If you’re looking for a book that showcases the beauty, the tranquility, the recreational opportunities to be found in the Adirondacks, don’t get this one. But if you want unvarnished stories from some of the region’s most remarkable, if often nearly anonymous, older citizens, it’s for you.
In We Were There: World War II Stories from the Adirondacks’ Greatest Generation, Dr. Daniel Way, a family-care physician with the Hudson Headwaters Health Network, which serves much of the Adirondacks, has assembled the riveting memories of eighteen of his patients, all survivors of World War II.
We become acquainted with sixteen men and two women who, with the exception of one of the women (a German civilian who married a GI), served in the Army (American and British), Navy, Air Force, and Marines as combat soldiers, pilots, tank drivers, mapmakers, nurses, and submarine torpedo launchers; with those who fought in the D-Day invasion, on Iwo Jima, and in the Philippines; and with witnesses to the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp and the bombing of Nagasaki. One met General Patton; another met Hitler. They made new friends, then saw them shot, drowned, burned to death, or blasted into chunks of gore. They endured stifling heat, dysentery, malaria, gangrene, and, later, what we today call post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some got religion; some questioned it.
They were the ones who made it home, returning to or eventually moving to the Adirondacks; they married, had sons and daughters who have given them grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and became carpenters, mechanics, volunteer firemen, preachers, artists, restaurateurs, research chemists, newspaper correspondents, engineers, snowplow drivers, printers and miners. They express amazement, relief and guilt that they survived. Some still live with the effects of grievous wounds and injuries, physical and mental. They are no longer afraid to say they were afraid. They make no apologies.
As in his two previous books inspired by his medical practice (All in a Day’s Work, Syracuse University Press, 2004, and Never a Dull Moment, Indian Lake Press, 2013), Way demonstrates his solid interviewing skills as well as his considerable talents as a photographer. Many of these individuals had spoken little if at all of their war experiences for nearly two-thirds of a century, but Way, himself the son of a World War II veteran, brings them out. It’s been said that doctors, especially in the primary-care arena, win the trust and confidence of their patients over time and end up contributing to the healing of more than just their physical ailments. Nowhere does this seem more evident than in this book. As State Senator Elizabeth “Betty” Little says in her foreword, “To be an excellent physician one must be an excellent listener,” and Way shows us an exemplary bedside manner.
As for the haunting portraits, for the most part these individuals are looking right at the camera, but they are simultaneously looking somewhere far away. Some are smiling, but most are not. Way’s images are supported by vintage photos from the war; not all are easy to view. This is not romanticized, sugarcoated, glories-of-war history.
Among the many compelling stories, George Beyerbach’s illustrates that it was not just war that some of these folks had to overcome. In language that would earn an R rating if this were a movie, Beyerbach recounts an impoverished, emotionally abusive childhood in the Bronx during the Great Depression. His escape was the Adirondacks and the Marines. Fleeing home at sixteen, he found work at the mines in Tahawus and the paper mill in Corinth. He met his future wife, Barbara, when he hit a baseball through a window of her father’s house in Warrensburg. At eighteen, in 1944, he enlisted in the Marines. He served in active duty for only a few months, but what a trial they were.
Sergeant Beyerbach’s descriptions of the ferocity he lived through as an artillery gunner in the South Pacific are vivid and graphic. He fought for thirty-six straight days to help liberate Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, where his fellow Marines planted an American flag in a moment that produced one of the most famous war photos of all time. “We saw horrible things,” he tells Way. “One of the officers sitting next to me told me, ‘Beyerbach, go get me some water.’ I got up and … a mortar shell hit right where the guy was sitting—all I found was the side of his face and his moustache.”
After the Japanese surrender, Beyerbach was among the first Americans into Nagasaki, the second Japanese city to be obliterated by an American A-bomb, and saw horrors of a different kind. Japanese women were terrified of them; they’d been told the Americans would rape them.
Instead, they gave them food. Once back stateside, he married the girl whose father’s window he had broken, saved up enough money to buy a print shop, and expanded it into the Glens Falls Printing Company. Though he gave it over to one of his sons, he continued to go to work until shortly before his death last September. He was proud of his three children—two businessmen and a college professor.
Into the midst of these sobering realities of war, Way wisely injects occasional comic relief. Amid the blitzkreig bombing of her English city near London, Barbara Blackburn describes meeting her future husband, a gangly American GI from Warrensburg named George Keene, when she was fourteen: “When he saw me he sort of got up in sections, like a grasshopper unfolding.”
Like many self-published books, this one has its share of slips. Way discusses watching Sergeant Alfred Kleeman “pouring over” his war memorabilia; one wonders what he poured over it, and whether it damaged the artifacts. But these are few and far between, and do not diminish the power of the stories being told.
If you can get through this book without choking up at least once, you are a stronger reader than I. But perhaps “stronger” isn’t the right word, for strength comes in many forms. I cannot say you will always enjoy reading this volume, but I can predict that you will learn from it.