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Stanley, N.D.: Where Pearl Harbor, 9/11 entwine

Susan Baer
Baltimore Sun
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 one another.

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 spoke of.

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 town.

"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 got."

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 interview him.

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."

Extraordinary woman

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 pupils.

"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 herself.

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 over.

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 Jenette Nelson.

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 be wrong."

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.