Local Military News

Separate journeys, one war

With time slipping away, two World War II veterans in their 90s fly to Washington to tour the memorials. Shepherding relatives with ever-busy cameras produce a keepsake DVD.

It happens every day. What's unusual about the tale of Frederick Drew and Holly Easter is the perspective in black and white.

Drew, 94, of Centreville, Ill., took the trip in 2009 with his daughter's father-in-law, Holly Easter, 92, of Charleston, Ill., and several younger relatives. Drew is black, Easter is white. Back home, family members produced a home video with enough depth and polish to be shown at January's San Diego Black Film Festival.

The documentary was "quite professional, I thought," Drew said. "It's amazing what these young people can do with their electronic stuff."

During the war, Drew joined the segregated Army Air Forces, became a machinist instructor and was with a maintenance unit in the Philippines when the war ended. Easter entered the segregated Marines, became a gunner on a Sherman tank and was wounded on Okinawa.

"Here are two guys who did their part, and yet we also have a larger story in addressing our nation's issues of race," said Les Easter of Chicago, son of Holly Easter and son-in-law of Fred Drew. "This evolution has been good for America. What our family can do is put it all in one bottle."

Les Easter, 61, grew up in Charleston, Ill., and attended Eastern Illinois University there. That's where he met Valerie Drew of Centreville, a 1967 graduate of the former St. Teresa Academy in East St. Louis. They were married in 1975. Holly Easter and Fred Drew share two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Les Easter said neither veteran spoke much about the war over the years. Drew retired from General Cable. Holly Easter sold Fords for almost five decades. The family finally managed to put together the trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington in June 2009.

Les Easter and other relatives took photographs and video as they toured the memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial, and attended Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They visited with U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in the Capitol. The trip lasted four days.

Les Easter worked with a video-savvy nephew, Shawn Easter, to make a commemorative DVD and book. They pulled film and photos from the Library of Congress, blending them with footage of the visit and interviews with the two vets. Deciding they had something better than a family keepsake, Les Easter sent it to film festivals.

The San Diego festival accepted it as a documentary. The 33-minute work is called simply, "Our World War II Fathers."

In it, Fred Drew and Holly Easter describe their war. Drew was working at Emerson Electric in St. Louis when he joined the Army. He was sent to Tampa, Fla., to teach machine-shop skills in an all-black training unit.

From a distance of almost 70 years, he speaks calmly about Jim Crow segregation. One incident that rankles him still was a white railroad conductor's refusal to turn on the heat in a train car that also carried little children. Drew said he and several other fellow black sergeants turned it up anyway, and the conductor summoned MPs from a white-only car.

When the Army said his unit was headed for the Pacific, he said, "I was a little scared, I guess, but with some of my experiences in the South, I was glad to go overseas."

Holly Easter, formerly a bulldozer operator with the Civilian Conservation Corps, was a warehouseman when he joined the Marines.

He fought on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa, where his Sherman tank was struck by an artillery round "that blew open a hole the size of a piano." Two of the five crewmen died. Easter, wounded in both arms, ended the battle on a hospital ship.

Holly Easter does not discuss race in the documentary. Les Easter said he let his father talk, and military segregation didn't come up.

"It was just part of the deal," the son said of the 1940s.

One of the documentary's many touching moments is of Easter returning to Chicago's Midway Airport, where his son arranged with the USO office for a welcoming guard. Easter walks slowly through a crisp line of saluting sailors 70 years his junior.

"I don't have that Marine Corps walk anymore," Easter tells them.