Katie Scarvey column: Listening to veterans’ stories of love and war
Working for an organization like Lutheran Services Carolinas that provides senior living services offers plenty of opportunities to meet fascinating people and learn some history to boot. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to hear the stories of a few veterans who served overseas more than 60 years ago.
With fewer and fewer World War II veterans among us to relate their stories directly, hearing Norman Canupp recall his time as a 19-year-old on a Navy destroyer is a sobering reminder of just how horrific World War II was for many who served. Canupp, sometimes called “Hoot,” lives in Salisbury with his wife, Hilda, and recently spent time in the rehab wing at Trinity Oaks health and rehab.
A gunner, Canupp witnessed an event that’s etched in our collective consciousness through a famous photo: the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi in February of 1945. It was a great moment, but Canupp would rather forget the days that surround it. In March of that year, he wrote in his diary about “five months of hell and high water” and wrote that he hoped someday he would be able to forget.
It took him 38 years before he opened the diary he kept through eight major battles in the South Pacific, but ignoring the diary didn’t mean he’d left behind what he’d experienced. He couldn’t forget seeing the bodies of Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines left in the wake of an unthinkably bloody battle, bodies pushed with heavy machinery into mass graves, or the killing of civilian women and children. He couldn’t forget suicide planes and suicide swimmers trying to destroy his ship, the USS Heywood L. Edwards, one of only two of the nine destroyers in his squadron that weren’t sunk.
A measure of just how stressful the war was for Canupp was that he entered the Navy at 6 feet 4 inches, weighing 178 pounds, and returned less than three years later weighing 128. Some men on his ship took their own lives, and others ended up in straitjackets. Canupp managed to make it home but found himself haunted by horrible nightmares and unable to work for a time. He moved to Salisbury in 1953, and despite what was almost certainly post-traumatic stress disorder, had a successful career with Prudential Insurance.
War is hell, no doubt, but at least one story about an encounter with Gen. Douglas MacArthur will elicit a smile from Canupp. He went into MacArthur’s quarters one day to pick up the mail only to hear the notoriously crusty general bark: “Get the hell out of my tent!”
And Canupp did.
• • •
What a difference a few months makes. While many World War II veterans like Canupp have difficulty revisiting their experiences, Dr. Cliff Cutrell speaks easily about his Army service in Japan shortly after the war’s end.
Cutrell, who lives in an apartment at Trinity Oaks, was born in South Carolina and moved to Fairfield, N.C. when he was 10. His family didn’t have much. “We were so poor we used eggs to buy things,” he said. He considered himself lucky when he got the princely sum of a penny a pound to pick up pecans.
Drafted out of Louisburg College six weeks after the treaty was signed, he served in Japan during the war’s aftermath. He worked in an office in Tokyo, and those months were pleasant ones. “We got to travel on the weekends, and we had a wonderful time,” he said. A particularly vivid memory is seeing a giant Buddha at the foot of a mountain.
He also enjoyed the people he met, who showed no signs of hostility or bitterness toward the American soldiers. “The Japanese people were so hospitable, and they accepted us. They accepted defeat very graciously,” he said.
The worst part of his experience, he says, was actually getting to Japan. A typhoon hit as his ship made the 26-day voyage to Japan, and for three or four days, the ship did battle with huge, pounding waves that dumped water in the men’s quarters. Cutrell had never seen anything like it. He remembers breakfast sliding back and forth as the ship plowed through the mammoth waves, listing more than 30 degrees.
While in Tokyo Cutrell was recommended to apply for officer training school, but he was sent home when his mother became seriously ill. She recovered, but Cutrell wasn’t sent back to Japan, and his service ended in September of 1946.
Cutrell returned to college on the GI Bill and became a podiatrist. He came to Salisbury in 1951 with wife Jane and practiced for 40 years, running the foot clinic at the Hefner VA Medical Center for 38 of them.
“Service was a blessing for me,” Cutrell said. “Without the GI Bill I wouldn’t have made it through school.”
• • •
Dr. Smith Kirk wanted to become a pilot for Pan-American World Airways when he was a student at Boyden High School during World War II. His father gave him a reality check, reminding him that when the war was over, thousands of pilots would be competing for a limited number of airline positions.
So Smith followed in his father’s footsteps and got on the fast track to becoming a dentist. It was part of a government initiative that allowed qualified high school juniors to skip their senior year of high school in order to get through medical or dental school more quickly to be able to serve in the military. Smith passed the qualifying exam and enrolled at the University of North Carolina at the age of 16.
Within a year, he had completed 60 hours of a pre-dental course of study. At 17, he entered dental school at Northwestern University. By that time, the war had ended.
After dental school, he joined the Air Force and was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. At the mess hall he met his future wife, who admits she was a little intimidated since Smith was a captain and she was a second lieutenant.
Lois Kirk hadn’t really planned to join the Air Force. She had been working as a surgical nurse in a hospital in Pittsburgh and went to a recruitment event simply as moral support for a friend, she says.
“I had no intention of joining her in the service. But I went anyway. The more she talked the more I was convinced it was what I ought to do. It was like I was in a trance and somebody else was deciding my thinking and actions. It wasn’t until after I was sworn in that I thought maybe it was a mistake.”
Lois and Smith found they had a lot in common, and after dating six months they married in a military chapel. They honeymoon didn’t last long because two weeks after the wedding Smith was sent to Germany. He expected to be there for six months. Lois continued to work as a nurse in the operating room at Maxwell Air Force Base, where she established herself as the favorite scrub nurse of the hospital commander, Col. Braswell.
That relationship proved to be key to her future.
Soon, orders from Washington came that four nurses were needed to fly to Japan immediately to help fly the wounded out of Korea. Lois was number five on the list.
“That meant that next time, I would be number one,” she said. She worried that she and Smith would end up being separated for a very long time.
But being Braswell’s favorite nurse had its privileges. When Braswell heard there was a good chance Lois could be sent to Korea, he went to Washington to get her transferred to Germany so she could be with her husband.
Although the Kirks lost touch with Braswell, neither has forgotten his kindness.
The Kirks spent about 15 months in Germany, with Smith practicing dentistry and Lois working in both obstetrics and surgery.
They enjoyed their time there, traveling around the country when they could. The German people were feeling more kindly toward Americans, Smith says, because they were grateful to the U.S. for its part in the Berlin Airlift, which had recently ended.
With Lois seven months pregnant, they returned to the United States. Smith practiced general dentistry and then later, orthodontics, for 42 years in Salisbury. Although Lois was honored to be asked to set up the operating room at the brand-new Hefner VA Medical Center, she chose to be a full-time mother. She and Smith have been married 62 years. “That’s high-mileage isn’t it?” Smith says, smiling.
So it turns out that enlisting wasn’t a mistake for Lois after all.
And Smith’s dream to become a pilot? Although he never got to fly for Pan-American, Smith did get his pilot’s license and has owned several planes.
Katie Scarvey is a communications specialist for Lutheran Services Carolinas.