Every year, at this time, my thoughts turn to a group of men whom I spent some time with one weekend out of the year, for several years. They weren’t from this area, but they’d made a sacred pact from years ago to, “See you next year!” They came for many reasons, which had grown out of one communal experience, World War II in the Aleutian Islands.
Every year the local hotel would receive a phone call from the group, to book rooms for a reunion. When I first met them, the group may have had around seventy-five veterans. From all over the East Coast, they always ducked into town between the exodus of the fall leaf peepers and the influx of small game and deer hunters, when the town was relatively quiet.
The first time I walked into their meeting room, they looked like any senior tourist group. Even ethnic hints—from Euro to Asiatic—kept their mystery intact. I thought, “Why do they go through all they do, to come together every year?” They weren’t even from the same unit―nor the same armed service. They represented the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines.
Most never knew each other during the war, but they all had those islands—Attu, Adak, Kiska, and others—in common, a piece of history often referred to as “The Forgotten War.” People often remember Normandy and Iwo Jima, but forget the second bloodiest battle of the war was fought up there in the Pacific.
They were part of the hundreds of thousands that fought a war in the Pacific Theater to capture some very barren and frozen islands to give the United States a strategic placement to the Japanese mainland. Part of the Bering Strait, the Aleutians were the ancient stepping stones of our ancestors who may have walked across on dry ground from Asia to North America. The executive director of the Alaska Veterans Museum says being on the Aleutians is a mystical experience. “The winds speak to you, and one of the things they ask is: tell our story, don’t let us be forgotten, tell our story.”
Fog surrounds the Aleutians, stretching from just off the southwestern Alaskan mainland to the western Fox Islands group, then further southwest across the Pacific Ocean.
These places braced themselves against the williwaw, the bitter cold wind that blasts the islands in excess of 110 miles per hour and could not be measured by the technical instruments of the ’40s. These men called themselves The Williwaws, and they made me an honorary member. They likened themselves to the piercing wind—stalwart, unyielding, and steadfast.
Their well-toned bodies, snappy walk, and uniforms had long been replaced by the physical, emotional, and psychological ravages of time. Many had their spouses by their side; others wished they still did. Their yearly reunion bonded them ever deeper to their common past, to each other, and to the deep calling of their gathering.
They were first brought here by a member who loved the small town’s easy-walk atmosphere, and thought it a great venue for their group. Our town became their permanent meeting area. They gathered to celebrate life and liberty and to remember those who gave the ultimate gift—their lives. Yet, they appeared to be a lighthearted group. With them they brought their memorabilia, news clippings, photos, and souvenirs of war. They also brought present-day videos of yearly treks some took to lay memorial wreaths of edelweiss at monuments on these islands. I was touched by the present- day Coast Guard units based there, who appeared in full dress for these men and, before dismissing, shook hands with every veteran to thank them for their service in the ’40s.
The first time I met them, they came into the hotel’s lounge where I was playing piano and joined me for a sing-along. I recalled their delight at finding someone who knew their “good old songs.” Music was doing its part in healing old wounds of the heart and helping them remember why they chose to be on that dreaded place. Willawaws were participators in life for the long haul.
I adored that they held a talent night in which any might perform. Most did—from silly songs or jokes to amazing card tricks or a sprightly soft-shoe. That’s where I came in. Would I play music for them, accompany their songs and dances, and play a remembered ’40s tune? Even after meetings ended, they’d hang out to spend more time together. Williwaws were reluctant to leave their posts.
A few confessed they didn’t ordinarily sing, but had a great time trying when together. It touched my heart when I saw the wistfulness in their eyes as they sang “The White Cliffs of Dover.” I wept when I saw their tears go down their cheeks as they sang “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the song made popular as they left their families and sweethearts to head for war.
These men tasted life—the bitter and the sweet—and through their camaraderie found their own personal way to peace. The greatest treasures they brought were not visible—their spirit, sense of play and delight with old and newly found friends, and especially the hope behind their parting words, “I’ll see you next year!”
Sadly, one year, the group disappeared from our town, never to return. Perhaps the group had grown so small, and/or health restrictions prohibited many from traveling. Perhaps it became too painful to experience their dwindling numbers of friends. Approximately 555 WWII veterans die daily, and by 2036 there will be no living veterans. Sixteen million men and women of The Greatest Generation served in WWII; only a little over a million are still with us. Pennsylvania and New York ranked fourth and fifth in the nation in the number of soldiers lost during the war itself.