With Veterans Day right around the corner, many of us are thinking of the men and women who serve in the military and the families that support them. Their courage, dedication and willingness to sacrifice have helped secure the freedom and safety of those of us here in the United States and those in numerous nations around the globe.
There are many ways to serve our country apart from being an active duty soldier. For example, we often hear about the Rosie the Riveters who worked in the factories during World War II to provide munitions and other supplies for the soldiers fighting overseas. What tends to be lesser known is that during this same time period, there were a number of able-bodied men who enlisted but were never called up because the government had a different assignment for them. My grandfather was one of these men.
The year was 1943. World War II was raging, with the U.S. having been involved since December 8, 1941, the day after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Grandpa and his twin brother were in their senior year of high school in Seneca Falls, N.Y. They lived in the neighboring town of Tyre, having moved there at age 13 with their parents and younger sister to live on the family farm.
Like many other young men at the time, Grandpa and his twin were eager to enlist in the armed forces and do their part. Their father (nicknamed “Raging Reg” in his college sports days) had served in the Army in World War I, fighting in France and Germany. Having grown up sailing on the Finger Lakes, Grandpa and his twin hoped to join the Navy and put their love of boating to use for their country.
They went with a group of their friends to enlist and returned to their daily lives of school and farm chores, waiting for their assignments. By the summer of 1943, everyone had been called into service – except Grandpa and his brother.
At that time, they had completely taken over running the family farm, which happened more out of necessity than intention. The reason they had moved back to the farm in the first place was because their grandfather, Ulysses Lincoln Grant Seekell (guess which war he was born after?), had taken a nasty fall off a load of hay and was no longer able to keep the farm going on his own. Their father and mother both worked, so the boys stepped up to help their grandfather. He was eventually completely unable to work and soon passed away, leaving Grandpa and his twin no choice but to take charge of the farm.
With so much responsibility now on their plates, Grandpa and his twin didn’t have much time to wonder why they hadn’t been called up. In the fall of 1943, however, after the crops were harvested and the haying was done, they made an appointment to see Izzy Hershberger, the chairman of the draft board in the neighboring town of Waterloo, and find out what was going on.
As Grandpa tells it, Izzy took one look at them and told them there was no way they were going into the military. “Boys, you are drafted on the farm,” he said. “We have to have somebody working that land out there.”
This wasn’t exactly what they’d been hoping to hear. Instead of setting sail for adventure like their friends, they’d be growing corn and soybeans and getting up at dawn to milk the cows. Izzy’s decree made it official.
This was the reality for many farmers during the latter years of World War II. With so many men having been drafted to fight overseas, there weren’t enough back home to work the fields and raise the crops needed to feed the country and provide rations for the soldiers. As a result, men who were actively engaged in farming had their military service deferred and were drafted on the farm instead.
Grandpa and his twin farmed together through the war’s end and into the 1950s, when his twin relocated to take a job in sales. Grandpa (and Grandma, who he married in 1946) raised three children on the farm, including my mother, and continued to work the land until they sold the property in the mid 1990s.
His tale reminds me a bit of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which Jimmy Stewart’s character sets aside his dream of leaving the small town he grew up in and traveling the world to take over his family’s business for the greater good. And given that the fictional town of Bedford Falls is said to be based on Seneca Falls, it feels like a fitting comparison.
Unlike soldiers, whose courage and sacrifices are recognized with a variety of medals and official honors, Grandpa and his twin didn’t have anything to acknowledge that they were drafted on the farm apart from their own recollection of events. This changed last year when, in honor of their 90th birthdays, their state senator, Michael F. Nozzolio, issued each of them a proclamation celebrating their life’s achievements, including their war-time service on the farm. It was a proud moment for both of them and for our family.
To everyone who has served this great nation of ours, you have my deepest thanks, from the soldiers who fight the battles to the military families who support their soldiers to the farmers and factory workers who ensure soldiers and civilians alike are well supplied. God bless you, and please know that no sacrifice or act of courage, publicly recognized or not, goes unnoticed in His eyes.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published Nov. 3, 2016