Living History

This is a post written from a suggestion by a good friend, Xero Ponsdorf, who has his own place, “AnotherVoice“and also blogs at “ThisAintHell“. Xero’s another sailor and the article he suggested to me is about sailors, and their memories, and what we lose when they’ve all passed on.

Here’s the thing……. we can read all the books and articles that historians write, review the after action reports, see the camera footage, and all that stuff. But it’s the voice of the man who was there that makes it real.  Hearing him describe what went on, how he felt, what he saw and heard and smelled,  in his own words is as important, if not more so, than anything else. HOW he says it, WHAT he specifically zeros in on, whether his voice trembles, his eyes stare off into the past, all that is the closest we will ever get to his own experience.

And when these men are gone? Then all we will have left are the papers and pictures and recordings. When the last eye witness is buried, interpreting the past becomes much more problematic.  Imagine trying to understand a tree in verdant growth or autumnal foliage, when all that left is a barren trunk, empty branches and dry crumbling leaves scattered at it’s base.  You couldn’t describe the tree as others saw it in full bloom, let alone the sylvan majesty of a forest.

James D. Hornfischer writes about all this in a wonderful article on “The Wall Street Journal“.

About 1.8 million World War II veterans remain alive today. That’s less than half the number of 2003. When these voices go silent, those of us who write about the war will lose the benefit of living engagement. We will work as our Civil War colleagues do: from documents and recordings and nothing else. What will be gone when these are the sole primary sources is not the facts themselves but the spark that can bring them to life. Diaries and oral history transcripts can let us know a man’s thoughts and deeds. But truth is also revealed through tone, emotion and context—and it can be plumbed responsively in real time to discover what was most important.

He goes on to get at how the historian’s eyes were opened, what bridged the gap from book to reality:

Bud Comet was one of five Samuel B. Roberts veterans attending a reunion in Fredericksburg, Texas, in December 2009, along with about 30 family members and friends. He gave an impromptu and loving tribute to a shipmate, Tom Stevenson, for the way he always quietly did what was right. Watching the men converse, I saw then who they really were. To me they were gray elders. To each other, they would always be terrified kids: 18-year-old sailors and 23-year-old lieutenants caught in war’s cruel vortex. I understood that though they grew old in time, they remained young in each other’s eyes.

Do yourself a real favor and read this article. It isn’t long, but it’s emotional and a reminder of how close we still are to the history of WWII, and yet how fragile our grip to it’s reality is. If you know someone who served then, or who lived through those times, please ask them write down or somehow record what they remember, what they would like to leave us about their experiences. Their voices will all be gone too soon. My own father, who served through the Pacific as a Navy Corpsman is 92. He recorded much of his experiences, as did my mother who passed away some years back. She worked in McArthur’s HQ in Australia.  Yet all too many will leave us without having anything to remember them but a name and perhaps a faded picture.  If you can talk to them, any of them, do so, because that voice is a living part of history, and listening to him recount his part will connect you to that past as no other means can.

Horace F. Rehrig, shown in April, 2007 when he was 82, a World War II Navy veteran served on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga in the South Pacific during WWII. (Cesar L. Laure/The Morning Call)



7 Responses to “Living History”

  1. 1 Quartermaster
    May 29, 2011 at 23:45

    Remembering my uncles that were with the 1st Marines, one a Corpsman on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Okinawa. The other a Marine killed at Chosen Reservoir in 1950 in Korea.

    I hope all who come here have a good Memorial Day and remember those who gave Today for our tomorrow.

  2. 2 SoCal Pir8
    May 30, 2011 at 11:01

    My Dad was half a world away from yours. He’ll be 92 later this year. He was an Army Medic with the Old Hickory Division. Went across Omaha Beach on D+3 or so and went all the way to Germany. Bombed at St Lo by our own planes, was at the Battle of the Budge. He seldomed talked about his experiences but he never missed the reunions every August. A few years back I gave him the battle charts for the ETO asking him to ananotate where he was. We spent all afternoon going over his war. It was no different than what was depicted in Band of Brothers.

    A couple of years ago he and his brother made the first Flight of Honor for WWII vets from Greensboro to Washington, DC to visit the World War II Memorial. It was quite a trip for a man who except for the war has seldom traveled more that 30 miles from his home town. He lives now less than a half a mile from the house he was born in. It was quite a trip and treat for me when in 1981 he made a Tiger Cruise with me from Hawaii to San Diego aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. He talks about it to this day.

    I never, never miss an opportunity to shake the hand and thank any WWII vet I see. They are all my heros. I wear a green wrist band with Maj Dick Winter’s saying “Hang Tough” in honor of my Father and all the men who stepped forward in WWII.

  3. 3 Bohemond
    May 30, 2011 at 15:00

    My father-in-law’s older brothers all fought- one each in the Army, Navy and Marines (Pop was too young). John and Ed had passed on by the time I met my wife, but I am thankful I had the opportunity to talk with Uncle Joe (Gunner’s mate, USS Massachusetts).

  4. 4 Chris Hall
    May 31, 2011 at 12:19

    So important to connect with vets of any age. My father continues to reveal details, great and small, of his progression as Radioman from Casco Bay to Eniwetok on USS Denebola AD-12 during the latter years of WWII. Forty plus years of Cold Warriors has been a rich trove of Navy recollections that have been recorded for our Cold Waters, Cold War exhibit, at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. It has been a blessing to become acquainted with this next Navy generation, while they are still very much with us.

  5. 5 virgil xenophon
    June 2, 2011 at 15:57

    My father was a Co. Commander Capt. in the 42nd Rainbow Division. He left me with many stories from over the years from my childhood but I simply COULD NOT get him to even commit to an oral history.–don’t know why,either as he had never hesitated to talk about his experiences when I was growing up. Perhaps he thought a formal oral history would seem overweeningly self-important, but he remained stubborn until the end. Now, of course, I have no ability to go back to him and flesh out those stories. All I have left are his photos, letters and his 242nd Regiment hard-cover college-like “yearbook” (he was assigned to the 42nd from the beginning of its “standing up” and was present from the start all the way until the end in Germany and Dachau, so they put out a real solid historical “yearbook” product before they shipped out, with individual and organizational pics and tng pics of EVERYONE IN THE DIVISION, each Regiment having their own.

    PS: One letter I REALLY treasure is from the pilot and co-pilot of a B-26 that crashed w. battle damage who had hospital beds on either side of Dads when he was hospitalized after his jeep was blown up by a mine. They WROTE IT TO MY MOTHER telling her what a great guy Dad was. CAN’T beat THAT! (PS: Dad said they whiled away the time by teaching him how to fly the B-26–a little informal “ground school” lol. Dad told me that not only did he have the cockpit instrumentation memorized but that they spent so many hours explaining/coaching him on the flight characteristics, procedures and cockpit “sight-picture” on landing, etc., he swore he could have flown the damned thing had he had to in a pinch. Of course Dad had wanted to go into pilot tng but failed the eye test, so perhaps the wish was father to the thought, eh? lol.

  6. 6 AW1 "Scooter Pie' Retired
    June 3, 2011 at 02:01

    Everyday here in St. Charles, MO, one can see 10-20 old time vets listed in the obituary from the local paper. EVERYDAY! I always make a point to thank a vet when I see them out and about. My father is 89 and was in the Navy for WWII and the Korean War. He painted the signature on the last shell shot from a ship for the Korean War. Daddy never talked about the war. I was privledged to have him enlist me into the Navy when I got out of high school in 1973. I sure wish I had pushed him into talking about the wars as now it is too late because he has severe Alzheimers.

    You that were the main part of service for the cold war in the 60’s thru the 90’s, I want to thank you for your service and I am most thankful that I was able to be a part. I salute YOU. God bless ~

    I was very saddened today as I looked on YouTube and was looking at aircrew school in Pensacola. The particular personal videos of the aircrew in the barracks just made me sick. All they did was cuss and cuss and cuss and pranced around like they were just the most good looking and most bad asses around. If this is what has replaced us, we don’t have to wait for the enemy to attack us. We will die within.

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