Stanley, N.D.: Where Pearl Harbor, 9/11 entwine
Published Dec. 7, 2002
STANLEY, N.D. -- As he had done hundreds of times before -- year after year
in this small prairie town of cold winds and rugged sensibilities -- Floyd
"Happy" Graff stopped in at the Scandia American bank and exchanged
pleasantries with its affable, blue-jeaned owner, Gary Nelson.
While a generation apart, the two men had known each other for decades. Their
families had been intertwined -- Graff's wife, Joyce, for instance, taught
acrobatics and "song and dance personality" to Nelson's daughter, Ann.
And as is the case in many a small town, there is little they did not know about
In the last year, the twin tragedies of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 have been
endlessly compared and contrasted, studied in academia and analyzed by experts.
But here, in this rural town of 1,200 people in the northwest part of the state,
both events live on -- side by side and crossing paths every day.
Graff is a man of few words. But this time, a few days after the one-year
anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, banker Nelson tried to draw out his
86-year-old friend into telling him about a part of his life he almost never
Nelson, for his part, had spent the last year researching every detail of the
terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, where his only daughter worked as a
bond trader and was killed at age 30.
So much information. But the silver-haired father sought more. He thought
Graff might have some meaningful thoughts about 9/11, about a day that would
rattle America to its core. A day like no other.
Except, perhaps, one.
Sixty-one years ago, Marine Sgt. Graff was at Pearl Harbor.
'It hurt so much'
Few outside Happy Graff's family knew that beneath his long-sleeved
undershirt, sprawled across his upper right arm, was a large Pearl Harbor tattoo
in blurred and faded tones of blue, a memento he proudly acquired days after the
surprise attack on America when the date 12/7/41 was etched above an impressive
15 1/2-inch biceps
Although he is among only about a dozen Pearl Harbor survivors left in North
Dakota, and roughly 7,000 in the country, few here ever knew that this retired
electrician, a man who has installed the wiring or fixed an outlet in nearly
everyone's house, had been present when the Japanese attacked the military base
on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, killing nearly 2,400 Americans.
He never attended reunions or made a pilgrimage back to Hawaii. Like many of
his generation, he never compared notes with the other World War II veterans in
"It hurt so much for many, many years," says Graff. "I just
hated to think about it, and I didn't want to talk about it. I just wanted to
get it out of my mind."
"You think things don't happen in a small town," says Steve
Springan, the town funeral director and furniture dealer, "but there's a
little bit of everybody's history here."
Graff never imagined he would have a brush with history.
He had grown up on a farm near Donnybrook, N.D., the 10th of 15 children. He
was a smiling baby -- hence, the nickname "Happy."
His mother, pregnant with her 16th child, died when he was 11. Altha Graff
had meant so much to young Happy that he promised her he would never drink or
smoke, and to this day, he says, he never has.
At 14, after two years of high school, Happy left home and picked up work
wherever he could. At 18, he jumped a freight train headed west, making his way
to Snohomish, Wash., where he worked for several years for a logging company.
"Boy, did I get muscle," he says. "You earned every penny you
In November 1939, he headed to San Diego to join the Marines. Thanks to his
work on the farm and in the woods, the strapping private proved to be handy with
machinery. As part of the Second Marine Division assigned to the Second Engineer
Battalion, he was put in charge of heavy equipment, operating bulldozers,
maintainers for leveling the ground and over-head loaders.
His battalion, which later would become the 18th Marines
, was sent to Pearl Harbor a month before the attack to construct a Marine camp.
Graff, who built roads there, loved his life in the service -- it was the first
real home he'd had since he was a child.
In the early hours of Dec. 7, a strangely still Sunday morning, he was
walking out of the mess hall after breakfast when he heard a screeching roar. He
and his buddies looked up and froze. They could see the red circles, the Rising
Sun insignia, on the planes. Japanese dive bombers and fighter planes were
headed their way.
Like so many at Pearl Harbor, Graff's company had rifles but no ammunition.
"We didn't know what to do with ourselves," he says. "I never
had any fear going into the service. At Pearl Harbor, I had fear."
He saw bombs dropped, explosions, black smoke everywhere, even the faces of
the Japanese pilots as they flew low across the water and airfields. "They
were so low and so close you could just about touch them. They'd drive by and
they'd look out at you. I could even see, I think, they were smiling. We were
just plain scared."
Of all the memories, though, the most vivid and horrifying were the bodies
floating in the oily water. "You can't believe the bodies I saw . . .
Charred. Sickening. That was the hardest part. After I got home, I wouldn't talk
to anybody about this. I still don't like to talk about it."
Graff stayed on at Pearl Harbor for some time, and spent more than three
years in the Pacific, participating in the battles on Guadalcanal, Tarawa and
finally, Iwo Jima, losing good friends along the way.
After the war, he settled in Stanley, where his wife, the granddaughter of
town founder George W. Wilson, had grown up at the family's Wilson Hotel. Graff
built the robin's egg-blue house the couple still lives in, raised six children,
worked as an electrician, coached baseball, taught his kids to hunt and to swim
and fish on Lake Sakakawea.
Even now, thinner and slower with wisps of soft white hair atop his head, he
still repairs his roof, clears his yard, climbs trees to prune them.
Like much of the World War II generation, he lived a modest but productive
life, keeping his war stories to himself.
"I don't think we realized all these years what he went through,"
says his daughter, Jean Swenson, 47, who lives in town. "He didn't think of
himself as a hero or anyone special. He just wondered, 'Why?' Why some people
had to go and he was allowed to come out scot-free."
It was at the 50-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor, after Graff and the
state's other remaining survivors were given a medal by the governor, that he
allowed himself to start thinking back to the war. Still, he made sure he was
otherwise occupied when a newspaper reporter from nearby Minot wanted to
Then came Sept. 11. Like everyone else, he thought about the thousands of
innocent young lives lost, the sneak attack, the United States unprepared, the
fear and grief that gripped the nation. There were many differences with Pearl
Harbor, he thought, especially since the victims of 9/11 were civilians. But in
the breadth of the death and destruction and tragedy, and the questions
afterward about missed signals, there were similarities.
Friends and family started asking him about Dec. 7, 1941, stirring his
memories. And finally, he found, with the whole town grieving and waving its
flags -- and with 60 years of distance -- he could talk a little more easily
about what he had experienced in Hawaii so long ago when his hair was thick and
brown and his light blue eyes were seared by scenes of death.
Soon, he would share with Gary Nelson a peek at his Pearl Harbor 50-year
medal, his few souvenirs from the war and his memories. He told him what he knew
to be true -- and what he imagined would be even truer for someone who lost a
child in such a horrific attack.
"Eventually, it might get a little easier," Graff said. "But
it's going to be hard for a long time."
Among the hundreds of photos that crowd the walls, doors and table tops in
the Graff home are several of young Annie Nelson when, at 5 years old with long
blond hair and a vivacious smile, she was one of Joyce Graff's star dance
"She was just like one of my own," says Happy's 80-year-old wife,
as loquacious as he is reserved.
By all accounts, Ann Nicole Nelson was an extraordinary young woman. She
excelled at everything she did. She skiied, played tennis, basketball and
soccer, shot billiards, swam and fished, water-skiied, hunted, ran track, taught
herself about wine, studied languages and traveled extensively.
At 15, convinced she wasn't getting as good an education in Stanley as she
might somewhere else, she persuaded her parents to let her go 850 miles away to
an academy in Beaver Dam, Wis., to finish high school. After studying political
science and economics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. -- including
semesters in England and China -- she worked in the financial world in
Minneapolis and Chicago.
In the fall of 2000, she embarked on a five-week backpacking tour of Peru by
In January 2001, soon after her return and four months shy of her 30th
birthday, the independent, green-eyed girl from the plains of North Dakota was
hired as a bond trader by Cantor Fitzgerald, headquartered on the 104th floor of
the World Trade Center -- Tower One.
She was the only North Dakotan killed in the Sept. 11 attack.
A year and several months later, Gary Nelson, 61, surrounds himself with
reminders of his daughter. It seems to be his oxygen.
He wears a button with her photo every waking moment. He wears a silver
MIA-POW-style bracelet with her name on it. He has photos of his daughter
propped up against his computer screen, an etching of her on his wall, a poster
with the names of the 9/11 victims in the lobby of his bank.
He talks frequently to the families of the other Cantor employees killed and
to his daughter's friends, searching for information about Ann's last
conversations and her life in New York. Among the boxes and boxes of facts he's
collected is the seating arrangement for Cantor Fitzgerald's trading floor,
where Ann worked.
His purple Ford pick-up truck is unmistakable -- its license plate is 091101.
"I think I try to keep Ann pretty much forefront in everything I
do," he acknowledges, "no matter where I go."
His wife, Jenette, 62, a teacher at Stanley's middle and high school, seems
to deal with her grief in a more introspective way. She says that something
happened to her on Sept. 11, 2001, sitting on the edge of her bed and seeing the
gaping black hole in the building her daughter worked in. She went numb. All
When a dentist recently worked on a tooth she had broken, she says that,
although she once had sensitive teeth, she felt no pain, nothing. "I just
don't have much feeling," she says softly, on the brink of tears as she
often appears, "except sometimes I just feel an aching all over."
Both Nelsons find much comfort in their son's five young children. "They
remind me of her so much," Jenette Nelson says, as 7-year-old Brooke falls
asleep in her arms.
Perhaps more than anything, they say that putting their daughter's death in a
larger, historic context -- viewing it as another sort of Pearl Harbor, for
instance, or as part of destiny, a plan that will eventually lead to a more
peaceful world -- helps ease the pain.
"By taking the big view of it -- somehow that calms me," says
She started teaching a class this year on "peaceful conflict
resolution," talking to seventh-graders about ways to settle grievances in
a non-violent way and occasionally speaks to groups about living better lives
and seeking ways of peace.
She says she wants to make her daughter's death -- and all of the
approximately 3,000 deaths of Sept. 11 -- count for something. "If nothing
happens because of it," she says, "it would be a waste. And that would
Outpouring of support
Quilts, artwork, cards, have poured in to the Nelsons. In total, more than
$50,000 has been contributed to a fund in Ann Nelson's name that goes to such
causes as the local hospital.
"What we've seen has not been matched in this community since World War
II with the outpouring of emotion and support," says Gary Nelson.
The support still comes, nearly every day. The Nelsons can hear it in their
neighbors' sincere greetings of "How are you doing?"
They can feel it when a group of children from a nearby Indian reservation
sends drawings of butterflies, a symbol of life after death.
And they can see it in the eyes of some, like Floyd Graff, who are still
mending from the enemy attack that forever changed the nation -- and the world
-- before Gary Nelson was a year old.
"With Floyd, you don't have to explain the grief you're going
through," Gary Nelson says of his longtime friend. "I know that Floyd
is with me. It's a complete empathetic understanding. When you have that, you
don't have to say too much.
"Sometimes that's the best."
Copyright 2002 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.