Heavy rains lead to flood of memories in trunk
This envelope containing a letter from PFC Ken Groenke to his family is postmarked April 1, 1945, the same day he participated in the invasion of Okinawa.
Longtime Kingman teacher saved brother's WWII items
3/31/2013 6:00:00 AM
By Doug McMurdo
KINGMAN - The marine trunk was one of those ancient family possessions that nobody quite remembers what's inside, but everybody understands that whatever it is, somehow it is very important.
For about 66 years the trunk sat in cluttered attics and crowded basements and was never opened.
And then, after an act of God, it was.
The rains were heavy in Oconomowoc, Wis., last spring. They were so heavy the basement where the trunk rested flooded.
It was opened during the mop-up to look for water damage. Inside were 100 dusty, bone-dry letters Ken Groenke wrote home during World War II.
The marine trunk belonged to the Marine.
Along with the letters were Groenke's uniform, his mess kit, a captured Japanese battle flag and other wartime souvenirs.
"This was living history," said Groenke's daughter Jennifer Kasbohm, whose basement flooded and whose eyes opened wide when she realized what was inside.
"It was such an incredible discovery."
She said her uncle, retired Kingman teacher Richard Grant, deserves all the credit.
Lydia, Ken and Richard's mother, saved every letter her oldest child wrote. She would only live another year after Ken came home from the war in 1946. A brain tumor took her life in 1947, with two of her three children still minors.
Grant bought the family home in 1953 when he was 21 years old.
"I saved everything and put it in the trunk," he said. A few years later Groenke took possession of the trunk and it sat in his attic for dozens of years before he moved. Kasbohm stored the trunk in her basement for dozens more.
"The fact Richard thought to save all of Dad's war mementos when he was so young is amazing," said Kasbohm. "We're so grateful."
Saving his brothers' war memorabilia was a no-brainer for Grant.
"Ken is six years older than me," said Grant, 81, who spent 50 years in the classroom, the last seven as a full-time substitute teacher in Kingman. He retired in 2007.
"I was in grade school and junior high during the war. Ken's senior year he graduated mid-term. One week later he was in the Marines."
It was January 1943 and Groenke, said Grant, was eager to serve his country.
"He was gung-ho," said Grant. "The war was on. Everything was centered on the war."
Groenke's war took him to the 2nd Marine Division and the South Pacific - and then to Nagasaki, Japan after the city was devastated on Aug. 9, 1945 with an atomic bomb dubbed Fat Man. Three days earlier, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was laid to waste by Little Boy.
Japan surrendered Aug. 15 and not long afterwards Groenke became one of the first Marines to enter the stricken city.
"He was stepping over the bodies in Nagasaki," said Grant. "They were everywhere. People were starving and Ken and other Marines would give them their combat rations."
Five months earlier, Groenke's unit was shipboard preparing for another invasion - Okinawa.
His letter, the second of two he sent in three days, tells the story. It was dated March 31, 1945, the day before Easter.
"Dear Mom, Pop, etc.: Well, here's the other letter I promised you. We are all set for the landing, which is tomorrow, Easter. It will really be a different Easter for me this year.
"Yesterday, which was Good Friday, we had church services on the fantail, also communion. I went to both."
He wrote of rough seas and how the climate had changed since they left Saipan after another landing.
Groenke didn't have loose lips when he wrote all those letters, but his words tell a war story nonetheless.
After discovering the cache of letters, Kasbohm contacted the University of Wisconsin, which produced a documentary, "Between the Lines," said Grant.
Both Kasbohm and her father helped write and edit the film, which can be seen on YouTube. To view the documentary key in the words "Groenke," "Marine" and "Between the Lines" in the search box.
Groenke, 87, narrated the film, which gives viewers insight into what life was like for a typical WWII Marine.
Groenke didn't write a letter home before every invasion, but he saw his share of battles in some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific Theater: Iwo Jima, Taiwan, Saipan and Tarawa to name a few bloody island fights.
Through it all, Groenke was never wounded even though his job constantly left him exposed to Japanese snipers.
A wire chief who strung phone lines, Groenke "was very vulnerable," said Grant.
"The Japanese were always shooting at him. He's climbing up poles giving them a target. He was never wounded and men were dying all around him. He's led a charmed life."
Grant had a paper route and sold dime and quarter war stamps that could be redeemed in 10 years.
"Everything was rationed, you know. We had food stamps, shoe stamps, gas stamps."
He delivered extras, special editions the Racine, Wis., newspaper published when the Germans surrendered in May 1945 and the Japanese surrendered three months later. He also recalls delivering an extra when President Franklin Roosevelt died.
While Grant said he was ecstatic the war ended, Groenke's celebration was a real blowout. Between him and a handful of buddies, they consumed more than 90 bottles of beer when the news came.
"He was the oldest sibling," said Grant, chuckling when he added, "He was always Mother's favorite." Grant said he idolized his brother, who was captain of the high school football team and student body president.
"We talk all the time," said Grant. "I still think of him being 17 or 18. I can't think of him as my brother who's 87 years old."
The concept of time is a key theme to this story. Grant thinks of his elderly brother in the light of a long ago yesterday, when he was a vibrant and valiant young man willing to fight and die for his country.
Kasbohm sees her elderly father in much the same light, even though she wasn't born until the war had been over for years.
The trunk, which sat dormant for nearly seven decades, yielded a surprise just as magical as if it were a genie in a bottle.
"When I opened that trunk and started to read Dad's letters," she said, "it was like opening a time machine."