Behind the Spine: Of fathers, sons and sacrifice remembered

By Paul Kennedy

The seeds are always planted in our youth, taking hold in the fertile soil of innocence. And so it was for author John Adams-Graf.

He was 6, marching alongside his father, John “Milton” Graf, and fellow American

John "Milton" Graf

The platform for John “Milton” Graf’s war stories to his son started with a wry smile: “When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I tried to enlist. They rejected me because of flat feet. I tried two more time before they drafted me in 1942.” Photo courtesy John Adams-Graf

Legion members in the Caledonia, Minn., Memorial Day Parade. Clad in camouflage pajamas, plastic camouflaged helmet and carrying his dad’s canvas military bag on his back (holding his blanket and teddy bear), John walked side by side with men who had been to war.

It was all big stuff for a little guy. The stories these men told of far-off battles while shooting the breeze at his father’s grocery store filled his dreams. The souvenirs they showed him would soon fill his life. But this is not a story of collections or souvenirs. This is about fathers and sons. And remembering.

Some 16 million Americans served during World War II. Today only about 1 million remain. Approximately every three minutes a World War II veteran dies, meaning a memory of that war – its sights and sounds, its horrors and heroes – disappears. Mostly in their 90s now, these veterans are dying quickly, about 492 per day, according to US Veterans Administration figures.

Milton Graf, who rose to the rank of first sergeant, who was married to his wife, Helen, for 68 years, and who raised five children in his hometown of Caledonia, died peacefully on the morning of Jan. 8. He was 93.

“Dad was a part of a rare generation who answered the call unselfishly and with total commitment,” says John, author of “Warman’s World War II Collectibles” and a highly respected military collectibles authority.

Father and son had a running joke through the years. It went something like this:
“You remind me of Louie Bloom,” the father would say to his son.
“Who’s Louie Bloom?”
“You remember him,” father would say. “He used to come into the store. He always said ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with my son. I teach him all I know, and he still don’t know a damn thing!”’


John Adams-Graf is a lifelong military collector, author and long long-time editor of Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine. His latest, Warman’s World War II Collectibles, 3rd edition, provides a vivid, full-color resource to WWII militaria.

The old man enjoyed a good laugh. But both father and son knew that wasn’t the case with them. The lessons of the father were not lost on his son.

“I suppose every parent has moments when they think their kids never learned a thing that was taught to them,” John says. “Truth of the matter is Dad taught me a lot… he planted in me a deep respect for those who have served their nation. He gave me an insatiable curiosity for history, taught me how to safely and accurately handle firearms, and showed me the delight of blowing up things, to name a few. He also instilled in me intolerance for people kicking the underdog.

“But more than any of those life lessons, I absorbed Dad’s war stories. Since the time I was old enough to say ‘Can I see your medals?’ I have been pumping Dad for details about his time in WWII. In the past few years, I made a point to write down the stories as he retold many of them. Of course, many of my questions revolved around the weapons, uniforms and equipment—the sorts of things in which I have always been interested.”

Check out Warman’s World War II Collectibles, 3rd. Ed. Warman's World War II Collectibles
If you enjoy what you’ve read here about the influence John Adams-Graf’s father, Milton, had on him, you may enjoy an example of that influence in action in John’s book Warman’s World War II Collectibles.

This authoritative reference features chapters devoted to uniforms and footwear; headgear; accoutrements; medals; firearms; bayonets, knives, daggers and swords; personal items; and groupings. With 1,800 photographs, values and historic details, this book is unmatched in breadth and depth of details.
(Retail $27.99 / Your Price $18.54).

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Of course, “Warman’s World War II Collectibles” is filled with those things. They provide important detail and help capture accurately the items that filled that war. But the book goes beyond a laundry list of uniforms, hats and medals.

“Throughout the book, I interjected soldiers’ quotes and stories from collectors who recounted their favorite finds,” John says. “These, I hope, will remind everyone that it’s not about the stuff—it’s about the soldiers who used it.”

It’s a simple thing, really. A father shares. A son listens. And a time filled with ordinary men and great sacrifice is remembered.

About our columnist: Paul Kennedy is the Editorial Director of Antiques & Collectibles Books, Krause Publications. Have a book suggestion or a question about our book line? You can contact Paul at 715-445-2214 ext. 13470 or via email at