Lutherans in Minnesota, Reviews

When a campus goes to war

The following is an excerpt from James Hofrenning’s introduction to Cobbers in WWII: Memoirs from the Greatest Generation (Lutheran University Press, October 2010). Hofrenning, professor of ethics and religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, for 30 years, invited other Concordia faculty, current and former, to reflect on their experiences in the war and how it affected their time as students, teachers, and people of faith. He collected an interesting and inspiring array of articles, accessible to those who have fought in wars and those who have not.

It was Tom Brokaw who coined the phrase the “Greatest Generation” to describe those who fought and served in World War II. He first used those words after he had visited Normandy, stood in the midst of cemeteries with thousands of markers impeccably placed, and talked to veterans who had fought there and survived the incredible invasion of June 6, 1944. The subtitle of this book alludes to Concordia’s “greatest generation” in World War II, describing the Cobbers who served in that war, including the 32 who died and the hundreds who were wounded.

Many of the soldiers who served in World War II would not be eager to be identified with Brokaw’s label. They would most likely remember their comrades who died and those who were wounded in that war as “greatest.” One of the writers in this volume, Olin Storvick, said, “I have never been very comfortable with the words, ‘the greatest generation.’” He said, “I always felt the greatest generation included people like my great-grandfather Anders who left Norway as a lad of 20 for a new world.” It was Jim Lehrer who said of the World War II generation, “They are the best of heroes because they do not see themselves as heroes.”

But we have used it for a number of reasons. The words have apparently resonated across our country. This war was monumental in its magnitude. It seemed to overwhelm the world. World War II involved 69 countries throughout the world, and in this war some 10 million died. In our country everybody was affected in some way by the war — blackouts occurred, victory gardens were planted, rationing took place, and many women, including my sister along with five million other women, left home and joined wartime industries to produce weapons, ships, airplanes, submarines, and other commodities necessary for the war and for life itself. And then some 12 million young men barely out of high school — many who had never been away from home and some who had never even fired a 22-caliber rifle or a BB gun — were drafted and sent to countries they had never known. During the war 292,000 American soldiers were killed, and 1,700,000 were wounded or traumatized in ways that forever changed their lives. It is difficult to exaggerate the consequences of this war on the world and on the United States.

The warriors affected

As I have read these stories I recall Franklin Roosevelt’s words, “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” The young soldiers of World War II generally did not grasp the significance of this conflict, but they felt in some way they were part of an army that was desperately trying to save the world. They were aware that the world was confronted with two merciless military machines under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the imperial power of Japan.

“They are the best of heroes because they do not see themselves as heroes.”

Most of the contributors have not talked much about those years in the service, probably because it was too painful. Now, however, they are willing to share that part of their life so their family, friends, and society itself would know the nature of that incredible period in our country’s history. In these chapters there is no glorification of war but simply a retelling of the stark realities of that dreadful conflict.

Indeed, some of these veterans have made clear their insight that war must not be seen as the solution to every conflict. Ray Stordahl concludes his chapter with the words, “In my later life I have become wary of military action as a way of resolving international disagreements.” Too often we glorify war with grand parades that feature smartly marching, well-dressed soldiers, shiny powerful tanks, weapons of mass destruction, accompanied by loud, stirring martial music. What would be the impression of a parade led by the wounded, the blind, the men who had lost arms or legs, and perhaps a string of coffins accompanied by a funeral dirge?

One of the impressions that seems very present in the chapters is the deep, abiding faith that sustained them. It was not a faith flippantly worn on their shirt sleeve, but something that existed in the very essence of their being. It was a faith nurtured in their homes, their churches, and at Concordia. Doug Sillers remembers his parents giving him a copy of Psalm 121 which included the words, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help comes from the Lord.”

The effects of war

As I look at my grandchildren — the oldest is 16 — it is difficult to comprehend how young men, and now women, could be drafted at the age of 18 or 19 to fight in any war. But most of the writers of these chapters were that young. One writer said he was drafted 10 days after graduation from high school. I was drafted in November 1944, a few months after graduation. Thinking I could possibly get in one semester before the draft notice came, I registered at Concordia in September.

After a mere two months, however, the notice came. I, who had lived most of my life in Pinecreek, Minnesota, a town of about 27 people, boarded a train for Arkansas to begin basic training. There I learned to shoot rifles, bazookas, and machine guns, and to crawl under simulated fire power. It was a radical change in my life, just as it was for everyone who entered the service. My parents had four sons and a son-in-law in the service at the same time. My mother had several brothers in World War I, and I remember her story of how her parents received two letters from the army on the same day in 1917, informing them that two of their sons had died.

The mission statement of Concordia is deeply inscribed in the minds of its faculty and students. As thoughtful and committed Christians, they are to influence the affairs of the world. After reading these chapters we might conclude that one of the crucial tasks of the Christian could well be to pursue peace throughout the world.

Pax Vobiscum. Soli Deo Gloria.

Peace be with you. To God alone the glory.

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