Tribune Print Share Text

For the latest generation, from the greatest generation

Ashby Ponds resident brings history alive for middle-schoolers

Created date

April 24th, 2012

Drafted into the Army in 1944, Dick Graff became a member of the 104th Infantry Division, also known as the Timberwolves. He spent 195 days in continuous combat as the formidable Timberwolves fought their way through Belgium and western Germany. Now Dick shares his stories and the lessons of World War II with four local schools.

A dream comes true

In 2011, Pam Martello, a history teacher from J.L. Simpson Middle School in Leesburg, Va., asked Dick to share his story with her students. It s something I always thought about doing, says Dick, who lives atAshby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. Over the last few years I ve written a half dozen stories about my wartime experiences for my children and grandchildren, he continues. I shared these with Pam, explaining to her that a private s view of combat has no glory but many exposures to pain and death. Dick also emailed a friend who had a grandson in middle school to find out, firsthand, what questions were on students minds. Ultimately, Dick decided to address the sights and sounds of war while driving home the point that World War II was fought and won very differently from wars today. He spoke to six history classes on his visit to J.L. Simpson and left a lasting impression. The teacher joked that her students are never that quiet for her, says Dick, who returns to the school this spring when students begin their study of World War II. Word of Dick s innate ability to bring history alive has spread like wildfire. Other local schools asked him to share his stories.

Reality of war

Dick s honesty is what makes his lessons so popular. By addressing the sights and sounds of the battlefield, he helps to create a sense of reality that words in a textbook could never achieve. He candidly speaks of his first experience with incoming artillery and the impact it had on his life. Honestly, I was scared, he says. I was certain I d never see daylight again. So I prayed. Not to get old or even for the end of the war, but just to get one more day. Thus far I have received 24,569 more days, but my first prayer, every day, even this morning, was to thank God for each day of my life. I tell this to the students straight up, and I remind them that every day is precious, and I hope that each of them has at least 24,000 more days ahead of them, he adds. They should appreciate every single day as a gift. Wars are not glamorous. Wars are about death.

Modern day comparison

Dick also explains the difference between the way wars are fought today in comparison to his experiences in World War II. What s been going on in recent years, for example, in Afghanistan, is worse than what we faced in several ways, he says. We had a uniform different from our enemy. There was normally a front line with us on one side and them on the other. And the biggest difference between World War II and all wars that have come since then is that when we went across Germany and reached the Elbe River and captured all the German land, the war was over. Not anywhere since then have we had that kind of closure.

Lasting lessons

On May 8, 1945, V-E Day, the war in Europe came to an end. Dick shares with the students a photo taken of him on that historic day. He and his squadron spent the previous two weeks in a small German town tasked with protecting a bakery. It s not a bad service, Dick says. No one is shooting at you and the bakery gave us a loaf of that good dark German bread every day. The 2nd squadron was on another street guarding a bank. And that s really the way it s supposed to work out. The U.S. got no land, no bounty, no reward. What we really hoped for was for the German people to enjoy continuity of lifestyle. Dick and his wife Jean visited the bakery in 2008. The fact that this bakery was still operating in 2008 means that we were successful in our efforts, he says.

Power of the truth

By sharing not only the realities of war but also the hope that grew from America s victory, Dick inspires the students to contemplate his words and ask questions. The kids listen so intently, he says. They are rapt. When they start asking meaningful questions, you know you got to them. I give them the most straight-up answers I possibly can. They are very involved and very receptive. Sharing my experiences in this way is very rewarding.