News: WWII veteran bestows words of wisdom to junior leaders
Story by Sgt. Austan Owen
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The old warrior walked into the room flanked by the battalion commander. He sat down to near silence, no one wanted to start the conversation. The battalion commander mentioned that one of his young platoon leaders would be a dad. A voice in the background asked innocently, “Do you know the father?” The veteran’s eyes lit up as he laughed; it’s been almost 70 years, but the infantry hasn’t changed.
Jay Gruenfeld, a World War II veteran and author of two books about the war, spoke to junior officers during a working lunch for a professional development session here, April 12.
Lt. Col. Charles Lombardo, commander, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, invited Gruenfeld to the lunch so that he might pass on some of his knowledge and experiences to the young leaders of the unit.
Gruenfeld, a Dupont, Wash. resident, spent his time in the Pacific theatre during World War II fighting the Japanese in the Philippines and New Guinea. He was wounded five times and received three Purple Hearts during his combat experience. He received a battlefield commission from sergeant to second lieutenant during the war while leading soldiers through the treacherous jungles of the area.
The veteran explained some simple truths that continue to remain today despite the vast difference in the modern Army and the one that he served.
“In combat the single most important thing I learned in my time was that the guys would follow the officers that took their fair share of the danger,” said Gruenfeld.
Just like the past training is an ever important necessity to the soldier before they deploy.
“I only threw one grenade in basic but I know that helped a lot before went to war,” said Gruenfeld. “There is a big difference between one and none.”
Gruenfeld spoke of the importance of a willing participant in both the modern volunteer military of today and the partially drafted force of World War II.
“Whenever a situation got really tough I would always ask for volunteers for the job,” said Gruenfeld. “Volunteers where usually more effective, it was always better if you had guys that wanted to do the job rather than guys that are forced to.”
Not all things stay the same, the Army of the past and the one of the present has some very discernible differences. The change between the two eras became evident as he spoke.
“I made one combat patrol and oriented the men very carefully and this soldier came up to me and said, ‘I’ve been on dozens of patrols and that’s the first time I’ve really understood the mission,’ ” said Gruenfeld.
“In our time we didn’t get the orientation by the guys that had the experience, communication with the soldiers is crucial,” said Gruenfeld. “We should have done meetings like this on a regular basis.”
Today’s Army spends a lot time and resources trying to ensure proper training and communication from the lowest ranking Joe to the upper echelon.
“We weren’t trained enough on taking care of our wounded,” said Gruenfeld. “My last day I was trying to get this guy out in a hurry. I went to grab his left hand and didn’t realize he was missing half of it. I should have grabbed him by the wrist. I went to put him in a fireman’s carry and I put all his weight on my one shoulder, which was a terrible way to carry somebody. It was wet and slick, I made it 10 yards when I fell down and then I got shot.”
Gruenfeld continued through the luncheon telling stories from his past and his life after the war passing on helpful truisms and lessons learned out of his playbook.
“My experiences (during the war) have been tremendously important in my life,” said Gruenfeld. “They have helped to establish the importance of communication, knowing the importance of leaders and warfare also teaches you the power of emotions.”
Powerful emotions developed during war are nothing new to the Army as it diagnoses thousands of soldiers with PTSD the same emotions where present during World War II.
“I never took any joy or satisfaction in killing, it was just part of my job,” said Gruenfeld. “I went through the entire war without shedding a tear but years later when my Lab died I cried like a baby as the emotions came pouring back.”
Lombardo wrapped up the meeting by presenting a certificate of appreciation and a squadron coin to the author and veteran. Lombardo expressed his gratitude for the visit and ensured the World War II veteran that the mentorship, education, experiences and advice that he passed on would be valuable learning tools for years to come.
“He made some powerful points about involved leadership with genuine care for your soldiers genuine interest in their lives and being on the line with them,” said Capt. Heather McClellan, commander, 45th Military Intelligence Company.