How the Veterans Breakfast Club Came to Be
Drink to the foam
Until we meet once more.
Here’s wishing you a happy voyage home.
NAVY “Anchors Aweigh” (key of C)
Veterans Day, originally called as “Armistice Day,” had been a national holiday for 22 years by the time that I was born; the fifth son of a family of nine and the child of a World War II veteran. Veterans Day occurs on November 11 every year in the United States in honor of the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 that signaled the end of World War I, known as Armistice Day.
In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans—living or dead—but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.
It would take me another 24 years before the day — November 11 — would mean enough to me to stir me into action. Sometime near the week of Veterans Day 1984, I began sending a card and a short note to my father – William D. Cavanaugh Jr. “Thank you Dad for all that you did,” the card would say. I didn’t involve my eight brothers and sisters. I did not plan ahead. But when Veterans Day came around, sending the card became important to me.
At times, I wondered if surviving war extracted a greater price on the living than the ultimate sacrifice paid by those who died. I bounced that idea off my father one year. He would have none of it. He did his job, he said, served his duty… but he remained the lucky one. Lucky to come home.
Sir Laurence Olivier
Why then wouldn’t my dad talk about his time in Europe during World War II as a member of the US Army? What memory or unresolved struggle could he be carrying? Did anything about his combat experience linger?
Without my dad’s story or voice, we were left with the sound of British actor Laurence Olivier narrating the Emmy award-winning documentary The World at War. My father sat mostly silent through all 26 episodes. From Season 1, Episode 1 “New Germany” which first aired on October 23, 1973 through Stalingrad, North Africa, the Pacific, and finally ending on May 8, 1974 with Episode 26 “Remember.”
The US population in 1945 was 140 million. Of those, roughly 11 percent — 16 million Americans like my dad — served in World War II. What did William Cavanaugh or any of his fellow veterans remember or want to forget?
I kept sending my dad Veterans Day cards. Years went by. In my early 40’s I decided to ask my dad if I could interview him and record it for the family history. Time had given me some perspective and I approached my dad and the question with much more reverence as an adult.
I was afraid he would say no. My mother encouraged me. “Ask,” she said. “You never know.”
So, I asked. Maybe he sensed my genuine interest. Maybe sufficient time had passed. Anyway, he agreed.
Proud of all we have done,
Fighting till the battle’s won
And the Army Goes Rolling Along
ARMY The Caisson Song (key of Eb)
We went to a restaurant. He ordered his usual bacon and eggs. After a moment, I placed a tape recorder with a built-in microphone in the middle of the table. He talked for two hours. I heard every word. I was amazed at the highlights he remembered. When I replayed the tape, all I could hear was silverware clatter. My dad’s soft-spoken voice, so long in the waiting, could not be heard. Undeterred, I went to the local Radio Shack and purchased a $30-dollar lavaliere microphone.
I asked again. He readily agreed.
La Havre France
My dad entered World War II near its conclusion. His battalion landed in La Havre France, the strategic port city Normandy (northwestern France) — on the shore of the English Channel, at the mouth of the Seine. Paris had been liberated since August and D Day took place on the beaches of Normandy a few kilometers away on the other side of the Seine.
Le Havre’s liberation would come at a high price. Here, one of the most intense bombing campaigns of the war — a 12-day siege in September 1944 — drove the German troops out. Five minutes before landing in Normandy, and walking into the streets of Le Havre, my dad had known the war mostly as a series of newsreel images — sanitized and generally upbeat.
Now he and his fellow Army regular soldiers stood in the stench and rubble of a far different reality. To this day, La Havre is referred to as a “martyr city”: out of 160 000 inhabitants, 5,000 were killed and 80,000 rendered homeless; 12,500 buildings in the city center were destroyed.
My dad searched hard for scattered details of a conflict that had faded into time and his own receding recall. Sixty years had passed. Le Havre came and went quickly as he pursued the German army. But one moment held clear and strong in his memory.
You want to be part of history?
My dad would mention these three lines again and again. His captain asked: “You want to be part of history? Walk through these concentration camp barracks and it’s something you’ll tell your kids.’ My dad said, “So, we started walking.” Dad spoke in fragments and code at first. “The smell was horrific,” he recalled. “It made you sick… the kind of odor that sinks right into you.” For almost three years, my dad ended the story there. On Easter 2001, my dad finally opened up.
Easter meant seven of my eight brothers and sisters, their spouses and 10 children gathered around a table set at a Medina, Ohio hotel party room. Easter was the high point of the year for my father — not the time nor place that I thought my father would open the final door to his World War II memories. But he did. In great detail. He realized that his time was drawing to a close. He wanted all of his story to be known.
The Bone Grinder
After Easter dinner, we sat down with a microphone and I learned why my father had been silent for so many years. He began talking about Austria.
The Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp complex consisted of the Mauthausen concentration camp on a hill above the market town of Mauthausen (12 miles) east of Linz, Austria) plus a group of nearly 100 further subcamps located throughout Austria and southern Germany. It was known as “The Bone Grinder.”
The three Gusen concentration camps in and around the village of St Georgen/Gusen, just a few kilometers from Mauthausen, held a significant proportion of prisoners within the camp complex, at times exceeding the number of prisoners at the Mauthausen main camp.
The Mauthausen main camp operated from the time of the Anschluss, when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in August 1938, to May 1945, at the end of the Second World War. That’s when William Cavanaugh’s captain asked. “You want to be part of history,”
One hundred feet long. Twenty feet deep.
My dad’s memory found detail when talking about the camps. “I think it was one of the first concentration camps built by the Nazis. It was in Linz, Austria. We were one of the first GI’s to go into the barracks at this camp. I was up front in a platoon of 30. We started walking through the barracks. The door to the barracks was like a sliding door on the railroad car – it opened by sliding it to one side. When we opened the door and started through man the smell of dead bodies was terrible. You started to run and hold your breath trying not to take another deep breath unless you absolutely needed to. You rushed through as fast as you could. They were about 100 ft long and you couldn’t wait to get through to the other end.”
We were some of the first American Soldiers to go through those barracks. We were also one of the first American groups to go into gas houses. They had the prisoners take their clothes off and would put them in railroad cars and close the doors. They were sealed in and all of their exists were shut off. They had a slightly slanted railroad tracks directing these railroad cars with people jammed into take them into gas chamber. These big doors opened up and they drove the cars in. They forced some people to walk into the chamber and then gassed all of them.”
History would never fully account for the camp horror. Starting with the camp at Mauthausen, the number of subcamps expanded over time and by the summer of 1940 Mauthausen and its subcamps had become one of the largest labor camp complexes in the German-controlled part of Europe. As at other Nazi concentration camps, the inmates at Mauthausen and its subcamps worked as slave labor, under conditions that caused many deaths. Mauthausen and its subcamps included quarries, munitions factories, mines, arms factories and aircraft assembly plants.
In January 1945, the camps contained roughly 85,000 inmates. The death toll remains unknown, although most sources place it between 122,766 and 320,000 for the entire complex. Mauthausen was mostly used for extermination through labor of the intelligentsia – educated people and members of the higher social classes in countries occupied by the Nazi regime. My dad recalled details of the genocide. “They would then back out of the barn like door like it was regular freight train depot, drove the car to a ditch just kept throwing them (dead bodies) in the ditch.”
“There was probably 300-400 ft of track and several tracks. The ditches were about 80-100ft long and about half as wide. They would have 300-500 people in it, it was a deep ditch, about 20 feet deep loaded with naked bodies. Then they would cover them with dirt from a bulldozer. And it started all over again — like a machine. Bad bad order that made you sick. The Odor sinks right into you. The odor was horrific.
“I will always remember that — the stink was so bad.”
Rage of War
My father insisted that he was not and did not want to be portrayed as a hero. He was doing his job. He remembered one more detail from Austria. “Our Captain was furious at the German citizen’s,” he said. “They lived less than 200 yards from the camps and yet claimed they knew nothing of them. He yelled at them – ‘You can’t tell me you damn liar that you can’t smell this – you better tell me the truth or I’ll shoot you anyway.’ The Captain was tough on them but I don’t blame him. They still insisted they didn’t smell anything. The Captain didn’t believe them. I think they were afraid for their lives.”
Stuffed peppers night
I completed my father’s story. He died shortly after — on May 31, 2004. Fast forward to September 7, 2006. It’s Tuesday night … stuffed peppers night at Armstrong’s Restaurant near our house. Almost every Tuesday my wife, son and I go for stuffed peppers. On this particular Tuesday a poster in the window of Armstrong’s caught my attention.
Someone was sponsoring a bus trip taking World War II veterans to the newly opened monument in Washington D.C. I wrote the number down. Something inside stirred. My father and his story came to mind. Might other veterans have similar stories? Do they have an outlet to share their story? I had to find out.
I put the folded piece of paper with the organizer’s phone number in my car cup holder. And there it stayed for two weeks. I thought about it every day. I looked at it every day. Finally, I made the call.
I’ve been looking for someone
“Hello, my name is Dan Cavanaugh. I’m calling about the World War II bus trips.” The trip’s originator, Jim Hilts, waited for more. “Could I volunteer in any way,” I asked. “No, I think we got all the volunteers we need,” Jim replied.
I could feel disappointment beginning to paralyze me, but I persisted. “I can carry supplies, push the guys in wheelchairs, help load or unload the bus?” Jim held his ground: “I have to limit the number of volunteers. Seats are limited. We are trying to get as many veterans to Washington as we can.”
Desperate, I finally I spoke my truth. “What I really want to do is come aboard and record the history of the veterans’ the energy in my voice raising. I love to sit with these guys and listen to their stories. I did it with my Dad.” I paused and waited. Silence.
Jim’s tone changed. “I’ve been looking for someone to do that. Someone to record both audio and video. We agreed to meet. I officially become the bus historian.
I am six foot, eight inches tall. It’s never difficult to find me. Especially not on a 46-seat bus with seven-foot ceilings. I carried a scuffed orange five-gallon Home Depot bucket onto the bus, along with my tape recorder. I would sit on my bucket and go up and down the aisle and listen to the veterans. Four hours down to Washington DC. Four hours back.
Some veterans remained reluctant to speak. But as they overheard other Veterans tell their story, they softened. As I slid my bucket up the aisle of the bus a second time, they would tap me on the shoulder. “You know… I might have a store you would be interested in hearing.”
“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them…. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.” – Barry Lopez
After several bus trips —six or seven — my phone started ringing. I would get calls from veterans who wanted to go on the bus trip again. The bus trips were being funded by donations, which limited the seats to first time attendees so I had to tell them no. The limitation upset me.
One day, it occurred to me that the veterans wanted more — more than another bus trip. They wanted to spend time with their friends who knew their experiences. Like my father they hadn’t talked about the war for 50 years and now they saw an opportunity.
I had just completed training from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland which had a distinct way of leading groups. Instead of a person standing in front of the group leading it you basically let the group lead itself. You trust that the stories that need to be told will emerge and one story will trigger another story and will trigger another story. In Gestalt, they call this emergent design. So, the Veterans Breakfast concept was birthed. We would gather veterans together, with the only format being no format but allowing them to tell stories that they needed to tell and see where it went. And it worked. One story after another story flowed during the breakfasts. I started each breakfast by telling the Veterans there is no place I would rather be then here with them. And it was tru. I always left the breakfast feeling upbeat and inspired by these wonderful men and women.
Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder
The U.S. Air Force (key of Eb)
God Bless America
I sent out the first Veterans Breakfast invitation to my entire list of veterans in 2007 and we had 32 people attend. It was very informal. A lot of stories were told. At the end of the breakfast, a man by the name of Pagger stood up and said he would like to sing. My initial reaction was fear. What might happen next? I wasn’t sure what Pagger was going to do, but I trusted the energy of the room and my training and welcomed him to come forward. Pagger came to the front of the room and we asked if any other veterans would like to sing and five other veterans came up to the front of the room.
Pagger led the room through all of the fight songs of the arm services and then we closed the morning with God bless America. Every breakfast that followed started with the Star-Spangled Banner and closed with God Bless America thanks to Pagger.
At a November 2008 breakfast, George Herwig mentioned that he told his friends he spends his Tuesday mornings at a gathering he calls the Veteran’s Breakfast Club. George had captured the spirit of the community. And from that day forward we became the Veteran’s Breakfast Club.
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean
THE MARINES’ HYMN (key of F)
You know why he does this right?
Norman Waldman, a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne, stopped me while I was greeting the tables one morning. Norman turned to the table of men and women pointing to me and says “You know why he does this, right?” Norman continued. “He’s doing it for his Dad. He’s honouring his dad. He’s honouring all of us.”
I smiled at Norman. He looked me right in the eye: “He would be very proud of you.” That memory provides my greatest reward. I loved working with the Veterans and loved them all like a father. It was truly an honor and one of the highlights of my life to share healing stories at breakfast with them.
We may well have been the first Veterans Breakfast Club of its kind in the nation.
In 2010, Dr. Bernard R. Queneau, USNR, nominated me for the Jefferson Award for Public Service. I was also presented the Freedom Team Award in 2007 for my volunteer work with the WWII Bus Trips. But nothing was more gratifying than speaking with these men and women that I grew to love. Many invited me into their homes for coffee and a conversation. And I listened intently as their shared with me their story, as my father had done before them.
In 2017, a newspaper article honored the origin of this community with a feature story. “South Fayette man helps share veterans’ stories” read the headline. The story continued: “The mission of the Veterans Breakfast Club is to create communities to gather veterans’ stories to ensure this living history is never forgotten, and people can be educated and inspired.”
As of Fall, 2019 the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Lawrence Brooks is now thought to be the oldest surviving World War 2 veteran at 109 years old, but the final days of World War II vet.
In less than five years, even the oldest World War II veteran will be gone. It’s been a great honor to have started the Veteran’s Breakfast Club and play a small part in recognizing their sacrifice and preserving their legacies. For every child who had a parent, relative or friend in WWII – I hope that revisiting their stories offers as much solace and healing as it did for me.