Unintended HeroOct 31, 2022 04:04PM ● By Will Sanborn
Will America ever have another “Greatest Generation”?
Or to put it another way, what would motivate a skinny 17-year-old high school junior to hide weights in his closed hands just so he could pass the physical to join the Navy and fight in World War II?
Colorado author Becky Van Vleet explores that question in her new book, “Unintended Hero.” Van Vleet has published several award-winning children's books, but this time, she felt compelled to write a different kind of story.
To Van Vleet, patriotism is “our love for America, where we can put aside our differences when we’re called upon to support our country. It’s a spirit of sacrifice and doing whatever it takes.”
She knew just the hero to represent that spirit: her father, Walter Troyan.
As with many war vets, Troyan wasn’t one to talk much about his experiences. But about 30 years ago, when the family was living in Muncie, Indiana, Van Vleet asked him to record reminiscences about his life, including his service as a sailor on the USS Denver.
Her immediate motivation was to help her own daughters gain an understanding and appreciation for their grandfather and for their country.
The years went by and the cassette recordings of her father’s memories were still on the back burner. Maybe it was 9/11 or the several wars the U.S. was involved with, but in recent years her father’s story begged to be written.
“My biggest hope is that readers will gain a sense of the sacrifice, teamwork and patriotism that generation had to fight for, for their country,” she said.
Troyan served on active duty in the Pacific Theater from 1942 to 1946. After the war, he went into the Naval Reserve before returning to active duty again during the Korean War.
One of his memories involved the Navy’s traditional ceremony called the Order of Neptune, where a new sailor moves from being a Pollywog to a Shellback after crossing the equator for the first time—a big step forward for young Troyan.
SHAPING THE STORY
Van Vleet did intensive research to understand and flesh out her dad’s recollections. She gained a feel for how sailors live and function aboard a ship when she toured the USS Midway in San Diego.
“I was able to walk on Preble Field where my dad had marching practice,” she recalled. “I saw the canal where my dad and his fellow sailors had rowing practices.”
She went to the Buffalo, New York Naval Park and toured the USS Little Rock, a cruiser that was active during the war like the USS Denver. She got to see much of life on board the ship—the racks in the sleeping quarters, the eating areas, the guns, the sick bay and the engine room. It gave her invaluable material to add detailed realism in her book.
A unique privilege came on a trip to Danbury, Connecticut.
“I met with Lawrence Craig, a coxswain on my dad’s ship in World War II, and the last living USS Denver sailor. He was 101 years old. Sadly, he passed away a few weeks after I met him,” she said. “What an honor it was to talk with him and to thank him in person for his sacrifice and service to our country!”
Of course, there was more to Troyan’s life than just his stint on the USS Denver.
When the ship was torpedoed (a drama that Van Vleet describes in compelling detail), the ship sailed to Hawaii and then on to San Francisco for repairs before re-entering the war.
It was there that her dad met a young girl on a blind date whose own patriotism led her to leave her home in Indiana to work at a war factory in California. They began writing back and forth.
Just 11 days after leaving the Navy in 1945, Walter married that girl—Van Vleet’s mother, Alberta.
THE GREATEST GENERATION
Van Vleet believes at least some of the impressive patriotism that motivated her dad and so many others to serve their country came from the era in which they had come of age.
“Young men dropped out of school, they forged birth certificates, they did whatever was needed to serve,” said Van Vleet. “I think that growing up during the Depression taught them so much of what it meant to sacrifice and to appreciate what they had in this country.”
It was Tom Brokaw who popularized the term “The Greatest Generation” with his best-selling book of that name in 1998.
“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” Brokaw said of those who lived through the Great Depression and the many who fought in World War II.
He described those Americans as men and women who fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.
With her very personal connection to that generation, Van Vleet defines her dad and those who served with him as “patriotic, not self-serving, sacrificial, having the spirit of doing whatever it takes, showing a superb work ethic.”
Will there be another Greatest Generation? We can only hope so.
Read this other story on a local veteran.
The skies finally called Grand Junction resident and 96-year-old Air Force veteran Jim Barnhill home. Read More »