Forgotten journey

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Imogene Woods was looking for information about her father, abruptly taken away from her 59 years ago by enemy gunfire in World War II.

The Springfield woman sought military records, contacted relatives and wrote letters to infantrymen who had served in Company K, 141st Regiment, 36th Infantry Division in hopes of uncovering details of the man whose memory had been erased by time.

Her plan to write the biography of Pvt. Ival H. Altis as a legacy for her two children remained unfinished after five years.

But because of her search, 12 other soldiers dredged up old war memories. It's their stories that became the primary focus of her book, "The Ordinary Infantrymen: Heroes Then, Heroes Again."

"I am satisfied with the answers I got about my father," Woods said. "But I am glad that I was able to help the men get their feelings, thoughts and actions down so their children will know."

Woods was 7 in October 1944, when her mother received a telegram from the War Department that Altis had been killed in action in France.

Like Woods, an estimated 183,000 American children were left fatherless by the war, said Patricia Gaffney Kindig, board president of American WWII Orphans Network.

'Wall of Silence'

"Very often we grew up knowing not to ask questions because it made our mothers uncomfortable, and that created the 'Wall of Silence' that you hear people refer to when talking about the war," she said.

Countless families are now working to recover war records and other details of World War II soldiers, Gaffney Kindig said. AWON, formed as a support group, has helped many of them to locate military records.

The only evidence of Woods' father's 30 years of life were held in an Army songbook, a woven basket that he had made in school and a handful of letters written from undetermined locations, such as "Somewhere at Sea," and "Somewhere in Italy."

Woods found scant details in government records. She finally concentrated on finding the men of Company K. She sent out some 20 letters.

Fifteen wrote back, only two offered faint recollections of crossing paths with someone vaguely matching her father's description.

Buried memories

As Woods read their letters, she was amazed by the detail they contained. Some men shared personal experiences, while others shared general information about the war.

"What really touched me was that nearly all of them told me they had buried their memories of the war after they returned, and yet they struggled to offer any bit of information that might help me," she said.

Woods realized her book would tell a different story. She still included what was gleaned about her father. But she tied it to the experiences of 12 of the infantrymen.

They are: Leo Bourgeois of Peru, N.Y.; George Brunner of Toms River, N.J.; John Goode of Hanover, N.H.; Robert Hance of Los Angeles; Walter Howard of New Florence, Pa.; Donald Howell of Gonzales, Texas; Perley Neubauer of Sacramento, Calif.; Clement Petras of Gonzales County, Texas; Michael Stubinsky of Gilbertsville, Pa.; and Bill Sunier of Rosman, N.C..

Two of the men -- Henry L. Ford of Hickory, N.C, and Manuel Avil of Malvern, Pa. -- died before the book was published in August.

Woods had 500 books printed. She sent each of the men -- as well as the families of Ford and Avil -- copies of the book. She hopes it will help their wives and children better understand the long silence when asked about their military days.

Richard Sunier recalled trying to coax his father into telling war stories.

"Later, in my adult years, I wanted to understand what it was like when he was actually fighting or moving from one location to another," he said.

It wasn't until his father started on Woods' book that he got details.

The elder Sunier, now 80, agreed that he generally only gave brief replies to war questions.

"I didn't want to bring it up," he said. "I was raising a family. It just didn't seem appropriate."

While Woods had the book's accuracy checked, she acknowledged that it was meant as an accounting of the men's memories rather than a historical record.

Meanwhile, Woods said she likely would pursue leads about her father that might result from the book. She was not expecting any.

"I've got enough information that I am satisfied," she said. "I could leave it if need be."

Editors: Copies of the book are $23, including shipping and handling, available by writing: Imogene Woods, 1167 W. Shawnee, Springfield, MO 65810.

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