On Thanksgiving Day in 1944, Dick Graff opened his Army-issue mess kit and took comfort in his turkey and mashed potatoes, a welcome respite from the brutal battlefront near Weisweiler, Germany.
As a soldier with the 104th Infantry Division, the 20-year-old who grew up on a hog and cattle farm in Iowa was grateful for the hot meal a world away. Things had changed in the few weeks since he had narrowly survived his first combat experience.
The night mission had called for Graff and the other U.S. troops in his unit to maneuver through a forest, and as they moved, German artillery shells began to quake the earth around him. The bombardment seemed endless. The Army had trained him how to fight and how to shoot machine guns, but the terror of facing enemy fire was like nothing he could have imagined.
“I was not sure I was going to live until morning,” Graff said in an interview this week at his home in Ashburn, Va. “I prayed to God for one more sunrise.”
He saw another dawn on that distant November day. Just as he has for almost 26,000 mornings since.
Graff lived through six and a half months of combat in Europe, married his Iowa State University sweetheart, raised a family and had a fulfilling career as an engineer in the Washington region.
Now 91, Graff is a remnant of the dwindling “Greatest Generation” of World War II veterans who rolled back tyranny in Europe, liberated Nazi concentration camps and came home to ticker tape parades thrown by a grateful nation. Since the end of the war, Graff has found purpose sharing his vivid recollections to thousands of school children during classroom visits in Fairfax and Loudoun counties and talking about war and the meaning of being thankful.
“Maybe that’s why the good Lord has seen fit to give me so many more sunrises — to keep talking to the kids,” Graff said.
Graff brings messages of both war and peace to the students he meets; he says he understands why his war was so important, but also wants to convey how devastating war can be. It’s a truth that spans generations, one that is relevant now as conflicts rage worldwide even if their nature has changed.
“I remain as patriotic and committed to our country today as I was then, but I also have no illusions about the glory of war,” Graff wrote in his diary earlier this year. “I can only hope and pray for peace and a time when no young people must face the horrors of war, wherever it may be.”
The only son of German immigrants, Richard Stanley Graff was born Aug. 18, 1924, on his family’s 80 acre farm in Popejoy, Iowa, where his mother raised chickens and milked cows and his father tended to pigs, planted apple trees and fashioned his own hard cider with a hand press.
“They knew how to work hard, and that’s about it,” Graff said. He was five when his father died of a brain tumor at age 57 and was raised mostly by his six older sisters. After he graduated high school, he became an FBI teletype operator in Washington under J. Edgar Hoover.
Graff was drafted into the Army in March 1943. Though more than seven decades have passed, Graff’s memories of his wartime service shine bright in his mind. He recalls his serial number from memory: 37671844. Graff said that he forged quick bonds with his fellow soldiers.
“We could agree on one thing: we all drank beer,” Graff said.
On landing in Europe, his unit began marching to Germany, where Graff, only one generation removed from the enemy, still had relatives. In war, Graff fast learned that danger lurked only steps away; his squad lost four men during one crucial river crossing.
Retelling the story, Graff shifts in his seat, his brown leather shoes squeak beneath the table and his face — age chiseled into his cheeks, his bushy brows furrowed — becomes solemn.
“I want to stress that a combat death is not a statistic,” Graff said, noting that he’ll never forget the names of Anthony Ferrante, Parker Farrington, Jimmie Frommelt and Jack Sturm. Graff later found Frommelt’s body in an assault boat drawn up on the shore.
“And there in the front was Jimmie, his rifle in his hand in firing position. There was no blood, just that hole in this side and out that side,” Graff said, pointing a fingertip to his forehead. “In my own way, I said a little prayer for Jimmy. And I took his .45 out of his holster and carried it the rest of the war.”
The grim realities of war became part of daily life. He closes his eyes as he talks about his Thanksgiving dinner in 1944. As he ate the hot meal, Graff hunted for the hood of a jeep to lean against as a makeshift table; he found a three-quarter ton Dodge truck loaded with the barefoot remains of American troops killed on the front lines.
“I’m shocked. How can I continue chewing?” Graff said. “I’m not sure that once it gets in your mind if it’s ever gone.”
But, Graff said, he soon realized that in order to finish his mission, to survive and to return home, he’d have to get by the death and the darkness.
“In your lifetime, you’re going to run into things that are very difficult,” he said.
Graff did get by that day, but he never forgot the men he left behind. His life has been filled with joy — 66 years with his wife, Jean, four children, 11 grandchildren — but sorrow as well, including the death of a son in 2005.
Yet it was war that taught Graff to be thankful for what is given before it is taken away.
“Make the most of every sunrise you get,” Graff said.