Americans observed Veterans Day Nov. 11. On that day in 1918, at 11 a.m., leaders of the Allied nations agreed with German leaders to end World War I. The following year, President Wilson observed the first Armistice Day and Nov. 11 became a legal holiday in 1938 — nearly in time for the beginning of World War II three years later. In 1954, Congress made the day a time to honor American veterans of all wars.
My maternal grandfather is my closest relative to have fought in a war. John Toennies was honorably discharged from the Army Oct. 21,1945, where he had served in the 10th Armored Division as a technician.
He and my grandmother, Edna, married in 1942 and their first child — my mother — was born in 1944. However, they’d split by the time I was born. She was left with three children to raise, Larry, Connie and Toni, although she remarried when I was 2.
My grandmother had a trunkful of his belongings in the basement and I remember holding his medals and ribbons, not knowing what any of them represented. I’d seen photos and home movies of him but have no personal memories of him.
My mother’s family on both sides is German. In fact, I find it fascinating that the Toennies lineage reflects Germans marrying other Germans until she married my dad, whose heritage is largely American Indian. I remember Mom telling us that her dad struggled mightily with serving the United States by fighting his own native countrymen.
It’s hard for me to say what impact the war had on him and what type of man he would have been without the war but the facts show the man who returned home was an abusive alcoholic who battled demons on a regular basis. According to Grandma, the family suffered unspeakable acts of violence at his hands.
I was just a child, so I just proudly shared with my classmates the fact that my grandfather had served under Gen. Patton during WWII.
We were still living in St. Louis when Mom got a call from a Detroit hospital. Her dad, the decorated WWII vet, had been picked up from a gutter, drunk and suffering from pneumonia, and was hospitalized. Mom and Dad packed the car and we headed to Michigan.
I vaguely remember the trip and don’t recall seeing him. He died soon after. He was 47, I was 8. Arrangements were made to return his body to St. Louis, where he was given a military funeral and buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
It was a sad ending for a man who sacrificed much for his country. WWII veterans returned home and were expected to jump right back in the swing of things with their families and work. They were Americans, tough and resilient, NOT questioning their service in battle and how it affected them.
Triumphant Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reportedly said “War is hell,” but what is the bigger hell? Is merely surviving the greatest victory?
John Toennies physically survived the war but did he really?