Veterans Voices

Veteran reflects on WWII through lens of camera

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sid Lenger's movements are slower, more intentional than they used to be. He uses a walker through the halls of his home and grabs the side of the car as he gets in through the garage.

But ask this 100-year-old World War II veteran a question about the battle of Okinawa, and it's like he's 25 again — latched to a ship gun, firing at Japanese Kamikazes trying to sink the LST 651. His eyes and heart take him there as vividly as the lens he's used to capture his life.

"There were some rough days," Lenger's said as he held back tears. "I hope nobody has to do it, go through it again."

The Grand Rapids man didn't choose to fight and he'll be the first to say Uncle Sam picked him. When he got his draft letter in the mail, Lenger co-owned a meat market with his dad in the Godfrey Avenue area.

"We sold the meat market," Lenger said about how he and his wife would manage while he was at war. "We had money and we put that in the bank. So, she had some money to buy food and everything with. Otherwise, she had about a penny a day to live on."

Lenger joined the Navy. He asked his skipper if he could take pictures while on the boat, and just never specified what kind.

"I got a few pictures that nobody's got, because who's allowed to carry a camera," Lenger said. "I asked the skipper if I could carry a camera and he said ‘yeah, as long as I can see your pictures.’ But I didn't tell him I took a movie camera. And so, I got quite a few of them."

As he leaves his walker in the hallway, he flips on the light to a back closet in his basement. There's a wall of videos, dubbed and labeled trips that document the life and adventure of the soft-spoken, sharp-minded veteran.

His first images hang from the wall in his makeshift office; it's where he paints and dubs his DVC Pro videos to DVD. He used his camera when his gun wasn't in his hand — the images of his fighting don't need film or frames to be remembered.

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"That's when we were in the battle of Okinawa," Lenger says about what he remembers about serving on the LST 651. "The first two days we had lost 30 ships, we had damage to 130 ships that were badly damaged and then we had 1,050 of our men were killed in the first two days.

“And we were there, we were there the first, 16 days, we were there, shooting these places down and 16 days no sleep. Yeah. You don't forget it too quick."

The details, his daughter LaVonne says, are sometimes off; about 1,500 men died and she's heard that he was awake for 14 straight days. The tears that immediately well up in his eyes show the numbers may be foggy with time, but the images will never leave.

When Lenger came home from the war, he was out of work for a bit. His meat market clients had found somewhere else to buy produce, so he did some soul searching.

"I got down on my knees and started praying and I heard a voice say, travel or something. Travel agency. So, I went to my wife, she was in another room in the office and I said, went over and told her and she said, 'what do you know about travel?"

For the next 15 years, Lenger and his wife took people all over the world. Like in the war, he brought a hand-held camera; in that back basement closet somewhere around 600 videos line the wall.

They're extensions of the memories he has from taking people to Alaska, Germany, and all over the world.

They were so good at what they did, Lenger says when China opened their borders for tourists, the couple helped teach people who lived there how to arrange travel.

"Japan Airlines called and asked, 'I understand that you and your wife take people out there, that you make up your own tours, how would you like to go to China," Lenger said.

They were flown out first class.

"We want 10 people to go to China and teach them how to run tours,” he recalled.

He says his greatest journey though came near the end of his working career. He was getting the idea to retire when someone from church asked if the Lenger's would be interested in being missionaries in India.

"If I had to do it again, I'd do it all over. I mean, these people are so poor, I would go there and do it for nothing," The 100-year old said.

Like everything else, the next 25 years when he and his wife went to India live on through the videos labeled along the wall in the basement closet.

These days, he may not move as quickly as the videos show he once did but his purpose is just as great.

It's a Wednesday in October, and the car he loaded up in at home parks at Marge's Donuts in Wyoming.

As he walks through the door, he's greeted by just about everyone in the shop. He sits at a table full of veterans from Vietnam. They laugh and joke that Lenger is the ringleader, but there's seriousness behind it.

On Wednesday's Lenger loads up one of his remastered videos that once sat on the wall of that back basement closet and puts it on display at Marge's. He's front and center, Marge says she bought him a nice padded chair, but he refuses, saying it's better that she watches from that seat.

That's part of who Sid Lenger is — he's seen it. He lived it and as his life, he continues to share it.

Reflecting what his eyes have seen and where his heart has taken him reliving the remarkable journey that started with a smuggled 8 mm camera on the waters of Okinawa.


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