It was during the Battle of Okinawa in spring 1945 that 20-year-old Navy corpsman Frank Siekmann discovered what war was really like.
Given an order to attack, a young Marine Corps lieutenant charged, yelling and waving his firearm, only to be cut down by Japanese fire.
“So, this is war,” Siekmann recalls thinking to himself. “I remember it very vividly.”
Siekmann, who’s 95, is one of 27 veterans whose photos hang on the Wall of Honor in the Lutheran Home at Topton.
Traditionally, the retirement home goes all out in observing Veterans Day.
State Sen. Judy Schwank often serves as the keynote speaker at a program that includes a military honor guard and Brandywine Heights schoolchildren singing patriotic songs in Henry Auditorium on campus.
Given restrictions on social gatherings amid the COVID-19 crisis, administrators decided against having a large in-person gathering for Veterans Day. Instead, veterans living at the facility will be recognized on the Wall of Honor.
The Rev. Colleen Kristula, chaplain, said sequestered residents can view a slideshow on the wall and sing along with patriotic music on the home’s closed-circuit television system. Their families can view it on YouTube.
In a recorded message, Schwank said she is filled with gratitude every time she sees a member of the armed forces.
“Our veterans dedicated their whole selves, body and spirit to defending that which we hold most dear in this country: our freedoms,” she said. “Our freedom to say what we want, to worship how we want and to gather together the way we want.”
Saying it was a privilege to visit the home’s veterans, even if only virtually, Schwank looked forward to the day when they could meet in person.
“I hope I speak for countless others,” she said, “when I say we value the service and sacrifice of our veterans every day of the year.”
Okinawa + 75
Navy corpsman Siekmann, a medic, was attached to a Marine Corps unit on Okinawa.
Indeed, in combat he wore a Marine uniform, not Navy blues.
There was no resistance when Siekmann’s unit hit the beaches, but that didn’t last long.
The first fatality, Siekmann recalls, was a young Marine ferrying ammunition.
In another instance, Siekmann rushed to a wounded Marine.
“He had a hole right through him,” he recalls. “I saw his eyes twirling. He was gone.”
Siekmann, too, would end up on the casualty list after an artillery shell exploded nearby. The seriousness of his condition merited a Purple Heart.
Admittedly, Siekmann confided, he and others breathed a sigh of relief when the Japanese surrendered after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Almost assuredly, his unit would have been involved in the attack on Tokyo had the war not ended. Projected casualties were enormous.
“A haberdasher saved me,” said Siekmann, a tinge of emotion in his voice.
President Harry Truman, who gave the order to drop the bombs, had been a haberdasher, or clothing store operator, in Missouri before getting involved in politics.
Following the war, Siekmann used the GI Bill to its fullest. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at New York University, and a doctorate in music.
He retired in 1990 as head of the music department at Kutztown University.
Frank and Doris Siekmann recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
The cusp of history
James A. LeGates was 23 when he was witness to history in postwar Germany in 1961.
The beginnings of what would become known as the Berlin Wall were taking shape on the line between East and West Berlin in a city divided after World War II.
Soviet Union-backed East Germany occupied the east sector. The U.S., Great Britain and France occupied the west.
East German soldiers, backed by Soviet tanks, stood guard along a barbed-wire partition that would eventually become the infamous concrete wall. Tanks on opposing sides were virtually muzzle to muzzle.
“The Berlin Wall would become a symbol of the Cold War,” recalls LeGates, 82, a retired corporate finance officer. “The times were a little strained.”
The contrast between the sectors, LeGates recalls, was striking.
The ruins of buildings bombed in World War II were still visible in East Berlin, part of the Soviet bloc. West Berlin was alive with glistening new apartments and shopping complexes.
“West Berlin was a thorn in the side, a stick in the eye, of the Soviet Union,” he says.
The young Villanova University graduate, a Montgomery County resident, rubbed elbows with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson during a visit to U.S. headquarters in West Germany.
“West Berlin was a beacon of hope that someday, somehow, freedom could come to the people of East Berlin,” LeGates recalls. “As young as I was, I felt that inside me.”
On Nov. 9, 1989, 28 years after it was built, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, setting the stage for the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Eyes on the sky
Dorothy Moyer Gracely was only 15 when she scanned the night sky for enemy aircraft during the Korean War.
As spotters, she and several others would venture to a remote area near Boyertown twice a week.
“We’d find one or two now and then,” recalls Gracely, who’s 83. “One of us would phone it in.”
She no longer remembers where or to whom the calls were placed.
With her husband, Junior H. Gracely, Dorothy went on with life. Her time as a spotter faded into memory as the years passed.
Then one day, she’s not certain exactly when, a package arrived in the mail.
In it, to her astonishment, was an ID card from the Air Force Air Defense Command, Ground Observer Corps, Aircraft Warning Service.
Accompanying the card was an official Ground Observer Corps wings pin.
It was the first time that Gracely realized she’d played a role, however minor, in the nation’s defense.
“I didn’t do much,” she confided, “but I’m proud of what I did.”
Veterans are special to Gracely, who crochets hats and scarves for them. She also weaves plastic bags into mats for homeless veterans.
Oh, and those wings?
They go wherever she goes, pinned to her purse.