I nearly got caught in a tornado on the 4th of July in 1969.
We were living near Cleveland, in a little suburb called Middleburg Heights, in one of those spanking new suburbs that had sprung up during the 1950s to serve the burgeoning families of the Baby Boom. It was a comfortable, very average lifestyle, with the house, the dog, Mum, Dad, and me. We barbecued in the summer, spent time watching TV and talking in the family room in the winter, and generally lived our lives.
That particular 4th of July had been a lovely day, with high temperatures and bright sunny skies. Around 7:30, my folks and I had just finished eating and were about to head over to the neighboring town of Parma for their big fireworks program when the TV cut from the local news to a weather alert: there were tornadoes in the area, and despite the date, residents of the Greater Cleveland area were advised to stay close to home.
I was only seven, so wasn't quite sure what was going on. All I knew was that the sky had turned sulfur yellow, and Mum was very pale, and the winds were suddenly higher and colder than they had any right to be.
And then there was the funnel cloud on the horizon.
Needless to say, we stayed home.
Middleburg Heights, as is turned out, was fine, and so was Parma. But the Cleveland lakefront, where upwards of 20,000 people had gathered for a fireworks display, was slammed by a derecho, a line of killer storms sweeping across Lake Erie from Michigan. Hundreds of smallcraft on the lakefront were destroyed, two people were killed in Lakewood Park by the high winds, four boaters drowned and another had to be rescued by the Coast Guard, over a foot of rain sheeted down overnight....
It was terrifying, possibly the most frightening thing I'd ever experienced. Long after the danger had passed, I refused to go to bed, certain that if I closed my eyes the tornado would come and kill us all. I think Dad finally picked me up and carried me to my room around 3:00 am, but by then I was so tired and so scared that I'm not sure I would have known my own name.
Despite this traumatic experience, the 4th of July has always one of my favorite holidays. It's not simply a day off and enjoy barbecue, fireworks, and friends, wonderful as those are. No, for me at least, the 4th of July is an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on just what happened in Philadelphia in early July of 1776. I always take time to read the editorial page of the Boston Globe, which like many local papers devotes itself to reprinting the Declaration of Independence in full, odd spellings, knock against Native Americans, and all. This country started out as an attempt to put an idea into reality, and as much as we've fallen short of that idea over the centuries since a handful of men gathered on a hot, steamy day to commit treason against their anointed king, always take time to consider that, as far as we've fallen short, in many ways we've come farther and done better than anyone could have predicted 237 years ago.
And it's all because of the ordinary citizens, the men and women of all races, all religions, all genders and ethnicities, who make up this grand and glorious mess that we call the United States of America, that we are still here. It's because of people famous and infamous, unknown and legendary, rich and poor and everything in between. Our goals may not be the same, and we fall flat on our faces as often as not, but we're Americans, which means that even when we face impossible odds, we strap on our pink Mizunos and give it our best.
Today I'd like to tell the story of an ordinary American, one of the millions who've contributed to the ongoing saga that is the United States. Born in Pennsylvania 90 years ago, he lived a life of quiet but not extraordinary accomplishment like so many others. He's long since gone and cannot tell his own story, but thanks to his own talent with a camera and the research skills of this chronicler, the story of the crucial years when a smart, handsome boy from a middle class family became a man can now be told.
He was born in the Roaring Twenties, raised in the Great Depression, and was a college sophomore when he received his induction notice to help fight the Axis. He spent two years in the military, from 1943 to 1945, and though he won no medals and stormed no beaches, his work, like that of so many other Americans during that dark and dangerous time, helped destroy a regime of such unspeakable evil that it's hard for modern minds to comprehend.
His name was Walt Evans. This is his war.
Walter Bishop Evans, Jr., was born in September of 1923 in Edgewood, Pennsylvania. This genteel little suburb on the North Side of Pittsburgh, once home to inventor George Westinghouse, was a perfect place for a middle class family with aspirations to something better to settle, which is exactly what Walt's father, Walter Bishop Evans, Sr., did. Walt Sr., a bookkeeper for one of the big oil corporations headquartered in Pittsburgh, was doing well enough that by 1940 he owned a fine house with all the modern conveniences worth $8,000 and was pulling in over $5,000 in a year when the average salary was around $1300.
Walt Jr., a bright and promising child, was raisedunder the loving eye of his mother, Nettie Hancock Evans. He was given every advantage his parents could afford, from summers at Conneaut Lake to riding lessons, and in 1939 he and his family even took a trip to the World's Fair in New York. Walt Jr., something of a camera buff, chronicled all of this, and soon showed a fine eye for composition. He later went on to become a ham radio operator, build his own hi-fi set, and even attempted to set up a primitive computer, so clearly the bright new technology of tomorrow was something that attracted him.
Alas, all good things must end, and so it was with Walt's childhood. He was in his first year at the University of Ohio when war came to the United States in 1941, and by the spring of 1942 he'd registered for the draft. His father died of pneumonia in January of 1943, and scarcely had Walt and his mother recovered from that blow when he received his notice to report for Basic Training.
His mother was proud of her soldier-son, but still terrified - what mother wouldn't fear for her only child? Walt, cocky as only a twenty year old could be, seemed more proud of his uniform than aware of the dangers he faced. He was smart, well educated, and he had his camera, and what else could one of the warriors of democracy need when heading out to show the Axis what-for?
Alas, showing the Axis what-for didn't happen right away. First there was Basic in Alabama, where Walt watched Frank Capra's masterful Why We Fight propaganda films, learned to march and fire a carbine, and cleaned up the barracks. He was assigned to the 66th infantry, called the Black Panthers for the supposed resemblance of a good infantryman to these sleek, stealthy cats, and was sent for more training to Lincoln, Nebraska, despite being almost skinny enough to qualify for a hardship discharge as an animated toothpick.
He and his buddies milled around Lincoln, posed for photographs both alone and with friends, and got more and more frustrated that they were stuck in Lincoln freezing their collective khaki-clad posteriors off while the rest of the service was advancing in Italy and France and over in the Pacific.
Finally the call came for overseas service, and in the fall of 1944, over a year after being drafted, Walt Evans went off to war.
Like most regiments headed for Europe, the Black Panthers would board a troop ship in New York and head at top speed for England. The Panthers wouldn't be on one of the true speedsters that could outrun the U-boats without an escort (the Queen Mary could and did make the journey in five days, always in a zig-zag pattern to confuse the enemy), but the George Washington was fast enough, and after a few days in the Queen of Cities, Walt and his buddies boarded their ship, said good-bye to the Statue of Liberty, and headed over to join the fight at last.
They arrived in December of 1944 and spent a few days in London, where Walt, who loved jazz, went to at least one of the legendary, dangerous, smoke-filled jazz clubs in Limehouse (and possibly to a private party hosted by one Veronica, although I have been unable to confirm this). He also took time to visit his mother's relatives, and since they had their own smokehouse and and some chickens, was treated to a fine breakfast that would have used up any other family's ration points for most of the year.
It was then time to board the troop ship for France, where the Panthers were assigned to root out the Nazis remaining in a pocket around Lorient and St. Nazaire. One of the transports, the Leopoldville, was hit by a torpedo in the English Channel just off Cherbourg and almost 800 members of the regiment were lost on Christmas Eve of 1944. I've been unable to determine if Walt was on board the Leopoldville, but given that he still had his camera, and all the pictures he'd taken in New York, London, and with his family, he was most likely was on the Cheshire. Regardless, he almost certainly knew some of the men who died, and it must have been a sobering experience for the 21 year old.
The 66th relieved the 94th on December 29th, barely giving the Panthers time to mourn their losses, and by New Year's Day Walt's regiment, now part of the 12th Army Group, was busy containing and suppressing the remaining Germans around St. Nazaire. The fighting was sporadic but hard, and by the time the desperate Germans made their last stand in April 1945, Walt had been awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, given only to infantrymen who'd faced enemy fire.
He also earned his second Good Conduct Medal, acquaintance with Veronica down in Limehouse notwithstanding.
When VE-Day came, the Panthers heaved a sigh of relief. No longer needed in St. Nazaire, they went to Koblenz for occupation effective May 20th...and then, in a change of plans so abrupt it only makes sense in the military, they were sent to Marseilles less than a week later to begin perhaps their most unusual assignment yet: feeding, housing, clothing, and processing the combat troops who would be retrained and redeployed to the Pacific Theater for the final assault on the Japanese home islands in November.
That meant a lot of hard, non-combat related work, like setting up tent cities and all the fun accompaniments like latrines. The Panthers lived like the men they served, and Walt, for reasons still unknown, ended up snapping a series of picture of his buddies engaging in such valuable recreational tasks as reading newspapers and engaging in what Walt termed "continuous hobbies." Walt himself, who played the trumpet well enough that he later worked his way through Teachers' College at Columbia playing in a dance band, preferred to have pictures of himself taken next various unit signs, possibly in hopes of fooling his buddies into thinking he'd inspired a popular song.
And there was time to explore the wonders of Europe that hadn't been bombed to powder by Allied bombs, from the sights of Marseilles, Nimes, and Avignon, to Salzburg and liberated Paris. He even got as far as the famous Zeppelinfield in Nuremberg, where the Nazi Party rallies had been held before the war. There was also time for fun and sun on the Riviera, both alone and with some lissome mademoiselles who showed their gratitude to their liberators by posing for wholesome and uplifting photographs on the beaches.
Best of all, Walt took a curious series of photographs at Hitler's mountain home in the Alps, near Berchtesgaden. The town, which had become a favorite retreat for senior Nazis, had been well and thoroughly bombed by the RAF, and Allied troops were invited to see how the biggest Nazi of them all lived. Walt, always on the lookout for something that would be interesting and/or amusing, snapped photos of what was left of Hitler's home, the remains of his private movie theater, the shattered wreck of his bathtub (complete with graffiti courtesy of an enterprising GI from Titusville, Pennsylvania, who'd managed to liberate a grease pen), and what is very clearly Hitler's personal toilet bowl.
That these might well be the only surviving photos of these fascinating relics seventy years later probably never crossed his mind, but despite French beauties, the jazz clubs, and the stink and horror of combat, Walt was still a good enough boy that he labelled the photo of the toilet "Also Hitler's" in his distinctive, spiky handwriting, almost certainly as a way to avoid offending or upsetting his long suffering mother.
In the middle of all this hard work, hard play, and hard other things I won't mention in a family diary, word came from Japan first of the atomic bomb, then of unconditional surrender. I have no idea what Walt thought of the former (like most soldiers facing eventual deployment to what would have been a brutal, bloody campaign, he probably had no problems with it), but he surely was happy to hear of the latter, since it meant that he could, at long last, go home.
And so he did, in October of 1945. He had to leave behind somenew friends, his favorite Jeep, and of course his burgeoning career as a combat cot photographer, but he'd done his time, served his country, and now was headed back to Edgewood to pick where he'd left off over two years earlier. Still slender, but now wiry and seasoned instead of emaciated, it's clear that whatever else had befallen him in Europe, Walt Evans was now an adult, not the eager boy who'd sailed from New York the previous year.
After the war, Walt went back to the University of Ohio, finished up on the GI Bill, and got the aforesaid M.Ed. from Teacher's College. He taught math, then worked as a college administrator, a realtor, and once again a teacher over the thirty years remaining to him. When he died in 1975, only 51, he left behind a widow, a teenage daughter, and a cache of photographs chronicling his days as a soldier, whether on post in Alabama, touring the glories of France, or preserving the graffiti another soldier had left to mark the Allied triumph over the funny little goose-stepper with the most notorious mustache in the world.
Walt Evans was my father. This was his war.
Happy 4th of July, everyone.