DECATUR — Leo Stengel was always the cool, silent type.
The Decatur man whose Army unit fought its way across half of Europe in World War II to finally break the Nazis in their German lair didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences. Jackie Stengel, his wife of 57 years who had met him in 1949, remembers her husband had come home with some lingering bad dreams; perhaps his expressive brown eyes had just seen too much.
But the quiet man who died in 2007 at the age of 83 is speaking volumes now. Or, to use military precision, one heavy-caliber volume that runs to almost 200 pages and details his war experiences in meticulous detail. The book is called “Leo Stengel — Letters & Remembrances from World War II” and was compiled by his grandson, Jared Vineyard. The 33-year-old spent six months on the project and handed multiple copies out to the family as Christmas gifts.
Vineyard, who grew up in Mount Zion and now lives in Colorado, did it so the quiet man could speak forever to all those future generations who then will get to know him, and remember.
“Oh, it’s great,” said Jackie Stengel, 85, who treasures her copy. “What a gift.”
Vineyard got the notion of telling his granddad’s story in 2001 when he was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. He had a paper due in history class on World War II and persuaded Stengel’s daughter Elizabeth, his mom, and his grandmother to tape an interview with Stengel using questions
he supplied; that tape, now converted to a CD, sits in a pocket in the back of the book.
Grandfather was there to watch grandson graduate at the top of his West Point class in 2002, and Vineyard went off to war in Iraq, where he was lucky to escape with his life: He caught shrapnel in the head from a suicide bomb explosion in 2004 that killed the soldiers who had been on either side of him.
His granddad had been hit in the right arm by shrapnel 60 years earlier in a ferocious battle with German defenders and spent months recovering. Doctors had initially told him the arm was history but were proven wrong, and the soldier recovered and returned to the front. The multigenerational wounds and shared experiences of combat later served to further cement the close relationship between granddad and grandson.
“I came back from Iraq later in 2004, and we sort of had that connection,” Vineyard says. “His health began to decline about that time, and I think it was probably the Christmas of 2006, which was his last Christmas, that I went over to his house and he just gave me this big box of all his World War II stuff. It was a special time.”
Vineyard had never stopped asking about Stengel’s war memories almost from the days when his grandparents would baby-sit him. His grandfather was a manager for the former downtown Quigle’s furniture store and, as a boy, the grandson recalls standing there with him watching a parade with marching veterans pass in front of the store.
“I remember saying, ‘Grandad, why don’t you go out there and march?’ and he just kind of laughed and said, ‘I already marched enough in my life,’ and then he would change the topic and move on.”
By the time the memory box appeared, however, that reluctance stood at ease. While never one to gabble war stories at a mile a minute, Stengel did talk about being a mortar man with the 32nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. One of their high-risk jobs was to scout the ground ahead as the Army chased the fleeing Germans, and they were often the first to make contact when the shooting started. “My granddad was basically in the thick of it, I’d say, from 1944 to really the end of the war,” Vineyard says.
“I think it definitely left an impact deep down. I know the things he had seen bothered him. He never glorified war.”
In the box of World War II stuff was a huge stack of letters Stengel had written home and these, meticulously retyped by Vineyard, would form the backbone of the book. Written in granddad’s typical understated style, they often run to only a handful of paragraphs, and two of those will be about the weather.
Then on Nov. 19, 1944, the 21-year-old Stengel (known as “Junior”) wrote this one to his dad: “Hi! How are you this fine day. Well, I’ve been wounded in the right arm. As soon as I get to France or England, I’ll get someone to write a letter telling you all about it. Tell Jean (no one’s sure who she is, possibly a former girlfriend) that everything is ok and (sic) is that am writing even though I can’t.
“Everything is ok. Don’t worry because everything is ok.
Vineyard added a line saying “Written in very poor handwriting — like a young child.” His other notations, copied period documents and a painstaking accompanying timeline explaining where his grandfather was in what month of what year, show his skill as a historian. His empathy and abilities as an interviewer are obvious, too, and perhaps demonstrate why Vineyard’s life took the path it did.
Married with three children and always a man of strong faith, he left the Army after Iraq and felt called to the ministry. He became the Rev. Jared Vineyard after three years of seminary and was headed to pastor a church but, after meeting and comforting a wounded soldier in despair who lacked his spiritual strength and sense of hope, he knew he had found his calling. Vineyard went back to the Army in 2009 and was recommissioned as a chaplain with the 101st Airborne Division. He recently returned from Afghanistan and is now stationed in Aurora, Colo., as a chaplain with the 743rd Military Intelligence Battalion.
“He’s a very smart man,” says his proud grandmother. “Really quite exceptional … like his grandfather.”
Not everything that came out of Stengel’s World War II memory box could be finessed into the book, however, even given grandson’s consummate compilation skills. As well as the letters, pictures and documents, the box contained a Nazi flag (ripped from some building) along with a semiautomatic German Luger pistol and an M-1 carbine paratrooper rifle with collapsible stock.
“I asked him, ‘How in the world did you manage to keep all this?’ ” Vineyard says. “And he just smiled at me and said, ‘Hey, some questions we just don’t ask, right?’” And then he laughed and handed it all to me.”