Old war movies often show the stereotype: The knock on the door by a War Department representative bearing news of the death of a soldier to his or her family. But World War II veteran Joe Graham brushed aside those written notices. They are impersonal, and they don't tell the families what they really need to know.
All during the war, Graham, a tank-company commander, had the task of writing more personal letters to the mothers and fathers, sisters and wives of soldiers killed or seriously injured in battle. In all, he would write more than 45 such letters -- 17 for deaths and at least 34 for serious injuries.
"These were tough letters. They were much more personal. You lose a man; you liked the man; you hated to see him go," he said on Thursday afternoon at his room at Channing House in Palo Alto.
Graham, 99, will talk about what it was like to write those letters during Channing House's annual honoring celebration on Veterans Day. A genial gentleman with a healthy shock of white hair, he still cuts a vibrant and robust figure. He smiles often and pumps his fists enthusiastically to emphasize the many points he recalls with clarity more than 70 years later.
A U.S. Army captain in command of 17 tanks in the 781st Tank Battalion, Graham served in France, Germany, Austria and Italy from Sept. 2, 1941, through Oct. 9, 1945, including secret missions in Canada. He was 24 years old. He laughed at the irony of a "typical New York kid" commanding a fleet of tanks.
"I had never driven a car in my life and I had a reputation for mechanical ineptitude -- and I drove a tank! How did we win the war? The Army classification system was GREAT!" he said, pumping his fists for emphasis.
Living on his own at age 18, he started as an office boy working for Travelers Insurance Company and worked his way up to junior underwriter when the war broke out. He was sent to tank-maintenance school and was then placed in officer candidate training. It was during that time that he learned the art of writing condolence letters, he said. His commanding officer, the beloved Lt. Col. Kinne, sent Graham and five other officers to visit the army chaplain, Fr. Charles Jensen to ask him what he did to write meaningful letters.
"Your letter to the next of kin is probably going to be in the archives of the family 40 years or indefinitely, or the grandchildren are going to go back in search of where their relative died to take a picture. You tell the where how and the when," he recalled the chaplain said.
But the "how" sometimes required a little diplomacy.
He recalled one soldier whose death affected him deeply. Sgt. Fred Williams had started in the National Guard and had a wife and three kids. He was the original Mr. Nice Guy, Graham recalled.
"The rule of the Army is a commander never lets the men see him cry. Well, the men saw me cry that day," he said.
He did not tell Williams' wife how he died.
"I could not tell her how that wonderful man was killed. He was blown to bits, How do you tell that to a wife?"
Regardless of the man, Graham said he always found something positive to say.
"Mommy wants to know whether her little boy was a good little boy in the army," he recalled the chaplain said. "Even if there were a couple of court martials in the record, tell her he was a good soldier."
The families often wrote back "lovely letters," which he saved for a long time. They have disappeared over the years, he said.
Graham received eight medals for his service, which hang in a frame on his wall. There's a Bronze Star for being in the Battle of the Bulge and an Army Commendation medal for service under non-combat situations, which was for the secret assignment in Canada. His unit was part of experiments using steam generators to cloak troop movements so the enemy would not be able to target them. Those are the two of which he is proudest. But he waved off the others.
"They handed out medals like popcorn at a football game," he said.
After the war, he returned to his wife and two children, but they soon divorced. She wanted to be with the man she had been seeing while he was overseas, he said. He took custody of the kids.
After the divorce, he circled the public square near the courthouse 15 times, berating himself for having sinned because divorce was not accepted by the Catholic Church. But only a few days later, he called a pretty woman he had met during a business meeting. He soon married that woman, Janet Collins, with whom he had three children.
Graham worked in the insurance industry, moving to the Bay Area in 1954 and for a while to Los Angeles. His last job was as CEO and president of the nationwide subsidiary of the Insurance Company of North America.
Reflecting on Veterans' Day:
"My service meant an awful lot to me. I was proud of it, and I loved Col. Kinne. We sang every night; very little beer was consumed. They were just plain nice guys, and we worked hard."
Graham received a letter from the French Consulate General in September informing him that he is a candidate for a French Legion of Honor medal. It is an honor that he initially dismissed as "just another medal," so his son filled out the paperwork, he said. But when told that a diplomat might come to his room for a ceremony to bestow the honor, he seemed pleased.
"I've had an unbelievably good life. I have no idea why I would be that blessed, he said. I'm just another guy named Joe."