Ray, Milt, Dean, Harold.
Their names are as old-fashioned as the values they held dear – patriotism, service, commitment and lifelong love.
In the past few months, four members of the Greatest Generation died. Three of them are featured in my book, “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”
“I’m losing all my heroes,” I said to my husband.
“But aren’t you glad you found them?” he replied.
Actually, most of them found me whether through the newspaper or mutual friends. And one by one they shared their stories with me and with my readers. Stories of war, wounds, absence and loss, as well as tales of love found, new generations birthed, homes built and communities enriched.
Ray Garland’s recent death generated a lot of media coverage and rightly so. He was the last surviving military member of the Lilac City Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Association. His eyewitness account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his compelling memories of surviving brutal battles and freezing cold during the Korean War are a vital part of our historical narrative.
On the day the story I wrote about Ray’s death was published, I got a note from a pastor in Coeur d’Alene telling me about the death of Milt Stafford.
Stafford, who before the war had never set foot outside of Idaho, served in Africa and Italy during World War ll. In “War Bonds,” he recalled the invasion of Sicily – the first time he saw dead bodies strewn across a battlefield.
“I saw a lot of stuff I didn’t want to see,” he said. “It was hell on wheels.”
But it wasn’t battle memories that made the combat vet cry, it was the memory of a little girl.
“Her parents had been killed by the Germans, and she came to the camp begging for food,” Stafford recalled.
He thought she was about 3 or 4 years old, and he and his buddy Willard “adopted” her. They fed her, clothed her and when the shelling started (which it did most every day) they made sure she was in the foxhole with them. They never knew her name.
When the war ended, Stafford took her to the U.S. embassy in Milan. He never saw her again, but she haunted him.
“I think about her every day,” he told me. “I wonder, did she find a family? Is she alive?”
Milt Stafford with little girl. Italy 1944.
I would have been honored to attend Stafford’s memorial, but I had another funeral to attend that day.
Dean Ratzman, another “War Bonds” alum, had died.
Spending time with Ratzman and his wife, Betty, always involved lively banter and engaging conversation.
Several bouts of dengue fever while serving in the South Pacific had damaged Dean’s heart, and when he proposed to Betty, he told her that doctors said he likely wouldn’t live past middle age.
“He told me the doctors said he wouldn’t live past 40,” Betty recalled. “Then he asked me to marry him. I told him, ‘You’re not going to get out of it that easily!’”
As I hugged Betty at the funeral, I could only imagine the enormity of her loss. The couple would have celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary in June.
Dean Ratzman, 1943
Some months earlier, I’d read about the death of Harold Smart.
When I interviewed Harold and Peggy Smart in their Pullman home, Harold was still so smitten with her, that even after 70 years together, he didn’t let go of her hand, and frequently interrupted our conversation to say, “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Sadly, Peggy died before “War Bonds” was published. Harold was nervous about loaning me their photos to copy for use in the book.
“You’ll bring them right back?” he asked. “They’re precious to me.”
Reading his obituary, I was delighted to discover a sweet connection. When Harold had moved to Orchard Crest in Spokane, he met Louise McKay, a “War Bonds” widow, and they became friends.
Harold Smart, 1943
How wonderful to know these two with so much in common had found comfort in their friendship.
While the loss of these men saddens me, I know how lucky I’ve been to have met them. Heroes can be hard to find, but I’ve been blessed to know so many.