From the Wallowas to Germany and Buchenwald in WW II–Jack McClaran remembers

When I traveled to bookstores, libraries, and museums with Alvin Josephy after the publication of A Walk Towards Oregon, the chapter that drew the most consistent comment was the one on the War. Fellow marine and navy vets came up with their own memories of Guam and Iwo and Guadalcanal. They sometimes whispered, and tears from 80 year-old men with rough hands and 50 year careers as preachers and farmers were not uncommon.

Among Alvin and Betty’s closest Wallowa County friends were Jack and Marge McClaran. The McClarans had a ranch in Snake River country, and for most of their friendship, Betty was the summer mainstay on the Wallowa front while Alvin split his time between American Heritage in New York and the ranch on the Wallowa Lake moraine. The two couples were involved in a summer educational day camp, one to which Betty recruited, housed, and fed Indian kids from Lapwai. And when Alvin was here, they visited McClaran ranch sites and traded stories—Alvin’s later disagreement with Ed Abbey over cows probably owes to his “education” from Jack.

I don’t know when I first learned that Jack had been an army tanker who was in on the liberation of Buchenwald. Maybe in my bookstore days, when Jack would come in to talk philosophy and buy Christmas presents. Over the years I heard bits of it and suggested to him that he needed to share it with a wider audience, that today’s students and, increasingly, most of the adult population, are removed from WW II, that personal memories of the War and the Holocaust are being lost every day.

In 2009, I had stepped aside as Fishtrap director and Rick Bombaci convinced Jack that it was time to give his talk. Both Josephys were gone and his experience was 55 years old, but his memories were as sharp as cheese. Over 150 people showed up at the Odd Fellows Hall in Enterprise to hear Jack McClaran’s talk.

It started with Alvin, who had encouraged Jack with his own book and talking about their responsibilites to the next generation. Jack encouraged vets in the audience to share their own stories. Gearing up, he quickly went from his high school graduation and immediate induction in June of 1944 to 16 weeks of basic training in Texas and then to Germany and getting tanks across the Rhine River in the follow-up to the Normandy invasion. There was still plenty of war going on—after a temporary retreat for replacement tanks and troops, Jack remembered being one of 43 survivors in a force of some 100 or 110. Getting back in a tank, he said, was probably the hardest thing he had ever done.

He was just 19, and Buchenwald and Ilse Koch’s work and a post war year in Germany were all ahead of him. I am going to leave it here, because Janis Carper has figured out a way to load an audio of the talk on our web site, and I want those who can to hear Jack speak. (If this does not work, let me know, and we will work something out.)

I listened again last week, and visited with Marge and Jack, now nearing 90, in their home. The story—and the mystery—that holds him still is how and why humans can be so brutal to other human beings. Buchenwald and over 100 other concentration camps were not the work of uneducated or underprivileged people from a left behind country, but educated “civilized” European people leading and being led to do inhuman things right in the heart of Western Europe.

As we talked, Jack’s thoughts returned to the mystery again, and to the question of the masses of German people who had denied any knowledge of the horrors in their back yards—the stench alone, Jack says, remembering still, should have told them.

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Click for the audio of Jack’s talk:

click for my blog re Alvin and WW II: