Quentin Aanenson, 1921-2008


There may never have been a son of Minnesota more eloquent than Quentin Aanenson. The Luverne native was the inspiration behind Ken Burns’ fabulous PBS series, “The War.” The series featured Aanenson and three other families around the country. Through 17 hours, it was impossible not to be confused by the calm of Aanenson’s voice recalling the chaos of his experience.

Aanenson is on my very short list of people I wanted to meet. I never got the chance. Aanenson, 87, died on Sunday of cancer.

As the Washington Post obituary noted, he was a man haunted — and changed — by war:

But the war never entirely left him. He was haunted by the fear that he had once mistakenly fired on Allied troops. The first time he fired on a column of German soldiers along a roadside, the impact of his shells pitched their bodies into the air. He knew he was doing what he was trained to do, “but when I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed, I got sick. I had to think about what I had done. Now that didn’t change my resolve for the next day. I went out and did it again. And again and again and again,” he said.

“It’s hard to understand why the guy next to you was blown apart and why you’re able to go on to have a wonderful life,” he said. “There’s a sense of responsibility we assume, or should assume. I tried to make a contribution, to my family, to the business world, to live with high ethical standards . . . not to waste this life, to do something that counts in a positive way. . . . I tried to live with purpose.”

Here’s a roundtable of veterans — including Aanenson — on the Charlie Rose Show in 1994, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, a day on which Aanenson said, “I had the best seat in the house.”

After the war, he became a life insurance executive.

On his Web site, Aanenson writes his own epitaph:

I guess in one sense you can say we are an endangered species. But unlike the spotted owl or the whooping crane, there is no legislation that can be enacted to save us. We are rapidly disappearing off the radar screen, and soon all that will be left is what we have written, what we have recorded, and some old, fading photographs. Our voices will be forever silent, and the untold “first-hand accounts” of our experiences will remain untold.

We are the boys of World War II. We are dying off at the rate of 1,500 a day — that’s 45,000 a month. That number will steadily increase until the unyielding laws of mathematics give us an increasing rate of deaths, but a decreasing number of deaths — the remaining pool will have become too small.

Taps is just one sunset away.

But in our lifetimes, we made a difference. We had the good fortune to live during a time when honor, patriotism, and character were important. We stepped up to defend freedom, and put our lives on the line for the “cause.” It was a moment in history that may never occur again.