On paper, Eugene Walter Eisenhauer was listed among the Greatest Generation. His country spent decades deciding whether he belonged on that list, and when recognition finally came he mostly ignored it.
Other things mattered more by then: his six grown children and their offspring, and thoughts of retirement. The southern Illinois economy central to his life was poor and getting poorer, and the lumber yard he owned was whittling down his peace of mind.
But in 1988, the federal government agreed that the risks Eugene and thousands of others took during World War II in service with the U.S. Merchant Marine qualified him for wartime veterans benefits. He submitted the qualifying documents behind a wave of nagging from his family.
I asked my father-in-law to tell me about his wartime life, about how he crisscrossed two oceans aboard creaking cargo ships to help supply the Allied war effort. Usually, he demurred. The few stories he relinquished oozed forth slowly, like tar dripping from a hot metal bucket. Each drip landed hard.
Like the one about a convoy crossing fast and alone across the North Atlantic late in the war. The Navy was too busy fighting elsewhere. So, the convoy’s only protection against enemy submarines was speed. But subs found them – as they often did – and Eugene watched from the center of the convoy as ships on the fringe erupted into brief towers of orange flame, then vanished into the inky black water.
Or the one about Eugene crawling hand over hand the length of the ship, a metal cable tied to his waist, so he could reach his watch station at the bow during a ship-tossing storm.
Or the one about an argument he overheard between his ship’s captain and a petulant Dutch harbor master who demanded that the vessel, loaded with highly volatile fuel oil, ignore safety protocols and weave through a line of floating mines to reach port.
It is difficult for us to understand now, at a time we equate self-promotion with personal and public validation, why anyone would keep stories like these to themselves. That ignorance spans a wide gap in our understanding of the timing and purpose of true patriotism.
In the 1940s, the threat of a dark future pushed in on America. In cities, towns, and farms everywhere, young men felt compelled to push back. They considered enlistment a necessity, not an option. But the Army and Navy were reluctant to take a man too scrawny to wear their smallest uniform size. In the Merchant Marine, however, Eugene’s slight build was a bonus inside the cramped cargo ships that raced to avoid the enemy.
During his service, Eugene passed through the Panama Canal half a dozen times and sometimes saw the coasts of Europe and Asia on the same trip. He rode in convoys and on ships traveling alone, and he watched the wake of torpedoes pass his ship to hit others. Until then, he never knew the world beyond a few farms surrounding his tiny hometown of Vergennes, Illinois.
When he returned, he settled in nearby Du Quoin, shelved his service medals and sharpened the same sense of purpose that had shaped his patriotism. He raised his six children on the hard fruit of driving milk trucks at dawn along winding country roads, and he hammered together homes from scratch as a construction worker. He also patched neighbors’ broken roofs during summer storms, cinched leaky pipes, and restored light to darkened homes – often at a moment’s notice and without pay – out of compassion, not out of obligation.
Eventually, Eugene partnered with other builders to open a lumber yard, then took it over as the partners trickled out. Along with more homes, he built friendships, respect, and a community-wide appreciation as solid as his service to the country.
All of those enviable qualities were reflected in the long line of mourners who streamed through Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Du Quoin to say farewell at his funeral. He was 92, and though he outlived many friends, and his wife by 18 years, the grieving included the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of those friends. In small, profound ways stretching across decades, their lives were enriched by this quiet hero of the war who returned to provide a much more heroic and lasting measure of service to his community.
To the federal government, Eugene Walter Eisenhauer symbolized the Greatest Generation. But to the people who revered him, that praise was far too small to describe his true influence.