As we celebrate our 100th anniversary, our History Sub-Committee is taking a look back in our club’s rich history and is sharing highlights from the past century. This week’s message is shared by committee member Rich Leffler:
The Rotary News issue of December 26, 1944, offered a dramatically mixed message. On the one hand, it announced that the annual Children’s Christmas Party, also called the Kiddie’s Party, was to be held on the following Thursday, which was then the day of the weekly meetings of the Club. The party in 1944 was being held not at the Lorraine Hotel, but at the Bethel Lutheran Church. Meetings had been discontinued at the hotel because war shortages made it impossible to serve large lunches there.
Since the late 1920s, the Club had held a party for the children of Rotarians instead of the usual meeting of the Club in the week between Christmas and New Years. You will see on page 2 brief accounts of past parties for five-year intervals, going back to 1929. Note also that in 1919, the Club sponsored the “community Christmas tree” in the rotunda of the Capitol, and in 1914 the Club was sponsoring an “ornamental lighting system” downtown, which some of the property owners were not supporting.
A very different and even terrible note was struck in secretary Paul Hunter’s account of the talk given to the Club on Thursday, December 21, 1944. The speaker at Rotary that day was Captain Jens J. Vander Graff, who had been pastor at the Stoughton Methodist Church for four years, but who was most recently the chaplain to the Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard units fighting in the Pacific Theater. It is a stunning talk, and Paul Hunter notes that “Much of Captain Vander Graff’s address cannot be printed for various very good reasons.” Although his remarks were shockingly different from the common reports that Americans got from official and media accounts of the war, given his background they must be given credence.
Rev. Vander Graff was not a malcontent. Far from it. He volunteered to become an Army chaplain in 1942. He served at the front for nine months in the Southwest Pacific and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service at headquarters under General MacArthur in New Guinea. Rev. Vander Graff returned to the United States in late 1944 after being hospitalized in New Guinea. In 1945 he did public speaking on behalf of the war loan drive and to recruit chaplains. He was eligible for discharge in November 1945, but he chose to remain in the army until June 1946, serving as a chaplain at various hospitals.
Reading this issue of the News makes it clear that Americans on the home front were blessed, even during total war. Their quality of life was being protected by the sacrifices of the men and women at the front. The soldiers’ experience, however, was so awful that many suffered profound psychological injury. In World War I it was called “Shell Shock;” in World War II and Korea it was “Battle Fatigue;” and in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan it is “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”
After World War II, the United States adopted the G.I. Bill to help returning veterans rejoin civilian life. And today, we recognize the need to help veterans recover from their service-related injuries, physical and psychological. Our Vietnam veterans were not so lucky; but today, belatedly, their sacrifices, too, are being recognized and they are being thanked for their service. So, at least in this one way Reverend Vander Graff was too pessimistic.