Photo by Daniel Way
“We Were There: World War II Stories from the Adirondacks’ Greatest Generation,” by Daniel Way, M.D.
BOOK REVIEW | Non-fiction
‘We Were There,’ by Daniel Way, M.D.
INDIAN LAKE — Sometimes fascinating stories lurk in the most unlikely places.
A young doctor, armed with a degree from Penn State College of Medicine, returned to his hometown of Glens Falls in 1980 and began practicing medicine.
Daniel Way’s work took him deep into the heart of the Adirondack Park, where he discovered patients with ordinary ailments had extraordinary experiences.
There was the English war nurse in Thurman who came of age in the Battle of Britain, when skies grew dark as Spitfires battled the German Luftwaffe and bombs rained down overhead.
Way learned the man living the life of a “country gentleman” in a remote area between Chestertown and Riparius had participated in some of fiercest fighting in World War II, tasked with rooting out Japanese fighter positions with a small tank at Iwo Jiwa, where the air stunk of volcanic ash.
Or Ralph and Robert Barton, the Indian Lake brothers whose odysseys took them from the small mountain town in Hamilton County to the Pacific and European theaters and back again, where they married, found fulfilling work and lived next door to one another for years.
Way, a baby boomer born 10 years after Pearl Harbor, collected a myriad of stories while working for 35 years as a primary care physician in some of the most remote stretches of New York State.
The concentration camp liberator; the torpedoman who sunk the first Japanese aircraft carrier to be downed by an American sub; the elite Night Fighter pilot tasked with shooting down German “vengeance weapons;” the engineer who helped build the Burma Road — their stories are all brought to life in “We Were There: World War II Stories from the Adirondacks’ Greatest Generation” the new book by Way, which is now available.
Way is a deft storyteller. The doctor, who continues to practice medicine at Hudson Headwaters facilities in Indian Lake and North Creek, isn’t afraid to dedicate large blocks of text to the interviewees before circling back to offer historical context.
Doing so allows the narrative to breathe without sacrificing detail, giving interview subjects a platform to tell their own stories of some of World War II’s most defining moments in a style that is both conversational and eminently accessible, making the 160-page book a breezy-yet-engaging read.
Photo by Daniel Way
Bob drew this handmade valentine to his sweetheart, Frieda Monthony, while recovering from malaria in Assam, India in 1943.
These are not fleeting encounters.
Way knew Ralph Barton for over decades, serving as his primary care physician before learning of his involvement in the deadliest conflict in human history.
Ralph woke up early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 to greet a friend from Warrensburg who was supposed to be arriving in Pearl Harbor.
The army infantryman went outside and saw a Japanese zero blaring down on him, guns blazing from both wings.
“I can still hear bullets ripping through the palm trees, going right past me,” Ralph recalled. “I could have lit a cigar off the tracer bullets going by my head.”
Back in Indian Lake, it took 10 days for his family, including Robert, to find out if he survived or not.
Three years later, as a crew member of the USS Langley, Keene Valley native Phil Kunz witnessed the sinking of the Zuikaku, the last surviving Japanese carrier that perpetrated the Pearl Harbor attack.
The recollections of these Adirondack residents, both natives and newcomers, are leavened with sketches of American society at the time, shedding light on how their experiences fit into the broader American fabric.
Many believed heading off to war was simply the right thing to do. Others saw it as an escape from grinding poverty.
“For many young American men coming of age in the early 1940s, the challenge of risking one’s life in battle on a steaming, fly-infested island on the other side of the world was preferable to life at home,” Way wrote.
When the soldiers returned, many used the newly-created GI Bill, designed to aid the anticipated 16 million living veterans, to pull themselves out of poverty and make something of themselves, which in turn, created the American middle class.
They were men like George Beyerbach, who grew up in a tenement in the Bronx.
Beyerbach followed in the footsteps of his half-brother, Fred Barton, who was working in Schenectady and living in Warrensburg.
Beyerbach hitchhiked 200 miles north and got a job shoveling gravel, supplementing his income by selling his blood. A job at Tahawus, the now-defunct mining village in Essex County, followed.
It was there where he brawled with an older coworker and got knocked unconscious for the first — and only — time in his life.
Afterward, the pair bonded at the Wayside Inn in Newcomb.
Then came Iwo Jima, where Beyerbach manned an amphibious DUKW with a two-ton howitzer.
Thirty-six days of hell followed.
The marine returned home, married and bought a print shop, now the Glens Falls Printing Company, which is still running strong today.
Photo by Daniel Way
Phil Kunz, a Keene Valley native, served as a plane captain on the USS Langley. He was there when US fighter planes shot down the Zuikaku, the last remaining survivor of the six Japanese carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor, in 1945.
History buffs will also undoubtedly find the historical kernels, almost mentioned as asides, equally fascinating.
Among them is the American Nazi pin described by Alfred Kleeman, the German-born US citizen who served as a mapmaker in 653rd Topographical Engineering Battalion in the Army Corp of Engineers.
As a young foreign student, Kleeman, who later settled in Queensbury, watched Jews being put on trains and shipped to death camps.
Other foreign students told him to blend in and not cause trouble. Kleeman went to the US consulate in Vienna, where he was given an American flag pin to wear on his jacket lapel and advised to wear a swastika pin beneath it.
“One day I was in a trade show in Leipzig, Germany when Hitler and his entourage came through in a parade,” Kleeman said. “The SA saw me with my ‘American Nazi’ pins and proudly placed me in the front of the parade route with my camera. When Hitler’s car approached me, it stopped and he posed for me! He was about 10 feet away! I wish I had shot him with a gun instead of a camera!”
Kleeman later ended up in the China-Burma-India theater, where his company helped General Joe Stilwell build the Ledo Road, the supply line from Burma to starving civilians and resistance armies within Mainland China.
While there, the young cartographer met both Mao Zedong, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and General F. D. Merrill, the commander of a guerrilla force who later gained infamy as “Merrill’s Marauders.”
Way, like the legendary Chicago journalist Studs Terkel, seems to possess that same natural talent for getting people to open up. Like Terkel, he includes context as to how he met the subject and how they fell into conversation. And he never pries.
Still, many were reluctant to share their stories.
“When I approached John about sharing his story with me, he thought hard before answering,” Way wrote, referring to John Taylor, the Warrensburg resident who served as a torpedoman on the USS Sailfish.
Taylor pointed his finger at the author: “I’m willing to do this to honor the 52 subs and the thousands of men who never came back.”
“We Were There” is Way’s third book.
His first, “All in a Day’s Work: Scenes and Stories from an Adirondack Medical Practice,” was published by Syracuse University Press in 2004, and is a memoir that traces his path from childhood to a career in medicine and passion for photographing Adirondack residents.
The book isn’t all horror stories.
Photo by Daniel Way
Thomas Smith and Sal Famularo, both corporals in the Fourth Marine Division, share a moment at the Home Front Cafe in Altamont, Albany County in October 2014.
“We Were There,” published on Way’s own imprint, also contains heartwarming anecdotes, like the story of Thomas Smith and Sal Famularo, a pair of Fourth Marine Division members who struck up a friendship in 2012 after spotting each others’ hats during a trip to WalMart.
As it happened, both recalled the same battle where their division was tasked with taking Tinian Island, the last enemy-held island in the Marianas group, in winter 1945.
Their homebase became the Home Front Cafe in Altamont, Albany County, part of the group who called themselves the Iwo Jima Survivors.
World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 600 per day, Way notes.
Many profiled in the book, which was written over the span of a decade, have since passed away.
“Once their generation is gone, the bridge is broken, and the connection is forever gone,” Way said.
Way’s book is essential reading not only for history buffs, but for anyone with even a fleeting interest in the Adirondack Park and its rich tapestry of people, places and characters — a testament that the people are, and always have been, the region’s greatest resource.
North Creek resident Reuben Davis drove a tank for the 16th Armored Division. Davis fought in the battle to liberate the city of Plzen in Germany, the war’s final European battle.
Following his return, Davis married and raised two sons while working several jobs, including for the town of Chester, as a lift operator for the Gore Mountain Ski center and 38 years at the garnet mines in North River.
“When I left North River in 1943, I was a boy, a country bumpkin,” Davis told Way. “Three years later, I came back a man. It was a long way in between, and I did a lot of growin’ up in between.”
We Were There: World War II Stories from the Adirondacks’ Greatest Generation
By Daniel Way, M.D.
Illustrated. 160 pp. Indian Lake Press. $24.95