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.
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.