By Catherine Ferland
Holt Journal staff reporter
In 1945 the United States celebrated its victory and the end of World War II, one of the deadliest wars in world history. Seventy years later, only 855,070 of the original 16 million American servicemen remain.
It is estimated that around 500 American World War II veterans die each day. With each passing day, the nation loses witnesses to its history.
This struck a chord with C.J. Davis, the Delhi Township supervisor, who said that he wanted to honor the remaining local veterans by documenting their stories.
“These guys are going to be gone in the next ten years,” he said. “It was hugely important that I do this.”
Seventeen veterans sat down with Davis for on-camera interviews. A lighting kit and a professional camera was set up in the corner of a multipurpose room in the Sam Corey Senior Center in Holt. The veterans sat in a stuffed chair in front of American flags. But this wasn’t a stuffy television interview. The veterans chatted with Davis as if they were telling stories in their own homes.
“These men know him and are comfortable with him,” Sandi Vestrand, a member of the Holt Community Connect team, said, smiling. “Some were reluctant, but we have some that won’t shut up.”
Davis worked with Vestrand to help honor the veterans during the summer of 2015. Davis asked Vestrand to find all of the World War II veterans in the area. Through newspaper advertisements and word-of-mouth, Vestrand was able to make a list of local veterans. The list wasn’t limited to just Holt residents. “If you’re local, you were included,” she said.
The men were invited to be parade marshals, complete with military salute, for the Holt Hometown Festival in August of 2015. They were also honored with certificates of appreciation and invited to a panel discussion where they shared their stories with the community.
But Davis decided that this wasn’t enough to honor “these little old men that saved the world.” He teamed up with the newly founded Holt-Delhi Historical Society to make a documentary of the men’s stories. The Historical Society will play the documentary in their facility and sell DVDs of the interviews.
“Everyone of them is so grateful for the attention,” Vestrand said. “No one has ever honored them like Holt has.”
But Holt resident Dale Balch wasn’t as eager to share his war story.
“I’m only doing it for my daughter,” he said. “I’m not looking for anything to glorify what I had to do. I only did what I had to do.”
He was just a 17-year-old Lansing resident when he enlisted in the Navy.
“I jumped at the chance,” he said, recalling how his strict upbringing made him eager to explore the world. He shared stories about impromptu flying and landing lessons from nervous pilots and the high level of discipline that he lived under for four years.
“You might go in a know-it-all punk kid, but it doesn’t take too long to figure out you can’t be a know-it-all punk kid,” he said. “Someone else is telling you what to do now.”
Balch laughed while telling Davis his stories about his life, but was reserved when asked about his combat stories.
“There are things that you might now believe if I told you,” he said. “I can’t even believe them.”
One of the oldest veterans honored by Holt this year was 98-year-old Holt resident Gilbert Holmes who was an officer in the Army in the Pacific theater.
“It’s a pleasure and an honor to be interviewed and I appreciate the attention given to me as a veteran,” Holmes said. “I’ve been separated since 1975 and nothing like this has ever happened before.”
It’s been 70 years since the war ended and many organizations around Michigan have honored the thousands of Michiganders who served. Those who are interested can search for local World War II veterans by their region, name or branch of service. If anyone knows of a World War II veteran that isn’t being honored, they can enter their names into the database.
Davis said that he wishes that more could be done for the veterans. “Every community in our state and in our nation should be doing the same thing,” he said.