some chaplains had multiple files. Now, I'm used to going into archives and looking at files like the National Archives in Maryland. And you open it and you know that other researchers have been there because, you know, pages are out of order or bent a little. And that's fine. That's part of the trade. Well, these - I mean, I open up the first file. And it's like…dust from 1945 came off the file. It looked like - I mean, they were in pristine shape indicating no one's even read these since their superior at Notre Dame read them in 1942, 43 or 44, whenever it was. So I thought, “this is great.” Well, these letters were such a godsend because I heavily leaned on them. For instance, Father Joseph Barry, one of the chaplains in Europe…
AARON CAIN: He was the one at Dachau, right...
JOHN WUKOVITS: …Yeah, five feet, three inches tall. But a fiery individual, I wish I could have interviewed him, but he passed away before I started this. His letters were so powerful. “Father Steiner, my boys are suffering this week.” You know, he couldn't tell exactly where he was. A censor would remove that, but he could give details of the mud and the pain and he'd describe in lengthy detail. Never once did he say, you know, “I'm going through that too, father.” But he was. Everything he described about the soldiers suffering he faced as well. Also, never in his over 100 letters that are at the archives did Father Barry ever refer to them as soldiers. Never. He always called them my boys or my lads. “They're really suffering.” And that was Father Berry's way. He knew that these young kids, many of them just out of high school, didn't join the military as a career. They were in to fight the war. When the war ended, they'd be back being civilians. That was his conscious way of trying to retain that civilian aspect of these kids. When they entered as kids from civilian life, I'm going to do everything I can to retain some of that so that when they leave after the war, they'll be civilians more easily. Now, he knew that's impossible to fully do because how do you go through a war and not be changed? He knew that. But he thought, “by gosh, I'm going to at least try.” These letters just led to all kinds of nuggets like that.
AARON CAIN: When we look back on history’s armed conflicts, of course, we rely on letters a great deal; letters home from soldiers to parents or siblings or spouses or sweethearts. And for these Notre Dame chaplains whose stories you tell in Soldiers of a Different Cloth, you also draw on their letters a great deal. But many of the writings weren't going to their parents, siblings and certainly not the spouses. So could you tell us more about who was receiving so many of their letters?
JOHN WUKOVITS: Mostly Father Steiner, their superior at Notre Dame. Notre Dame is run by a religious order called the Congregation of Holy Cross. And when these men - and they also have nuns and, you know, I mentioned two of them in the book - when they joined this order, that becomes their family. Now, they still have moms and dads and brothers and sisters, things like that, certainly. And some of the letters were directed to them or to friends back home. A soldier might write a letter to his wife or girlfriend. They wrote a letter to Father Steiner or maybe another priest in the community because it was a religious community. They owned nothing of their own. I mean, I got a kick out of Father Barry's letter to Father Steiner asking for an extra fifteen dollars. He wanted to send it to his mother, who needed help paying a couple bills. But, you know, he had to ask for permission for that. He didn't have it in his wallet. Everything was community. So that became their family. And they would write these letters to Father Steiner and others at Notre Dame in the same way that a soldier would write to his family in Bloomington, Indiana.
AARON CAIN: That really struck me reading the book, because I guess I was expecting more of a sense of ritual or formality in these letters. But it seemed like all of these folks, whether they're in the European or the Pacific theater, they were writing their family. And it comes across that they're deriving that level of support and even the kind of informality of language that you'd have with your own family.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Exactly. I was struck by that. And I'm glad you picked up on that. That was one of the happy surprises that came to me. You know, the humanness of these men and the two nuns. They weren't just priests. They were sons or daughters. In the case of the nuns, they were friends. And that's how I - when I read their letters, I thought, “this is just like reading a letter from a soldier.” There's very little difference. They didn't talk overly much about religious holy days or activities or anything. It was all about the soldiers. They were from Notre Dame. So I also was struck with how often they asked, “how's the football team doing,” that kind of thing, or, “what does a campus look like in the spring with the flowers?” But yeah. Often I thought, “this is just like reading a letter to a home.” And I was happy to find that that's how it was for these men, because that made those letters all the more valuable. They weren't just religious formality. They were people opening up to other people.
AARON CAIN: Your book, Soldiers of a Different Cloth, is really an answer, a very detailed answer to my next question, but I think I should take the opportunity to ask it anyway, especially after all your research and bringing these stories to life. What on earth is it like to go to war armed with a Bible instead of a rifle?
JOHN WUKOVITS: That was one of the things I tried to convey to readers if I can. It was hard for me to fully understand it because I never have done that. So I used words of other soldiers. And one said, “my God, think of what they do. They go unarmed into battle,” or, “they go into battle armed only with the Bible.” And this is a man who went in with a rifle and was fighting in those same battles. But he thought, “well, at least I have something with which to defend myself. They have nothing.” And they're there in the midst of the firing and maybe hearing a confession from a dying soldier as bullets are nipping at their feet and mortar shells are exploding and men are screaming in pain and all the chaos that a battlefield entails. And they had to just sort of block it out. They were chaplains doing their job. And they didn't give a thought while they were doing this, anyway, to the fact that they could be killed any moment. And that just astounded me. The courage of anyone on a battlefield, not just soldiers, but chaplains, medical corpsman, the same thing. How did they do that? For me, it was best explained in an earlier book I had done about the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific. This one man I focused on, Norm Hatch, was a combat photographer. And during Tarawa, a brutal three-day battle, he stood up in the middle of battle filming at all as the fighting was going on. He's the only cameraman to capture in one frame both Japanese and American fighters in that same frame. So they had to be that close to each other. And I asked him, “weren't you afraid of getting hit? You're in a battlefield and you're standing up?” He said, “John, you know, a funny thing, I just sort of thought to myself, ‘OK, I am not a part of this battle. All I'm doing is recording it. I'm filming it. So I won't get hurt because I'm not part of it.’” He said, “now, John, I know that if a bullet’s going to get me, it's going to get me.” But he said, “that gave me a peace of mind. The fact that I thought, ‘well, I'm not really a part of it. I'm just filming it.’” And he went through Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, never scratched by a bullet. Some of the chaplains had to have done something like that to block it all out.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS “OMAHA BEACH”)
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with author and historian John Wukovits, who's been researching and writing about the Second World War for over 30 years.
So many of the individual stories that you tell over the course of Soldiers of a Different Cloth could and should take up our whole hour here. But I was wondering if there are any that you want to share, at least in part, because there are several. You've already mentioned Father Barry, Father Duffy, “Parachute Padre” Sampson is another one who comes to mind. The anecdote you just shared about the photographer, this idea of being part of it and somehow not being part of it. But boy, were some of them part of it in terms of the places that they experienced.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Certainly. Well, you mentioned Father Sampson, the “Parachute Padre,” who jumped into Normandy on D-Day. Well, that very day, June 6, 1944, the battle was raging back and forth. And Father Sampson went to a French farmhouse where there were 14 badly wounded American soldiers. And he was there taking care of them, giving them religious comfort. Well, the soldiers who were not badly injured said, “Father, we got to leave. The Germans are counterattacking. They're going to overwhelm this farmhouse.” And he said, “but we can't move these guys. They're badly wounded.” He said, “I'll stay with them to make sure they're OK.” Well, the Germans attacked. They did surround the farmhouse and take everyone captive. A couple of German soldiers got Father Sampson and yanked him over to a wall and started to raise their rifles to shoot him. And Father Sampson said that, “well, OK I was here facing my last moments. In the Catholic faith, there's a thing called the act of contrition. You know, I'm sorry for my sins kind of thing,” he said, “I tried to remember the words to the act of contrition, but my mind was a blank. The only prayer I could remember was the grace before meals: Bless us. Oh, Lord, for these - you know that a lot of people say before they're going to eat dinner. So I said the grace before meals.” Well, fortunately, a German officer interceded, stopped the execution and saved Father Sampson's life. You know, he went on to do wonderful things from then on with the soldiers, both during battles and then in prison camp. The two nuns were powerful forces in their own right, too. The nuns were not chaplains, obviously, but I thought they deserved mention in this book because they were on their way to missions in India when their ship pulled into Manila and the Philippines on a scheduled stop just a couple days before war broke out. Well, Pearl Harbor was attacked. The nuns were trapped in the Philippines. The Japanese eventually captured them. And they spent almost the entire war in various prison camps. So they tended the people there in the same way a chaplain would take care of soldiers on the battlefield. And their story was so powerful. I thought, “I want to include them in this,” because they endured all the hardships. We all know pretty much what a prisoner of war camp can offer or not offer, with lack of food and no treatment for disease and just fear and brutal beatings and things like that. The war was in the last half year, in February of 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, who had attacked the Philippines - he found out that the Japanese were going to execute everyone in that camp - Los Baños prison camp. So, he organized a paratroop raid to rescue them. And these American soldiers jumped into camp, killed all the Japanese guards and rescued every one of the people in that camp, including the nuns, and brought them back to safety. Then the nuns returned to Notre Dame.
AARON CAIN: Well, speaking of fear and brutality, I was wondering if you wanted to talk about Father Duffy because of his experience.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Father Duffy was a chaplain before the war broke out. He had been stationed in the Philippines in the 1930s and he had steadily risen in the ranks. So he was one of those in charge of the chaplains in the Philippines. After the war started, he was there serving with the soldiers, just like we've talked about with father burying some of the others, even came to the notice of some prominent writers, correspondents, John Hersey, who wrote some powerful books during and after the war, wrote an article about Father Duffy saying mass with the sounds of battle in the background. When the American forces had to surrender in the spring of ‘42, Father Duffy was taken captive, along with another chaplain who's mentioned, Father Carberry, and they were forced on the Bataan Death March. Now, Bataan is a peninsula in the Philippines and they had to walk 60 miles along a dusty path all that time guarded by Japanese guards, some guards intensely cruel. Others actually were very compassionate. Father Duffy seemed to get the special attention of a sadistic guard that they nicknamed The Shadow because he just suddenly seemed to appear at any time. And he would prod Father Duffy with his bayonet, just hoping he would stumble so that he could bayonet him. Well, one day, Father Duffy stumbled - he was just getting weaker and weaker, you know, walking 60 miles and you're already weak from lack of food. They had been fighting on half rations, quarter rations since December of ‘41. And he stumbled and The Shadow came up and bayoneted him a few times and left him for dead on the road. The column marched by. After it left, some Filipino citizens retrieved Father Duffy, who was still alive, nursed him back to health. He was subsequently recaptured and went into a string of different prison camps. Then, in 1944, when Douglas MacArthur invaded the Philippines, the Japanese started to take the prisoners in the Philippines and remove them to Japan or China because they wanted to keep using them as slave labor or use them as bargaining chips in any peace negotiations, things like that. So they put he and Father Carberry on a ship. These ships were called The Hell Ships for obvious reasons. I mean, the conditions were nearly indescribable, packed into the holds of these ships where you couldn't even sit down or lie down. You were just jammed in, and hot. The Japanese would close the holds of the ship. So no fresh air got in. And you were in there for days. It was horrible. Well, Father Carberry - who earlier in his term as a prisoner passed on a chance to escape from the camp. Ten other guys took that chance and made it back to the United States. And they survived the war. Father Carberry had said, “no, I want to go with you badly. But my duty is with the people here in prison camp.” So he passed on surviving World War Two. Well, on the Hell Ships he succumbed to everything and passed away, with Father Duffy giving him the last rites. After the war, Father Duffy, who had been used to hobnobbing with Douglas MacArthur and all the big shots in American military before the war, he went back to Toledo. And he told the bishop, “just give me a small church somewhere in the middle of Ohio. That's all I want. I just want a simple, simple life.” And that's where he stayed.
AARON CAIN: For the other chaplains and missionaries who survived the war, what was it like when they returned home? What are some examples of how they reflected on their experience?
JOHN WUKOVITS: It was interesting to find that it was the same as it was for soldiers returning from war. Some adapted quite easily. Others had troubles, what we would now call PTSD, or maybe - I don't know if anyone was an out-and-out alcoholic, but they certainly overused alcohol for a while, a couple of them. Father Barry - the one who was in Dachau – his was a crisis of faith because he was a man of peace and he preached love and decency all his life and when his unit entered Dachau concentration camp, he at first did not want to go in. He said, “I've heard what's in these camps, I don't want to see it.” But then he thought, “no, I'm a chaplain. If anyone should see this, it must be me, a chaplain, to record it so that people can't deny it later on.” Here we have people denying it these days. So he went into camp and saw everything that you can imagine in a concentration camp, all the deaths and bodies in boxcars filled with them. That was his initial crisis of faith. This man of love, of God, of peace is staring at the opposite. “Well, if I preach goodness and love, how can this happen? How can the body of this little child be at my feet here?” And for a while, it took him a little time to resolve that, which he did. He went back to Notre Dame after the war and was director of discipline and a teacher for a while, a chaplain for the football team. And then especially in a high school in Akron, Ohio, my hometown, Archbishop Hoban High School, where he was a chaplain and a teacher there. A new generation of kids, of lads - not the World War Two generation, but the one following - he saw, “yes, there's hope for the future.” And he resolved that crisis of conscience. So they handled in different ways, just like every one of us would.
AARON CAIN: What you said about Father Barry and his crisis of faith after the war, it seems like many of them must have grappled with something similar to his situation, reconciling the two worlds that they lived in over their lives and especially concurrently while serving, the world of peace and the world of war.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Right.
AARON CAIN: How did they do that? Or how did they say they had done that once they came back?
JOHN WUKOVITS: Like that generation tended to do from 1945 onward, they just kept it inside and said nothing. The World War Two generation was like that. My father was very much like - my dad didn't talk much about anything of a horrible nature. And these priests did the same thing. They returned. Very few wrote of the troubles they had, similar to like Father Barry would have experienced. But they went through it just the same, just like very few soldiers and sailors went through reemerging and into society and the difficulties that POWs. But they didn't talk about it. You know, it was like, “all right, World War Two is over, what's next?” And they just put it away. And then it started to come out for a lot of these guys, little by little, especially after the movie Saving Private Ryan. A lot of soldiers have told me this, not the chaplains, of course, because they didn't have kids. The soldiers said, “you know, John, it was Saving Private Ryan that I started talking. It wasn't my own sons and daughters who asked me, but my grandkids. They would see the movie and then come up to me and say, ‘well, Grandpa, weren't you like Saving Private Ryan?’ So then I'd start to talk to them about it. And then they'd invite me to their school.” And this one man said, “wow, I went into his classroom and they think I'm a hero.” Just the way he said that he was so proud of it. So all those years of repressing those memories started to come out. And the chaplains did much the same thing. By and large, most of them just kept it to themselves. Father Barry gave some very informative interviews that were at the archives. So he talked a little bit about it. One of the nuns wrote about it. One of the brothers wrote about it. Again, the humanness of these people - they handled things the same way that a nun, a chaplain would have handled it, a soldier or a sailor.
AARON CAIN: Over the years, you've interviewed around 400 veterans of the Second World War, so I'm wondering about this very phenomenon. When you take a generation of people who, facing such an unbelievable trauma, don't talk, what's it like to talk with them?
JOHN WUKOVITS: It was a funny thing. I found most of them would not talk to family so much. I mean, they did start opening up, as I explained. But when I would come to interview them, they would talk to me. It's like, “OK, I don't want to tell my wife or my kids what happened. But he's not family. He's a historian. I can talk to him.” And so they would open up to me. There were very few who just refused to talk. There were a small handful. And I would just say, “well, thank you for your service,” and respect their request. Even one of my early books on the - Pacific Alamo, about the Battle of Wake Island, there were four kids from Boise, Idaho. High school buddies. They went over to Wake Island as construction workers were trapped and thrown into prison camp, etc. In doing that book, I wanted that group as a part of it. And three of the four open up - gave me lengthy interviews. But the fourth said, “no, I don't want to talk about it.” It was too painful for him. So most of them would open up to me. A second phenomenon I discovered - I'd always ask the soldiers after we would finish, “Well, have you told much of this to your family?” And most of them had not, and some of them - a decent number- when I'd asked them why not, they'd say, “because they haven't asked me about it. You've asked me about it.” So they were just sort of sitting there, content to not talk, but if they were going to be asked, they would have talked. So then when I talked to their family separately and asked, “you talk to him about his war service?” “No, no, we don't.” “Why not?” “He never says anything about it, so we don't ask questions.” So you see the mad circle. They're not asking him questions because he's not talking, but he's not talking because they're not asking questions. And so, finally, after I would be there and talk, the family would get together, because I've had a few write me that afterwards, “yes, we finally sat down and dad, grandpa, whatever, told us all about it.” And they were very appreciative of the fact that that door had been opened to them.
AARON CAIN: A few years back, you retired from your day job of junior high school history and language arts teacher. Hearing you talk about what it's like to interview all of these people, north of 400 veterans of the Second World War, well, apart from the fact that your World War Two unit must have been amazing in your classes, what was it like passing that on, not just to people who want to go and pick up a book about the Second World War, about a specific battle, or about Eisenhower, but folks who are learning about this war that they had no idea about that day when they got up and went to school?
JOHN WUKOVITS: It was fascinating, fun, and eye-opening to talk to the students about it. Now, when you're teaching junior high or you have a curriculum, you've got to follow. And even more strict today with state guidelines, national guidelines. In the early years for me of my teaching, it was just,” OK, do a good job in the classroom,” leave it. And I loved it because I took my job seriously and I put a ton of time into it. But talking to these kids about World War Two people, first of all, it personalizes the story for them. This guy isn't someone in the history book. As much as they may respect George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, they're, as some of them would think, they're just old dead guys. You know, that kind of a concept for eighth and seventh graders. But this is “wow, he lives in our home town,” or “he's someone's uncle,” or whatever, and it personalizes that story for them. Secondly, sometimes people will say that the younger generation doesn't care about flag, patriotism, and history. That's wrong. Dead, 100 percent, flat-out wrong. They don't know about it because they haven't been told about it. So many of my activities - especially one that I geared toward World War Two veterans. This one World War Two veteran was in a battle, and his ship was sunk, and he was the commander of the ship. And he performed heroically, even above and beyond. And I interviewed him by phone one day. And I could hear kids in the background. And when we were done, I said, “Oh, Commander, those are your grandchildren?” He said, “yeah.” And I said, “wow, what they must think of their grandfather, the bravery you displayed.” He said, “ehh, they don't care. Nobody gives a darn about what we did in World War Two.” And he said it was such resignation. And I said, “can that be true? Nobody cares?” At least he thought so. And so I had an activity in my classroom where I went through this battle at great length, 40 minutes. I explain the battle and the courageous things that everyone did and the sinkings and sharks in the water, that kind of stuff. And then I said, “hey, you know,” to my eighth-grade students, “here's what this guy said: nobody cared. I want you to write him a letter.” I said, “I'm not going to mail these, these are just to write.” And, actually, I should have mailed them. I don't know why I didn't, but I said, “Respond. Now, if you don't care, put that. But if you do, put that and explain.” Now, I know how an eighth-grade mind thinks. “This is a writing assignment that I want a good grade on. Wukovits loves the military, therefore I'm going to give him what he wants to get my A.” So I said, “every one of you here will receive an A as long as you give me one sentence. Doesn't even have to be correctly written, just one sentence.” So there was no pressure for a grade. The responses were powerful. You know, they’re all, so, “tell him we do care.” “When you told us this story, I was in tears.” “From now on, I'll look at the flag and think of them.” One girl said, “I must pursue my dreams. By accomplishing my dreams, I'll be accomplishing their dreams, too, because someone would have died and didn't have that chance.” Well, this one kid came right out and said, “you're right, Mr. Wukovits. I don't care.” He said, “don't blame me. I don't know about these stories, how can I care about something that I don't know about?” He said, “teachers should be teaching these stories. And the veterans should be telling us these stories.” So they care every bit as much as any generation. They just didn't know the stories. Yeah, they knew about Columbus and Lincoln, and all that. And, you know, and that was fine. The history, not that I am - I ate all that stuff up. But some kids are not into history as much. They had to be pulled in. And they claimed, “because teachers weren't telling us these stories, they think we don't care or know. It may seem like we don't care, but it's just we didn't know about it.” And it was a very valid point. And I subsequently used all of those letters in a reunion of that military group down in Florida. And I gave the talk. And then I read 10 or 15 of the letters. The reaction was just overwhelming. I mean, these veterans – one, the very next day, I was eating breakfast and he came out to me and said - and he was crying - and he said, “I was in that audience last night. First thing I'm going to do when I get home is start telling my grandkids all about it. I want them not to forget.” So that was a pretty cool thing that tied together the two worlds I was in, the teaching world and the writing world.
AARON CAIN: Not long ago, you received an award for one of your books, Tin Can Titans, about World War Two’s most decorated Navy destroyer squadron. So, what was it like to go to New York City and receive the Samuel Elliot Morrison Award for Naval Literature?
JOHN WUKOVITS: The highlight of my career, without a doubt. Way above anything else I've done in writing. First of all, Samuel Elliot Morrison was one of the most revered naval historians of all time. In World War 2 President Roosevelt asked him - he was a professor at Harvard. And he had already written a Pulitzer Prize book, a biography of Christopher Columbus called Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He asked him to organize a multivolume history of the Navy in World War Two. It's brilliant. Just a brilliant piece of work. So to receive an award with his name on it was - I mean, it's like, wow, you know, it doesn't get too much better than this. Secondly, I earlier mentioned Tom Buell, my writing mentor. He had received that same award in his career. And it was sort of like, my mentor got this and now I'm standing on the same stage - even though Tom had passed away by then - I'm standing on the same stage with Tom Buell. So that had a special effect on me, certainly. My oldest daughter and her family were able to come in from Rhode Island, because the banquet was held in New York City, and share the evening with me. When I asked the group that gives this award, “is it OK if I bring some of my grandchildren?” They said, “oh my gosh, yes, we would love it. I mean, who more could benefit from history than watching their grandfather receive an award?” So it meant the world to me. All those hours that I spent for 30 years writing early in the morning and then later into the evening - all the stuff I did early in my career for nothing were, you know, you're willing to do anything. You don't ask for money. You just do it to get your name established. All the pushing and the prodding and hopes and everything for 30 years culminated in that evening. And it validated the route that I had taken, you know, starting out with an article in the local newspaper, an article in the Detroit papers, magazines and then books over a period of 30 years. It validated that, yeah, the way I did it was the right way for me. Anyway, I'll never forget that evening as long as I love nothing can top it. Nothing will. As far as a professional aspect, personal is different. You know, daughters and grandchildren, you take a different pride in that. But as far as my writing career, I don't care what happens. I could get a best-selling book that makes millions. It won't top this. Never.
AARON CAIN: You'd mentioned earlier how we connect with history stories through characters that usually will happen in a novel or in a film. You also mentioned how, of all things, the film Saving Private Ryan was a catalyst for a lot of veterans coming forward and finally telling their stories. Well, one of your books, Hell from the Heavens, it looks like Mel Gibson is signed on to direct a film adaptation starring Mark Wahlberg. Where's that right now?
JOHN WUKOVITS: Right now it's in preproduction. Preproduction is where they're signing the actors and working on the budgets scouting locations for where they film. He wants to film it in Australia. So they're coordinating all of that right now. Gibson has said he's got multiple avenues to get money for this film, but he's been working on this one source because he thinks that they'll give him everything he wants. He wants to film in Australia. He wants to do over a thousand special effects scenes. And so he's hoping he can land it with them. And it looks like that's what will happen. Once all of that is in place, he'll announce the filming schedule. He needs 80 days of filming. He said hopefully that'll get started in the next six to 12 months. But as I've learned in this process, Hollywood goes at his own pace. And just when you think things have come together, one little thing slips away. And so you have to pause and get that taken care of. That's by the producer or Mel Gibson. I don't have much of a say in any of this other than it's fascinating. He will get it done. It's just a matter of when. This started 2016.
AARON CAIN: Right after the book came out. I think it was published in 2015.
JOHN WUKOVITS: Yeah, 2015. And they contacted us. The producer contacted my agent and said we're interested in making a movie. And when my agent forwarded that email, it was like one of these, “Is he serious? They want to make a film?” Because as a writer, you think about it. You know, I jog around the high school track and maybe sometimes my mind, I let it drift and “wouldn't it be cool to have a movie made out of the book” kind of thing? But, you know, you never expect it. Well, then they signed Gibson to direct, which is fantastic because as much as I focus on characters in my books, Gibson does that with his movies. I see most of my books as romance stories, maybe it's not always love of boy with girl, but, you know, with parents, with country, whatever. Gibson's movies are all romance. Even Braveheart, as violent as that movie is, at the end when he dies, what falls out of his hand? That piece of cloth from his wife. And so I thought, “he'll do it right.” He also did it right on Hacksaw Ridge. And he did that, he told me, for 27 million. He said, “John, for this, I want 100 million.” He said, “we shot Hacksaw Ridge, just at a backlot in Hollywood,” said, “I want to go to Australia,” that kind of thing. So I was real happy about that, obviously. Most writers are never consulted by anyone once their book is optioned for a film. There's a famous writer - he's deceased now - who lived not too far from me back home: Elmore Leonard. Wonderful writer of books that turned into movies, Get Shorty, on TV, Justified, a great series. He said, “once Hollywood options one of my books, I turn around and walk away from it because I know they're going to do whatever they want.” So that's what I expect is going to happen. But then Gibson called and said I'd like to fly out to my house for four days and go over the screenplay with me. So I did. I was happy to do that. And my job was to point out, “OK, this is wrong. The Navy would never have done it that way,” or, “wait, that's a little stretch here.” And that's what I did. We went over it. Now, whether he'll listen to anything I said, I don't know. But at least I pointed it out and they did consult me on that. And that was a real neat part of the whole project.
AARON CAIN: John, you don't just write about historical events, about war, or about what transpired in war. But as you yourself put it in your book we were talking about a moment ago, Tin Can Titans, about Destroyer Group 21, you write about “individuals reacting under the crucible of war.”
JOHN WUKOVITS: Yeah.
AARON CAIN: Over your 30-year career of researching and writing these stories about individuals reacting under the crucible of war, what are some of the main impressions or lessons or commonalities that have meant the most to you?
JOHN WUKOVITS: Well, one impression, you know, the World War Two Generation’s called The Greatest Generation, and it's so true. But every generation will provide its own version of a greatest generation. The World War Two group responded to the challenges that faced them at that time. They had not only World War Two, but the Great Depression. If they're old enough to serve in World War Two, they were alive for much of the ravages of the 1930s, economically. And so they faced those problems and dealt with them. They rose up and did what they needed to. I've interviewed numerous World War Two veterans. I always ask them, “do you think you're a hero?” Their answer: “no.” They don't even hesitate. “No.” And then they always add - almost every one of them adds, “I was just doing what I was supposed to do.” And they shrug their shoulders and it's no big deal. “I'm not a hero. I was just doing what I was supposed to do.” And some of those men who said that performed deeds that earned them a Silver Star, Navy Cross, etc.. “No, I was just doing what I was supposed to do.” And when you think of that - I even wrote a column for USA Today when the book Pacific Alamo came out about this point - when you think of that, how remarkable that really is, just doing what you're supposed to do. And I'll use the world of education so I'm not blaming anyone else other than the profession I was in. What if every teacher taught just the way they're supposed to? Nothing above and beyond, no “greatest teacher in the world” kind of thing. Just do what you're supposed to do. Now, I had the distinct pleasure over 30 years of teaching and working with some remarkable educators. Wonderful in the classroom. And I worked with a handful that should never have been in a classroom. What if every administrator in education administered the way he or she was supposed to? What if every student studied the way he or she was supposed to? And, maybe most importantly, what if every parent parented the way he or she was supposed to? That's all - just supposed to. Be a pretty powerful world, huh? And, you know, you can expand that to what if everyone did? Like every politician, you know, what if they all just did what they're supposed to do, you know, honestly supposed to do? That I learned from that Greatest Generation of World War Two, just do what you're supposed to do all the time, you know, you don't have to go above and beyond and earn a Silver Star kind of an action. Just do what you're supposed to do all the time. And deep inside of us, I think each of us knows. Here's what I'm supposed to do. Now, am I doing that? You know, whether it's with our jobs, with our families, our kids, our grandkids, or whatever the case may be. And the War World Two generation taught me that.
AARON CAIN: John Wukovits, thank you so much for sharing your story, and for sharing so many other stories. And thank you for joining me today on Profiles.
JOHN WUKOVITS: It was a pleasure to be here and talk about something that's been propelling me for so long. Thank you for having me.
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AARON CAIN: John Wukovits. Historian and the author of several books about World War Two, including Hell from the Heavens, Dogfight Over Tokyo, and Soldiers of a Different Cloth. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
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