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In the Navy

Trekker Stephen and Navy veteran, Edward Packl, talk about what it was like to fight in WWII

Nathan used to pick strawberries out by old Route 29 and once got hit in the face with a kazoo. Lloyd gave pony rides at the zoo. Jean would get so excited about going to dinner in Knoxville, she would break out in hives. Fred was a polo player and liked to call himself a horse trainer when he was growing up. George played the violin and liked to box. And Virginia...Virginia liked sports, especially basketball.

All five of these people had different thoughts about what they wanted to be when they grew up, so what do Nathan Shoealter, Lloyd Kalugin, Jean Comeforo, Fred Kroesen, and George and Virginia Reynolds have in common today?


They are all US veterans of World War II and I'll bet my left arm you did not hear about them in your history class.

When many of us study World War II, we read straightforward and dispassionate histories about events that happened well before we were born. We hear terms like anchluss and blitzkrieg and try to imagine just how much 50 million deaths really is. What most books do not reveal though, is that for many, the memories of the war are as raw and searing today as they were fifty years ago.


A Land of White Glitter

Now wait! Before you ditch your history books, it IS significant to understand the overall politics of WWII. We need to know that Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany on a campaign of national aggrandizement in the late 1930s and broke treaty agreements made after WWI. We also need to know that international involvement in the war, such as that of the US, did not always stem from beneficent intentions but rather from very real economic interests.

African-Americans, among many other minorities, fought in World War II, but some felt strange fighting in a foreign war while there was a racial holocaust still going on at home

Almost every continent on the planet was involved in World War II, the war behind some of the most horrifying examples of genocide in human history. (Read the dispatchs on the Jewish holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb. It was over six years that changed our world on a monumental scale and profoundly touched the lives of people from as far away as western China to the deserts of North Africa to our own next-door neighbors.

Knowing the history of World War II is not just about political strategies, international espionage, and famous generals, though. Among the US troops were deli workers, polo players, blacks, New York Times reporters, men who had pet monkeys, socialists, Jews, and entire families. Learning about the war is about listening to these voices and hearing their stories.

Like the pilot pictured here is doing, Edward Packl also sat in the cockpit of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first Atomic bomb

Today, I ventured up to the ninth floor of Milwaukee's veterans hospital to speak with Edward Packl, a man who at the age of 16, was interested in something quite different than making good grades in school.

Mr. Packl is a veteran of World War II, who served in both the navy and army for over thirty-five years. During WWII, he was a ship cook and participated in active naval combat during the U.S. campaigns in the Pacific. This is his story.

(NOTE: The following transcript is an abbreviated and edited version of the 1 1/2 hour-long interview between Stephen and Mr. Packl)

Stephen: Well, if we could, I'd like to start off talking about your family and where you grew up.

Mr. Packl: I grew up with my Mom and Dad in Milwaukee. My father was from Yugoslavia.

Stephen: What was life like for you growing up?

Mr. Packl: I lived a clean life. I stayed out of trouble. I was a pretty good kid, I think.

Roosevelt signing the declaration of war

Stephen: What were some of your dreams as a kid? What did you want to become?

Mr. Packl: I wanted to be a doctor.

Stephen: How old were you when you joined the service?

Mr. Packl: I was sixteen. I stole my records from my school and I took them with me so I could join the Navy.

Stephen: Why did you do that? Why did you want to join the Navy?

Mr. Packl: To break up the monotony of my life in Milwaukee.

Stephen: Did you have any friends that were joining up with you at the time?

The battle of Pearl Harbor made it clear to Edward Packl that the US was going to enter WWII

Mr. Packl: Yeah, me and six of my buddies. But I was the only one who made it!

Stephen: Why was that?

Mr. Packl: I was healthiest. I couldn't believe it.

Stephen: How did you think joining the Navy would affect you?

Mr. Packl: I had no idea. And I was scared to death.

Stephen: How would you describe your first few weeks?

Mr. Packl: It was a living hell. You were away from home. Away from Mom and Dad and you had no idea what to expect. There was a lot of harassment.

Stephen: It was a violent time for you then?

Mr. Packl: Oh, yes.

Stephen: Did you develop strong friendships with people as you were sharing that experience?

Edward Packl saw the A-bomb explode over Nagasaki, Japan

Mr. Packl: Oh yeah. Of course. We would all speak about what a raw deal we got and why we were there and how soon we would be going home. It was coarse living.

Stephen: How soon did you think you would be going home?

Mr. Packl: In a year.

Stephen: And how long was it before you actually got to go home?

Mr. Packl: 5 years.

Stephen: How would describe your level of preparedness for the war?

Mr. Packl: None.

Stephen: No training, nothing?

War propaganda posters like this one played off the tragic realities of World War II

Mr. Packl: Nothing.

Stephen: Were you involved in active combat?

Mr. Packl: Yes, sir. It was very scary. And very hairy. These guys were animals. The Japs would take their airplanes and sink the ships. They would hit their planes against the ships and kill themselves.

Stephen: Suicide missions? Did you see that happen?

Mr. Packl: Yeah. Not further away from me than that wall over there [pointing to the wall on the other side of the hallway]. They were called Harry Karry planes.

Stephen: Had you heard about the decision to drop the bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Mr. Packl: I was in Nagasaki when the bomb went off.

Stephen: You mean, you were off shore and saw the bomb explode?

Mr. Packl: Yes.

Stephen: Wow, did you know the bomb was going to be dropped?

Mr. Packl: No.

In the glow of a Wisconsin sunset, Stephen takes a break from the emotional trek of thinking about WWII

Stephen: Some historians argue that the Japanese troops were almost completely defeated at the time the A-bomb was dropped and that the incidents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been avoided. What do think about that? What were your thoughts when the bomb was being dropped?

Mr. Packl: It couldn't' have come sooner. Fighting the Japs was impossible. There were 20,000 of them to our one. (laughing) I thought they were getting what they deserved.

Stephen: So you felt like Japan was winning the war at the time and dropping the bomb was necessary?

Mr. Packl: Yeah.

Stephen: It sounds like you still have a lot of aggression toward the people you were fighting against. Can you talk about where that aggression comes from?

Mr. Packl: Well, the Japs and Germans were killing our people, innocent people.

Stephen: Had you heard about the Jewish holocaust?

Posing in front of a US tank, Stephen reveals he is part of a generation of youth far removed from the realities of war

Mr. Packl: Yes sir. I would see movies about thousands of Jews being shot in a ditch. We'd watch the movies to so that we could see what would happen to us if we got caught. We would see women being put into rooms and then the room was filled with cyanide. The room was like five times the size of the lobby out there.

Stephen: You were in Germany after the war, correct?

Mr. Packl: Yes sir.

Stephen: What were some of the things you saw?

Mr. Packl: Oh, it was a mess. I was there for 'troop clean up'. We would see piles of dead people.

Stephen: And so after Germany you came back home?

Mr. Packl: No I went to Shanghai and then came back

Stephen: What was that experience like...coming back home?

Mr. Packl: I was thrilled to be home. It was like heaven. Seeing people you haven't seen or heard from in years.

Stephen: Do you remember your mother's face when she saw you?

Mr. Packl: She looked like an angel. She was an angel in my eyes.

Stephen: Do you feel like your experience fighting in the Pacific and cleaning up troops in Germany changed your ideas about war?

Mr. Packl: Oh definitely.

Stephen: How was that? What were some of the effects that the war had on you?

Mr. Packl: Hatred. I learned to hate people. If a Japanese man were standing in front of me right now, I'd think he was an animal. Is this helping you, at all?

Stephen: Yes, it is. It is good for me to hear you speak about your experiences. It seems like you are getting pretty tired, though, so if you're up for it I'd like to ask you one more question.

Mr. Packl: Uh-huh.

Stephen: Pooling from your experiences during the war, at this point in time, what advice do you have for young people today?

Mr. Packl: Join the service and learn discipline. Get out of school on the 6th of June and enter the service on the 7th. I'm still amazed by young people. My granddaughter doesn't even know what a veteran is.

Edward Packl is now 73 years old and has been a patient at the Milwaukee Veterans Administration for almost two years. He looks forward to being released from the hospital in the next month and to returning to his wife and family in Milwaukee.

What does reading about his story make you think about? Why do you think Mr. Packl reacted the way he did when he saw the bomb being detonated in Nagasaki? Mr. Packl said that WWII taught him how to hate. What other kinds of lessons do you think people learned from the war?


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - The sweet solace of a farm in war time
Nick - When you must survive, you will find a way
Becky - Suit up! It's time for Zooting in Los Angeles
Irene - You are a U.S. citizen but we will still put you in a concentration camp
Daphne - Saving the world is a full time job
Nick - You work hard and still that isn't good enough
Becky - The making of the world's largest vaporizer: The Bomb
Team - Why wouldn't you help, if you could?