Sunday, May 29, 2005
We wouldn't have the lives we have without them.
– by Ken Fuson, Register Staff Writer
Iowa men help each other cope with fathers' war deaths.
Photo: ERIC ROWLEY/THE REGISTER
Both lost fathers in World War II.
Both were much too young to remember.
Both were raised in loving families, played college football, and crafted successful careers in Iowa.
Both longed to learn all they could about their fathers' lives and military careers.
Both discovered at a young age that talking about their fathers could make some people uncomfortable.
And both, for most of their lives, wondered if anyone else could possibly appreciate how every day feels a little like Memorial Day to them.
Then one day, out of the blue, Terry Boettcher of Indianola called Bob Holliday of Des Moines.
Both, finally, had found someone who understood.
Terry Boettcher was reading Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation" when he learned about Ann Mix, a woman in Washington state who in 1991 founded an organization called the American World War II Orphans Network.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 183,000 children received benefits because their fathers had been killed in World War II. Most now are long past middle age.
Mix had wondered if the other surviving children — referred to as "orphans" by the government — had experiences similar to hers growing up.
Talking to others, she discovered "this incredible sense of relief that you're not alone anymore."
Boettcher contacted the organization and asked if any Iowans belonged. He was given the name and phone number of Bob Holliday.
He called Holliday and explained who he was. "Let's have lunch," Holliday suggested.
They met on March 10, 2000. In the five years since then, Boettcher and Holliday have been to Europe together, toured Omaha Beach, and last year attended the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. They currently serve together on the board of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston.
They see or talk to each other at least once a week. They tease each other. They have become so familiar, they can finish each other's sentences.
They have discovered how much they have in common, highlighted by their desire to remind Americans what they owe the people who have served or currently serve in the armed forces. Not just the ones who served, or were killed, in World War II. All of them.
"We wouldn't have the lives that we have without them," Holliday says.
Fathers remain in daily thoughts
Here are some of the things they have learned about each other:
Boettcher, 58, worked in the insurance business in the Des Moines area for more than 35 years. He now organizes the construction division for TrueNorth Companies in West Des Moines. He was 6 months old in January 1948, when his father died from injuries suffered during the war. Staff Sgt. Donald Boettcher, a Davenport native and a member of the Army Air Corps' 485th Bomb Group, was 23.
Donald Boettcher flew 52 missions in the European theater as a gunner in the perilous ball-turret position underneath B-24s that had been nicknamed "Black Swan" and "Lucky 7." Once, a piece of steel cut his oxygen mask. Another time, his plane crashed on takeoff, resulting in the injuries that would later kill him, but he flew another 17 missions. "He was feisty," Terry Boett¬cher says. "Ball-turret gunners tended to be airmen with the attitude of high school wrestlers. He was really outgoing. He loved music. He loved to dance."
Holliday, 61, is a lawyer in Des Moines, and he worked as a football referee for 36 years, including many Big 8 and Big 12 games. He was on the field for the 1994 Rose Bowl between Wisconsin and UCLA.
He was not quite 2 years old when his father was killed in a German ambush in April 1945, just one month before V-E Day. Capt. Karl Holliday, who grew up on a farm near Promise City and was a founding member of the 561st Field Artillery Battallion, was 26.
The 561st landed at Utah Beach on June 30, 1944, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and remained in combat until the war ended.
"I know the kind of personality he had," Bob Holliday says. "He enjoyed life, he was outgoing, friendly. I met a man for the first time two weeks ago who was a corporal under my father's command. He said he was tough as hell, hard, but extremely fair. He would never ask his men to do something that he wouldn't do himself."
One more thing. Terry Boettcher: "I have an awareness on an almost daily basis about my father."
Bob Holliday: "I think about my dad and his battalion at least once a day."
Orphans faced 'wall of silence'
When his father died, Boettcher lived with his mother's parents near Liberty Center. His mother moved to Des Moines and eventually remarried; he remained in contact with her throughout her life.
One day, when he was perhaps 3, Boettcher asked his grandmother where his father was. "And she started crying," he remembers. "She said, 'He's in heaven.' Being a little kid, I thought, 'Well, that's probably over by Davenport somewhere.'
"I did realize something was really wrong, and I didn't know what it was. I just remember that. It's like a laser in my head." Boettcher says his grandparents did their best. He is particularly grateful for an uncle, Bob Sandy of Indianola, who looked after him. But he had little contact with his father's family; he still meets cousins he didn't know he had. He didn't have a father to play catch with, or to take him to Boy Scout meetings, or to sit in the stands at his Simpson College football games.
"You just didn't talk about it outside the family," Boettcher says. "Everybody knew, but I think it made them uncomfortable. Even today it makes people uncomfortable to talk about it."
The American WWII Orphans Network
There are about 800 dues-paying members of the American World War II Orphans Network, and about 3,500 on the group's mailing list. Many refer to the "wall of silence" they faced growing up.
Back then, says Patricia Gaffney-Kindig of Lakewood, Colo., president of the group's board of directors, the prevailing attitude was: What children don't know won't hurt them. "But our families were traumatized," she says. "We sensed that and experienced that, also." They just didn't share their feelings with anyone, she says. They felt alone. Some didn't learn until much later in life that their fathers had been killed in the war.
Meeting someone else who had lost a parent in the fighting, she says, "is the most incredibly familiar, comfortable feeling. Because you look in somebody's eyes, and you know that they are just like you in so many ways. They have had the same hole in their heart and the same lingering sense of loss."
War stories, veterans spark curiosity
It was different for Bob Holliday. His mother was 18 when he was born, 20 when his father was killed, "and she didn't have any resources to raise me." He was adopted by Gibson Holliday of Des Moines, Karl's older brother. Gibson Holliday eventually became the chief judge of the Fifth Judicial District of Iowa.
Gibson and his wife, Ruth, had three other children. They treated Bob like a son. He didn't ask much about his mother, who had moved to Texas, or about his father, because he always felt as if he had a family.
"I was very fortunate," he says, "and I think more fortunate than 98 percent of the people that didn't know their dads."
When he was 20, a student on a football scholarship at Drake University, Holliday was contacted by his adopted father, who said there was a man in Des Moines who would like to meet him. Over breakfast at the Hotel Savery, Holliday met Chuck Stegner, an Idaho man who had served in Karl Holliday's battalion. He regaled Holliday with stories about his father.
"That sparked my curiosity," Holliday says. Before long, three more members of the battalion tracked down Holliday and introduced themselves. They invited Holliday to their annual reunion. He has attended every year since 1970. "They pulled me into their group and made me one of them," he says.
Boettcher doesn't have that connection. The 10 men in his father's crew are dead now. All he has is a handwritten note his father wrote to his mother in the hospital four months before his death: "I sneaked downstairs last night and saw Terry. He laughed and talked to me. It almost made me cry. I want to be with him so bad. He acted like he knew me."
"I don't have any pictures of me with him," Boettcher says. "This is the only object I have that he recognizes me."
Following in their fathers' footsteps
The trip was Holliday's idea. He and Boettcher had known each other only a few months when Holliday proposed they tour some of the battlefields of Europe. After all, Holliday had been given specific maps, and a soldier's diary, and other instructions from his father's Army buddies.
The trip began in the fall of 2001. There were four men who went — Boettcher, Holliday, Holliday's son, Greg, now 35, and David Stegner, Chuck Stegner's son.
Here's some of what they did: They stood on Omaha Beach on Sept. 11, 2001, and were there when they learned that terrorists had crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. Also in France, they stumbled onto the mansion that had served as Gen. Omar Bradley's Normandy headquarters. They saw concrete pillboxes that had been destroyed, pockmarks in buildings, and foxholes that had been dug more than a half-century ago.
Remarkably, they discovered the 5-foot-deep, 12-foot-long hole called "The Cabin" that Karl Holliday and three other soldiers lived in for the three months before the Battle of the Bulge. It was right where the maps said it would be.
At his father's grave site in the American Military Cemetery in Margraten, Holland, Bob Holliday sprinkled dirt from the family farm in Iowa and left a referee's cap dangling on the white marble cross. Boettcher snapped many photographs.
"There's a very common thing about war orphans," Boettcher says. "It's called a core of sadness. There's something inside you need to round out and fill in. You know, fill in the blanks, and we all do it in different ways."
'Everything's going to be OK'
Like Boettcher, Holliday also cherishes a letter he has from his father, written on Bob's first birthday.
"I've been so terribly lonely my son. I've been away for a long time. We had a job to do so that little boys can grow up in a free country. The job is almost finished."
Listening to them talk, it seems surprising that Boettcher and Holliday have known each other only five years. They act like lifelong friends. "We've had a lot of good times together," Holliday says.
Boettcher now serves as vice president of the national American World War II Orphans Network. "I sure as hell wish I would have known all these people growing up," he says. "It would have made it a lot easier, wouldn't it, Bob?" He agrees. They are like brothers, really.
Both fly American flags in their front yards. Both are compiling histories they plan to pass down to their grandchildren, along with the flags that were draped over their fathers' caskets. Both love telling stories about their fathers. And both begin nodding before the question can be completed.
Yes, of course, they wish it was possible to comfort a child whose mother or father has been killed in the U.S.-Iraq war. "I'd like to take that kid and put my arms around him. . . ." Boettcher says.
Holliday finishes the thought. ". . . and tell him everything's going to be OK."
They would tell that child to be proud, to recognize his parent's sacrifice, to always remember. "Because we do," Boettcher says. Both look at each other and nod again.
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For more information on the American World War II Orphans Network, go to www.awon.org The section titled "Our Fathers" has more detailed information on the lives of Donald Boettcher and Karl Holliday.
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Copyright © 2005, The Des Moines Register.