Remembering WW II at the Josephy Center

Here’s a “blog break” from Indians and Western American History and affairs.
Last Friday was D-Day, and the opening of our special WW II program at the Josephy Center. The program owes in part to the late Jack McClaran, a local rancher and strong friend of Alvin Josephy’s who followed the D-Day landing onto the mainland and fought across the Rhine and into the Nazi heartland as a tanker. He saw half of his battalion decimated, waited for new tanks for a couple of weeks, and got back in—“the hardest thing I ever did was get back into a tank… Tankers weren’t afraid of death, but of being  cooked inside a tank.”
And then they liberated Buchenwald. And due in part to Alvin’s urging—“there are people in the world who don’t believe concentration camps existed; we have to tell our stories” –Jack agreed to tell his, and over 100 people showed up at the local Oddfellows Hall a few years back to hear his calm, reflective, and brilliant account of the War.
Alvin Josephy and Jack McClaran
So Jack passed this spring, and it occurred to me—and to many others of course—that the generation that fought in and lived through that War is leaving us. So we determined to have an exhibit, and to interview the vets and Rosy the Riveters and home-front parents and wives and children who planted crops, bought War Bonds, saved rubber and waited for homecomings. We put out the call, and people responded.  
Alvin’s own war story—something I have touched on briefly but not really explored—is incredible and, I believe, the defining time in his life. It fueled a desire for true, gut-level, untarnished accounts of what really happened to and with tribal peoples and the Euro-American fur traders, missionaries, settlers, and speculators as they threaded their way across the continent. It informed his actions as historian and advocate for Indians for the next 60 years.
On the weekend I listened to the edited—and sanitized—15 minute version of Alvin’s recording of the Guam landing. It was the version that played on national radio networks two weeks after the invasion, cut from 110 minutes that included more graphic accounts of the men who were hit as they waded ashore and on the beach as they dug in under the Japanese pillboxes. I re-read the chapter on Alvin’s recruitment into General Denig’s Marine Corps journalism and public relations crew, marveled again at him wrestling recording gear (a 50 pound machine that recorded on movie film), batteries, Hermes typewriter, weapons and other gear across the country, across the Pacific to Guadalcanal and then into battle on Guam and Iwo.
Alvin must have written and relayed thousands of dispatches for publication in local newspapers in Marine hometowns across the country. And the Library of Congress holds 62 recordings from Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo. We have ordered the first four, and intend to get all of them eventually. But I want the newspaper accounts too! This exhibit lit that fire and I will go to the Marine Corps or wherever to find them. If anyone out there has hints, let me know!
The exhibit includes pictures and uniforms of Alvin, of Jack McClaran, of Rob Kemp’s father who weathered 30 missions as a nose-gunner (which put me in mind of Joseph Heller and Yosarian), of Biden Tippett and Ivan Roberts and many others. Sadly, we’ve missed interviews—Bud Stangel passed away last week after he said he was ready to talk about it all, and others have passed or are became too weak to tell their stories now, as we put the exhibit together.
William Stafford
But we have what we have. And we shared it with Joseph students this week and are sharing with scores of locals and visitors, rekindling memories and kindling new thinking about war.
I will always remember Jack McClaran’s late-aged wondering about the brutality that he bore witness to at Buchenwald—“Rich,” he said, “the Germans were educated, and local citizens knew in their hearts what was going on in those camps… How can we humans do this to each other.”

Jack became a skeptic of all war, which brings to mind another Veteran, the poet William Stafford. This year is the centenary of William Stafford’s birth. Stafford told his Kansas draft board chair that it was he, his Sunday School teacher, who had convinced him that he should be a conscience objector. He spent the War in Forest Service C.O. camps, and spent a lifetime –many years as Oregon poet laureate, a few as the U.S. poet laureate—writing against war and for peace.

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.

# # #

Click for the audio of Jack’s talk:

click for my blog re Alvin and WW II: