Monday, April 3, 2017


I've been kind of addicted to You know, that site where you can build your family tree and research your ancestors, find distant cousins, discover whether anyone in your family owned slaves (yes, there are slave owners in my past, much to my shame), that sort of stuff. It gets addictive because for every relative, Ancestry gives you 'hints' that you can use like a birth certificate, census record, marriage record, or obituary that brings up more names to add to the family tree. "On May 27, 1880, Jane Doe married John Doe. Her parents are listed as William Tyler and Beatrice Grooms." OOOHHH! I didn't have their names! Let me add that to the tree! Oh, wait now there are 5 hints listed for Beatrice Grooms that point to siblings and more parents and each of those siblings was married and had 20 children. Pretty soon, the tree expands to enormous proportions when all you really set out to do was find out who your great great grandmother was. My tree has about 350 names now and I have to force myself to quit. The vast majority of names are on my father's side, because I was researching my grandparents' backgrounds a few years ago. I've also got some names on my mom's side and even Betsy's. I can see how people could just sit and spend hours at this, writing little backgrounds and timelines for each person on their tree. I've found distant cousins who spend a lot more time at this than I do. One cousin has traced our lineage all the way back to William Shakespeare. That's on my paternal grandfather's side. On my paternal grandmother's side, I'm a distant relative of President John Tyler, who is well known as being one of the worst Presidents in American history (yay!).

The resemblance is uncanny

All these names on Ancestry have highlighted for me what a short little blip our lives are. My great grandfather, William F. Liebenow III was born in 1882 in Wisconsin to parents who had just immigrated from Germany. All his older siblings were born in Germany. William went to a small college near Madison, joined a threshing crew that took him up the east coast until he found himself in Fredericksburg, Virginia. There, he started working for a lumber company. He fell in love with the owner's daughter, Mary Eastburn, they got married (despite the wishes of Mary's mother, who hated 'Yankees'), and had five children, one of whom was my grandfather. In another generation, William III will be just another name on a family tree. Even the limited background I know will be lost. All of my grandfather's siblings have passed away. One of his older sisters died as a child. The other two older sisters died childless about ten years ago. His younger brother, Uncle Pilly, died a few years ago. Uncle Pilly had two sons who are still alive, but they had no children. My grandfather had three grandchildren. Only my sister and I are left. In late February, much to my sorrow, my grandfather died at the age of 97. It seems there is no one left to tell their stories, and in a couple more generations, we will all just be names on a family tree with a year of birth and a year of death. Maybe a few additional notes if we're lucky.

This post took a dark turn, didn't it?

I wanted to share some thoughts I had about my grandfather.

For the first few years of his life, he lived in a farm house with his maternal grandmother. The house had no electricity or indoor plumbing. His grandmother had an African American woman who worked for her who was born a slave until she was freed after the Civil War as a teenager. The family called the woman "Aunt Susan." My grandfather followed Aunt Susan everywhere and she adored her little 'shadow' so much, she called him her 'buddy.' The name stuck, and from then on, grandpa was known as Buddy or Bud.

Bud was a hard worker, and he learned it at a young age. Times were tight during the Great Depression for the Liebenow's. Everyone was expected to earn money, since William's lumber job wasn't paying enough to cover all the bills. Bud had his first job when he was nine, selling three different magazines door-to-door, making as little as 1.5 cents for each magazine sold. From then on, Bud had a job, from working on a dairy farm, to running a paper route, to driving a lumber truck. He even had a short job distributing bootleg liqueur with some other kids during Prohibition. He remembered that one of his customers was an Episcopal minister who insisted that the alcohol be delivered through a back alley so no one would see it. Though life was hard during those years (a typical Christmas present was an orange), there was always food on the table and there were daily visits from denizens of the town's 'hobo jungle' looking for handouts to remind the family that things could always be worse.

My grandfather was tough and fearless. There was an older bully in school who "took a shine" to Bud. He led Bud up to other kids and said, "hit him," forcing grandpa to hit the other boy and start a fight. Bud recalled one fight on the playground when he knocked the other kid's head back so hard, it broke the glasses of another boy watching the fight.

Image of grandpa's first school in 1925

Bud was a boxer from high school through his years fighting in the war. He was known by fellow navy soldiers as "the fighting fool." This wasn't just for his boxing reputation, but for his fearlessness during combat. 

Relaxing during some downtime

On one occasion, Bud's PT 157 was escorting a Marine landing craft to a beachhead in the South Pacific when they came under attack by Japanese dive bombers. Bud quickly had his crew steer their own 80 foot, plywood PT boat away from the landing craft to draw the enemy fire away from the Marines. On another occasion, Bud's PT boat got caught between two destroyers on a dark, moonless night. They came under blistering crossfire, putting more than 50 holes along the side of their boat but miraculously, no one was hurt. The destroyers both turned because it was too dark to pinpoint the PT boat's location. Bud used the brief lull in the action to check on his crew. They discovered that one of their three engines was completely dead from enemy fire and the mechanic had to coax a second engine back to life after severe damage. Despite the damage to his ship, Bud turned the boat around, sped toward one of the retreating destroyers and scored a hit with one of his torpedoes. He was awarded the silver star for his actions that night.

Grandpa's in shorts, 8th from the left

After rescuing Kennedy and the crew of the PT 109 (see my blog post about it if you want his account of that night), Bud was reassigned to the European theater, where he made numerous covert runs to Normandy Beach before D-Day. On these missions, his PT 199 would pull in close to the beach and Bud and another crewman would quietly row a small dinghy to shore to get soil samples, or meet with French resistance operatives under the noses of German sentries. On D-Day, my grandfather's PT 199 escorted gun ships close to shore so they could fire on German batteries. During the invasion, the allied destroyer USS Corry struck a mine and simultaneously came under heavy fire from German artillery. The Corry sunk and Bud's PT 199 picked up more than 60 survivors during a constant barrage from the Nazi defenses. He was awarded the bronze star for his actions on D-Day.

Bud, at left, on PT 199

Grandpa epitomized the ideal of the 'Citizen Soldier.' He detested the peacetime Navy, constantly having to wear a uniform, with good sailors getting chewed out for minor rule infractions. He left the service, turned his back on war and became a railroad chemist. Other than his 1960 campaign support at various rallies in Michigan for the man he shared a tent with in the South Pacific, and his attendance at JFK's inauguration, Bud stayed out of the spotlight. He lived a quiet life with the woman who helped him through physics class when he was a senior back at Randolph Macon (my grandmother was only a freshman; she's kinda smart). They raised a daughter and son (my father). 

Showing off his first born son, 1946

My dad and Aunt Susan, sledding with their dad at their Michigan home, ~1953

After 30 years working for the railroad, the couple bought a small house on a golf course on North Carolina's Abemarle Sound. I grew up 30 minutes away, where my father worked at a paper mill. I have so many good memories of my grandparents' house on the water. Fishing with grandpa; checking the crab pots; playing tennis down the street, my complete lack of skill at golf, lazy days laying on their hammock, so many fantastic meals, courtesy of Grammy. 

Who is that adorable boy playing with his grandpa?

Compared to Grandpa's young life, mine was so privileged and I have him to thank for that.

I have such admiration for Bud Liebenow. His courage. His quiet modesty about his past. The love he had for his wife of nearly 75 years. 

Dancing at my wedding in 2002

The life lessons he taught me growing up on everything from how to sail a boat, to civic engagement are priceless to me. In the end, Bud Liebenow is a pair of dates on the family tree, 1920-2017. But like the rest of his generation, he witnessed so many changes, hardship and tumultuous days. The Great Depression, World War II, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, seeing a son through two tours in Vietnam, Watergate, losing a grandson to cancer, 9/11, technological changes from commercial flight to smart phones. He met all challenges with quiet fortitude. Like any boxer, when he suffered setbacks, he picked himself up and kept fighting. We all lost something the day this man died.

Grace's favorite photo of grandpa

Bud and Lucy, March 2016

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