Like many of the men who fought and survived World War II, Quentin Aanenson anguished about what he had done and wondered why he had lived when so many of his comrades had died.
But unlike many of America's World War II veterans, Aanenson, a fighter pilot who grew up in Luverne, Minn., put his recollections and feelings before the world as one of the principal participants in Ken Burns' powerful TV documentary "The War."
Aanenson, an elegant and articulate son of the Midwest in the film series, died of cancer on Sunday at his home in Bethesda, Md.
He was 87.
"Death and love" marked Aanenson's considerable contribution to Burns' exhaustive, seven-part PBS documentary, reported the Washington Post, on the September 2007 day that the film debuted.
He narrowly escaped death on more than one occasion, including once when his P-47 Thunderbolt's cockpit caught fire after the plane was hit. He crash-landed, suffering cracked ribs and a head injury, but was back in the air a few days later.
"On another mission, Aanenson caught a column of German soldiers along a roadside. Opening the Thunderbolt's eight .50-caliber guns, he saw bullets tear into the men with such force that their bodies went flying. When he returned to his base in Normandy, he was sickened by the experience.
Then, he tells Burns' cameras, 'I went out and did it again and again and again and again,'" reported the Washington Post.
His hope, like so many combatants, was to return to loved ones, including his wife to be, Jackie Greer, who he met while training in Baton Rouge, La. She, too, played a prominent part in the Burns film.
In Burns' documentary, Aanenson, who flew 75 missions and was awarded a chestful of medals, narrated a letter that he wrote, but never sent, to Jackie. He had struggled to describe his experience after her questions about the war. The letter said, in part:
"I still doubt if you will be able to comprehend it. I don't think anyone can who has not been through it.
"I live in a world of death. I have watched my friends die in a variety of violent ways. ... Sometimes it's just an engine failure on takeoff resulting in a violent explosion. There's not enough left to bury. Other times, it's the deadly flak that tears into a plane. If the pilot is lucky, the flak kills him. But usually he isn't, and he burns to death as his plane spins in.
"So far, I have done my duty in this war. ... I have lived for my dreams for the future. But like everything else around me, my dreams are dying, too.
"In spite of everything, I may live through this war and return to Baton Rouge. But I am not the same person you said goodbye to on May 3."
At the urging of his family, he set out in the 1990s to make a video to show his family what his war was like in the skies over Europe.
It was a kind of therapy to make the video, and he wanted his family to know the horrors of war.
His video became much more than a home movie.
The documentary made by Aanenson, his wife and other family members was first aired across the nation on PBS in 1994. After Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, saw the Aanenson production, it spurred him to include Luverne as one of the four cities in America that anchored "The War." And the decision to include Luverne led to Al MacIntosh, who was editor of the Rock County Herald newspaper during the war. His heartfelt columns from the homefront provided another perspective on the war.
Lori Ehde, editor of the Rock County Star Herald recalled Aanenson as articulate, and a person who "had a keen sense of awareness of his place in the world."
Before the war, Aanenson had attended the University of Minnesota. In 1948, he graduated from Louisiana State University.
He went to work for Mutual of New York insurance, and after working in New Orleans, New York and San Antonio, he moved to the Washington area in 1955. He rose to become an officer in the firm, responsible for the Middle Atlantic region.
He retired in 1987.
"He was so much more than this American hero. He was just a wonderful family man," said his son, Jerry, of Boyds, Md.
In addition to Jerry, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Jackie, of Bethesda; daughters, Vickie Murphy, of Ellicott City, Md., Debi Pyers, of Schaumburg, Ill.; 10 grandchildren, a brother, Curtis, of Minnetonka, and a sister, Mavis Porter, of Rock Rapids, Iowa.
Services will be at 1 p.m. Sunday in St. Andrew's Methodist Church in Bethesda.
Burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington at 3 p.m. Feb. 27.
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