History comes alive at Janesville's Washington School

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
— Sixty-seven years and one day after he got seasick while crossing the English Channel, Frank Douglas sat down to talk about World War II with 10- and 11-year olds.

Douglas fought some of the deadliest battles of the war in Europe, including the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944. He was one of three witnesses to history who chatted with students in Kim Hayward’s fourth-grade class at Washington School on Tuesday.

The kids had read a novel about life on the home front during the war, learned some of the history and prepared questions for their guests, including Marge Betthauser and Jean McCartney, who were young girls during the war.

McCartney—the grandmother of fourth-grader Charlie DeGarmo—brought Spam samples and talked about Victory Gardens and the differences between then and now—no TV, no computers.

Betthauser told of wearing dresses made of flour sacks and gathering milkweed pods in the pastures after school. The silky stuff in the pods was used to make life preservers for the war effort.

But the star for most of the kids was Douglas. Some seemed fascinated.

Several students had relatives who fought in the war, including Makiyah Rainey, who said she never got to talk to her great-grandfather.

“Listening to Mr. Douglas, it made me feel like I was talking to him,” Makiyah said.

Here are some of the questions the kids threw at Douglas, and parts of his answers:

Q: “What was a typical day during the war?
A: “It was rather stressing, put it that way. You would never know if you’d be alive at sunset. You thanked the Lord you were alive in the morning.”
Q: How did you communicate with your family?
A: Letters. It could take six weeks to get a reply from home.

After they had read them, letters became toilet paper, which was welcome when they suffered from the flu and dysentery.

“That’s rather prosaic, but that’s how it was,” he said.

Q: Do you still keep in touch with your comrades?
A: “Most of them are dead. We were just kids—18 or 19—but some of these guys were married, in their 30s.”

And some of those husbands and fathers never made it home to their families, he told the kids.

Q: What was the war like?
A: “We got pretty dirty.”

He remembers not having a bath or shower from November 1944 through March 20, 1945. He could feel the lice crawling on his body.

They rarely took off their boots.

“You didn’t dare. The Krauts might sneak up on you.”

They hugged in the foxholes during the winter. “If we hadn’t hugged each other, we’d have been dead. Guys froze to death in their sleep.”

When they stripped to shower that spring, the dead skin fell off of them like snow, and the lice bites showed up as itchy red dots on their skin.

Q: Would you have preferred to make friends with the enemy?
A: “We didn’t have a choice. … Either you killed them or they would kill you. I’m sorry to say that.”
Q: Did the war change you?
A: Douglas said he had perfect attendance in Sunday school, but “The Frank Douglas who landed in France died there. … Just ask anyone who went to Afghanistan or Iraq. They’re not the same person.”
Q: What do you want us to know about the war?
A: “If it didn’t happen, you wouldn’t be here.”

Last updated: 5:43 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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