Arnold Whitaker’s story meanders along a circuitous path while his feet stand firmly on the auditorium floor. He addresses the 10th grade students who have stayed after school today and who will send him handwritten thank you notes tomorrow. For many of these teenagers, this is their first opportunity to meet a World War II veteran and they listen attentively. He tells them, “Every 89 seconds a World War II veteran dies.” He is there to help them see what he has seen; to authenticate the history that he has lived and that they have only read in text books.
With the help of Microsoft PowerPoint, Whitaker recounts events of the war. Click: The Battle of the Bulge. Click: Crossing the Rhine. Click: Landing at Normandy. He interrupts his narrative to remind his listeners that he was only 19 years old when he arrived in Europe, an infantryman. He describes having endured physical suffering: marching for miles while wearing hundreds of pounds of equipment and digging foxholes for hours in punishing cold weather. Click: Men jumping out of airplanes. Click: Men hanging by their parachutes in trees. Click: Men drowning off the shores at Normandy. “They didn’t make me a platoon sergeant because I was special,” he insists, but because he was the last one standing.
His slides show newspaper headlines and cartoons alongside photos of concentration camp victims and Eisenhower’s prayer for the troops before D-Day. He shares a list of daily rations and recalls his constant hunger, explaining that the soldiers burned far more calories than they consumed. Looking up at the slide he adds, “We saved the chewing gum and gave it to the children in the towns we liberated.”
Click: A drawing of soldiers enjoying a victory ride in the back of a jeep with a found gallon of cognac. Click: A photo of a fallen comrade left lying in the snow, his bayonet standing at attention to mark his location, “so that the quartermaster might find him after the storm and give him a proper burial.” The students know– because their teacher has mentioned it– that Whitaker is the recipient of several medals for honor and bravery. “They don’t give you medals because you’re brave,” he states emphatically. “You just do what needs to be done to survive. You save the fella next to you one day, and another day he saves you.”
Early in his presentation Whitaker holds up a worn copy of his Bible, issued to him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and tells the students that is was recently returned home by his grandson who was serving in Iraq. But it isn’t until much later, near the end of his time with the students, that Whitaker draws a linear connection between his cold days in those foxholes and this warm afternoon in a high school auditorium. He holds up another book, one that he has written about his experiences in the war. “My son is a pastor and he tells me that you’re not supposed to negotiate with God, but I did,” he admits. “I promised God that if he let me live I would do all sorts of things, including tell this story so that people would know what really happened. And that’s what I’ve been doing– fulfilling that promise– for 66 years.”
May God grant Arnold Whitaker the strength to continue to bear witness for many years to come.