Jessica VanEgeren — 2/11/2009 10:31 am
They are known for storming the beaches of Normandy, liberating Europe, raising the flag on Iwo Jima and returning to America as heroes.
With their numbers once topping 16 million, World War II veterans now number around 2.5 million and are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates. With most of that era's remaining veterans now in their 80s and 90s, many historians agree that the living members of what has been coined "the Greatest Generation" will be gone by 2020. As relatives, county coroners and explosives experts have begun to notice, however, the legacy of some of these veterans is sometimes more than just war stories and medals.
"During this era, military guidelines weren't so strict," said Lt. Gerry Hundt, commander of the Dane County bomb squad. "Some people brought back German flags, Japanese flags or helmets. Others brought back grenades, Lugers and pistols."
Often, these items are displayed in the home. Other times, they are not discovered until the time of the veteran's death.
Around 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 2, for example, Madison police officers responded to a call to check on the welfare of a man in his 80s who was living alone in his home on Madison's east side. Upon entering the home, the officers found the man -- a gunner in the 8th Armored Division of Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army -- deceased in a living room chair. A quick scan of the room turned up more. A grenade with the pin intact was on display on top of a cabinet. While it's not illegal to own such items, it is potentially dangerous. Following protocol, the officers called the bomb squad to handle the retrieval and destruction of the grenade and the other ordnance found inside the home, including a 155-millimeter artillery shell and a bazooka shell.
It was not the first time a call to a war veteran's home has turned up some sort of wartime memorabilia. Those who are called to the scene speculate it won't be the last. If anything, discoveries have been more numerous in recent years and are expected to increase.
"It's something we are going to see a lot more of, given the age of the remaining World War II veterans," Dane County Coroner John Stanley said. "Then there's the Korean and Vietnam veterans, and the people who pass away who just collect this stuff."
The discovery of these "souvenir munitions," as they are commonly referred to, is occurring across the country.
Last summer, The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio ran a story about a woman who found an old grenade as she was sorting through her deceased father's possessions. A veteran, the man had kept it as a keepsake. The woman put the grenade in the back of her car and, after a few days, brought it to a nearby fire station.
"She really wasn't concerned about it until we evacuated the parking lot," the deputy fire chief told the newspaper. Several months later, an auction house in Newark was evacuated by the Columbus Fire Division's bomb squad when a woman brought in World War I grenades and a World War II mortar round.
In 2004, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a close call that occurred when an Illinois woman came to Wisconsin to clean out the home of her deceased uncle. One of the items she found and took with her was a Japanese grenade from World War II. Not knowing what it was, she brought it to a friend's house in Kenosha. The friend drove it to the city police. It was discovered the grenade still contained explosives.
Hundt said last week's discovery in Madison is a snapshot of what his squad has been seeing in the 26 counties it covers across the state. Hundt said he has heard from some families that when their family member returned from combat, they were told by their spouse to get rid of the items. Not wanting to part with the memories, some veterans hid the grenades and shells in places not routinely frequented by their spouses, such as outdoor work sheds or in basements.
Discoveries at the time of death run the gamut. Some of what is discovered is still live. Other times the explosive mementos have been emptied, painted and put on display. Either way, the bomb squad investigates to make sure the items are safe. Hundt said the military handles their actual disposal.
"The most common thing we are finding is grenades," Hundt said. "They are smaller than other things, and they could conceal them in their gear as they came back home."
Hundt stressed that relatives who might stumble across these items need to contact authorities, since it is often difficult to determine whether explosives are still live. Sometimes, based on the chemical filler, decomposition over time can make them more volatile.
"While it may make a nice display, without knowing if it is live or not, it is not a memento we would recommend passing on to the next generation," Hundt said.