By Shelley Grieshop
Elmer Dorsten rarely talked about his war days before his wife passed away seven years ago. It wasn't a pleasant time in his life, nothing a lady needed to hear, he thought.
Even now, like many World War II veterans, he hesitates to share those memories until he's prodded. Then the horror of hand-to-hand combat in Bastogne, Belgium, and the sting of shrapnel in his back are as fresh in his mind as if it happened yesterday.
"I'm not a hero, just a guy who got drafted, did my job and got the hell out," said the 80-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Coldwater.
Those who survived the war nearly 60 years ago came home, hung up their boots and went on with their lives. The atrocities they experienced were behind them. As they grew older, memorials to veterans of every other war but their war emerged around our nation's capital.
As they tried to forget the hardships of WWII, they wondered if their country had forgotten, too. Amazingly, the idea for a WWII memorial was rejected by Congress four times before a law authorizing funds for its creation passed in 1993. There were numerous disagreements on its design and placement, but eventually it was constructed in the National Mall between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It finally opened to the public in late April and will be dedicated at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Less than 4 million of the 16.2 million Americans who served in WWII still survive today. Rough estimates suggest just 300 of the 3,800 Mercer Countians who served in the war, and 400 out of 4,500 Auglaize County residents who fought, are still alive.
And those survivors are a decade or more past retirement, many physically unable to travel to Washington to see the football field-size monument in their honor.
Cornelius "Corn" Otting of Minster would like to make the trip this fall, he said. A Navy man, he spent more than 31 months overseas, "including a whole year in the Pacific Ocean when we never touched land once," he said.
"I never got a scratch," he bragged, although a .50-caliber bullet amazingly sailed between his legs during one battle. He credits a Minster-area nun for his safe return. The woman boldly predicted that "no Catholic boys in this town would be killed in the war," Otting, 81, recalled. And none were, although a local Protestant boy named William Thieman, for whom the local VFW post is named, perished abroad.
Both Dorsten and Otting donated money toward the construction of the $174 million WWII monument project and received several items in return including a small commemorative pin, certificate and calendar confirming their names were added to the national registry.
Kenneth Suman of Willshire, an Army veteran, has seen pictures of the new memorial but his health will likely prevent him from attending in person.
"It's about time, way overdue," he said with a wit of sarcasm, as his granddaughter, Erica Pond, grinned nearby.
Listening to the story of the Suman family, you wonder who should be honored this holiday weekend: those who fought or those who waited patiently at home for their loved ones to return.
Suman's parents, Harry and Bessie Suman, raised 13 children in nearby Adams County, Ind. Six of their sons, including Kenneth, served in WWII at the same time. A seventh son joined the service soon after the war was over.
"Every time the train would go through town, mom would break down," said the 80-year-old Suman, who headed off to war in 1943.
Two of the boys served in the Pacific; the other four fought in the European Theater, he explained. His older brother, Earl, was killed in France.
Suman, who spent 27 months serving his country, gladly accepted the invitation to be grand marshal of Willshire's Memorial Day parade on Monday. His parents would be proud, he said.
"Mom used to make us go to the parade each year when we were little, and taught us how to show respect as the soldiers passed by," he said. "I guess it's time for the boys of World War II to get theirs."