Editor’s note: In honor of Veterans Day, the Chronicle invited four veterans of the country’s mid-20th century wars to share their memories. Thanks to veteran Jerry Vankus for setting up the interview and to Sunrise Villa of Olympia Fields for hosting.
To understand the horror of war, it’s not necessary to experience battle, according to local veterans with long memories who saw the aftermath of the great wars in the mid-20th century.
Barry Millken, a former Homewood resident, was drafted into the Army in June 1945 and was sent to Europe. On his way to Germany to serve as a medic in the army of occupation, he saw the vivid tale of war told in the ruins.
“I got to see an awful lot of the terrible things that happened,” he said. “There were sunken ships everywhere as we were pulling in. Buildings crushed. Bridges out. This is six months after the war has ended and everything is still a mess.”
Robert Stetins, formerly of Riverdale and Hazel Crest, entered the Army in 1944 and spent time in the Aleutians, the Phillippines and Japan. Like Millken, he was not involved in any battles, but he served in countries that were still ravaged by war. And he experienced the anticipation of battle.
“We were in a staging group, ready to go into Japan like everybody else,” he said. “If the bomb hadn’t struck we’d have been in there like everybody else.”
George Shelton, a life-long South Suburbs resident, served in both World War II and the Korean conflict. He saw the devastation of war not in crumbled buildings but in traumatized people.
During World War II, he served overseas, but during the Korean war, he was stationed in San Antonio, where he served as a medic.
Part of his duties involved tending people with mental disorders. He told one story of a woman whose husband died during surgery. The woman became violent, killing the doctor who performed the surgery, and hurting staff during an escape attempt.
He also provided physical therapy to amputees, helping them build muscles in preparation for receiving prosthetic limbs. He described one patient who adapted quickly.
“He had lost both legs, one above the knee, one below the knee.” Shelton said. “He finally got his artificial legs. You should have seen him jitterbug. He was in good shape.”
Howard Ward, a long-time Homewood resident and former administrator with Chicago Public Schools, served more than two years overseas during the Korean conflict, splitting his time between Korea and Japan.
He worked in railway security, which involved checking credentials of travelers and monitoring freight shipments. He said rooting out black market activity was part of the mission.
When asked how they plan to observe Veterans Day, Ward said he is a member of the Homewood VFW Post 8077 and always attends the post’s ceremony.
Stetins said he thinks about the sacrifices so many made during their service.
“We should mainly think about those who never made it, those who never made it to live a life,” he said. “I always think about them, I don’t think about myself.”
Ward agreed, and noted that in spite of the devastation of war, the world never seems to break the habit.
“We never learn the lessons of history, so we keep repeating it over and over,” he said.