The greatest man from the Greatest Generation

Eugene Eisenhauer, 1924-2016

Eugene Eisenhauer, 1924-2016

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.

Memorial Day is not my holiday; it’s theirs

Memorial Day

This weekend, amid the smells of barbecues and fresh flowers at gravesites, and the sounds of children playing and new flags snapping in the breeze, my thoughts have been with two men for whom Memorial Day holds other meaning: my father and father-in-law.

My dad was a Depression-era child who came of military age as tension mounted in Korea and would have missed war entirely had he gone to college instead of the Navy after high school. So when most of the young men he knew in school were just learning to shave, he was learning how to keep his clothes dry while bunking on the damp anchor-chain deck aboard an aircraft carrier plying the Pacific.

He chose the military because he had no money for college. And he opted for the Navy because a favorite uncle served in that branch. The same uncle had jumped off a sinking carrier into burning oil during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, and my dad remembered seeing the scars across his arms and back from that and thought of him as a true hero.

My dad did nothing so risky during his service, but his contribution was no less important. He parlayed an interest in photography into a post with Naval intelligence, helping to map out battle plans. He served on two carriers during a duty spanning the end of the Korean conflict and the return to peacetime. Although he never picked up a gun, his work in the dark recesses of the carriers disseminating classified information was weapon enough. Even now, more than 60 years later, he refuses to discuss what he worked on down there.

My father-in-law, Gene, on the other hand took his life into his hands nearly each day he set out from port. A dozen years older than my dad, he was among what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” and his duty took place aboard the cramped, creaky decks of Liberty ships sailing to stock American troops and their allies. While with the Merchant Marine, Gene sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific, crossed back and forth through the Panama Canal and saw more of the world than an Illinois farm boy ever expected.

He does not speak of his service; I had to pry stories out of him. And what I heard amounted to fascinating and frightening tales. He recalled the days he crawled to his post, hand over hand, as storms crashed his ship and three-story waves loomed over the deck like granite cliffs, and the nights when he saw flashes of fire through the inky night as ships on the fringes of the convoy were torpedoed and sunk. More often, he rode the center of the convoy, on ships loaded with armaments. Gene said he had to force out of his mind thoughts of what might happen if a torpedo hit one of those.

And so while many Americans everywhere have enjoyed a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer, I content myself with the images and stories passed along from my father and father-in-law.

Instead of barbecue, I recall from my childhood the musty smells of yellowing yearbooks embossed with the carriers my father sailed on and filled with photos of 3,000 or so of his colleagues. Instead of enjoying the pageantry of parades, I prefer sifting the dusty snapshots of my father-in-law in his Merchant Marine uniform, so large it seemed to hang on his small frame.

They would prefer I go out and enjoy this holiday weekend. But it’s not really my weekend. It’s theirs.