Betty Blake has a raspy voice and a charm that transcends her tiny frame and seventysomething years. As a former Woman’s Army Service Corps pilot, Blake spent World War II flying P51 Mustangs.
Three times a week, she’d fly fighter planes from their Long Beach, Calif., factories to Newark, N.J., for shipment overseas. Backbreaking work, but Blake isn’t a braggart. She leads, instead, with a funny story.
“I was supposed to fly this guy on a tour of Hawaii,” she says. “He cancelled, and I said, ‘Hooray,’ it was Saturday night, and I was going to a party. I was hung over the next morning, and there’s this pounding and I said, ‘What is that?’ It was Pearl Harbor! And here I am with a hangover!”
America’s veterans are a soft-spoken lot. Most are more comfortable sharing a funny story than the nuts and bolts of their service. Their modesty, admirable as a personal trait, can lead their country to overlook the enormous achievements and sacrifices they made while in uniform. That’s why Congress established the Veterans History Project, a national initiative designed to reach veterans and make sure their story remains part of America’s story.
WRITING THE BOOK ON VETERANS
A sunny Sunday in Cave Creek, and the Terravita Community Center is filled with old soldiers and earnest teens. Students guide veterans in Marine Corps and Veterans of Foreign Wars caps to a lobby full of video kiosks and hors d’oeuvres trays. Young men tend memorabilia displays, and guests slide into chairs to hear a soldier on videotape recall the Vietnam War. We’re at the publication party for the second volume of “Since You Asked: Arizona Veterans Share Their Memories,” first-person stories of local soldiers, from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Veterans Historical Project depends on volunteers willing to seek out and record veterans at the local level. Here, the work is co-sponsored by groups like the Arizona Heritage Project and Salt River Project, and the foot-soldier scribes are history teacher Barbara Hatch and her students at Cactus Shadows High School.
The work puts two different groups in close proximity: Teenagers, who often know little about the wars these soldiers fought, and the soldiers themselves — who are surprised anyone’s asking.
“I was a little astonished, to be frank with you,” Ron Lord says, chuckling. Lord, who flew F8 Crusaders and F4 Phantom jets during his three tours in Vietnam, was shocked that teenagers would want to know about it, let alone publish a book. “I mean, who wants to talk to an old fighter pilot?”
“There wasn’t that much hoopla over World War II,” Army Col. Park Shaw says. “Everybody had been involved — butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Once it was over, we just wanted to get on with our lives.” But it’s different now. Shaw, who told his story in Vol. 1 and rounded up 10 other vets for Vol. 2, says as time passes, firsthand accounts grow increasingly precious. “Especially with the World War II vets, we’re all getting old.”
America’s World War II-era veterans are dying at a rate of 1,700 a day. And an unusual army of correspondents has gathered to ensure their stories get told.
MINING THE HISTORY
“Good afternoon,” says Paul Wise at the door of his Scottsdale home. “Come on in.”
A white-haired attorney with wire-rimmed glasses and soft-spoken charm, Wise, 85, is a gracious host to Hatch, 16-year-old student correspondent Lindsey Anderson and their camera equipment. Are they comfortable? Enough chairs? Is the dog going to bother you? As one of the first to be interviewed for Vol. 3 of “Since You Asked,” Wise is a little nervous. “I don’t know how much of this will interest you,” he says. “I wasn’t part of any big battles or anything like that.”
“I think it can be a little unnerving for them, at first,” says Lauren Byrd, 17, a Cactus Shadows junior who did six veteran interviews. “They open the door for you. They’ve never met you before, and suddenly you’re in their home asking personal questions.”
Veterans often downplay their service or fear they won’t remember much, but memories roll out in vivid detail. With orange flowers waving in the sun outside his office window, Wise describes how a Kansas minister’s son became a pilot hunting Uboats off the Brazilian coast in the dead of night.
Once begun, his story has its own momentum. As he describes the challenge of landing an amphibious plane on the rippling surface of the Amazon River in a blackout, he pauses. “I’m not telling you too much, am I?” No, no, he’s told.
“Often, these are stories that have never been told before,” says Cactus Shadows junior Kyle Hobratschk, 17. “They’ve never even been able to tell their families. Then, all of a sudden, they think, ‘This may be the appropriate time.’ ”
Three hours pass quickly. Wise’s memories are quite vivid once he airs them out. “It wasn’t always lonely flying the ocean at night,” he recalls. “When the moon is out, shining on the clouds and the whitecaps below, it’s quite beautiful. Almost spiritual.”
Stories in “Since You Asked” run the gamut from stateside warriors to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s aide to Col. Thomas Schaefer, one of the 53 Americans held hostage in Iran.
“Sometimes what’s amazing is who is doing the telling,” says Hobratschk. “One of the vets is a member of my church. I’d talked to him a lot before, and I heard he was a Vietnam vet. I went to his home and he had all these stories of different missions. Things I would never know about.”
THE TELLER AND THE TALE
The stories in all volumes of “Since You Asked” help fill an important historical gap, so war movies and video games won’t be left to tell the story. But their collection can also fill personal gaps for the students who listen.
“A lot of these kids say to us: ‘My grandfather was in the war, but he died before he could tell me about it,’ ” Bob Larson explains. “Or, ‘He just didn’t talk about it.’ ”
Larson, a Marine medic, and VFW buddy Ralph Truax fought in the Pacific during World War II and contributed to Vol. 1 of “Since You Asked.” They now belong to Veterans in the Schools, another program where soldiers pass their experiences on to the millennial generation.
“It isn’t just about war stories,” Truax says. “There were 8 million people in the service, less than a million in combat. For every soldier in combat, there were 15 to 20 people working in support.” The vast accomplishment of a nation working together, he says, is a story that needs retelling. “I was on a carrier in the Navy during World War II. I tell the kids what it was like to keep a fleet supplied.”
“A lot of these kids don’t even know what a fleet is,” Larson says.
“A ship gets resupplied at sea,” says Truax. “It’s ‘Meet me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at this latitude and longitude, at this certain time’ . . . and we’d do it. That’s fantastic. We never appreciated it at the time, because we were just kids. But they need to know what kind of things can be done working together.”
The “Since You Asked” publication party plays like a festive combination of USO dance and yearbook party. Veterans in crisp khakis sit at tables: laughing, chatting, and praising Hatch and her Cactus Shadows correspondents while friends and family members pass books for them to sign.
Sitting at his table, former Army Air Corps Sgt. Ralph George, a World War II vet, believes their work must continue. “Not for the vets, but for families,” he says. “When a veteran talks, they aren’t just talking about their service. Somewhere in your family — in everybody’s family — is a soldier who served. This is all a part of helping families understand.”
Keeping the vets in America’s story
If you know a veteran, you can help him or her record his or her service for posterity.
• Contact the Veterans History Project for an information kit, which provides guidelines for interviewing veterans and transcribing their stories. Download an information kit at www.loc.gov/vets or request one by calling (888) 371-5848.
• Interview your veteran with an audio or video recorder. Photographs and service memorabilia (such as official orders, diaries, letters or telegrams) can be included in your submission and often enhance the story.
• “We’re looking to families to help,” says Bob Patrick, national director of the project. “It can be as casual as sitting grandpa down across the kitchen table. I think it’s great on Memorial Day — a day when we honor those veterans we’ve lost — to acknowledge and record the stories of the veterans still among us.”
Veterans History Project
Congress established the Veterans History Project in 2000. Volunteers from colleges, libraries, civic groups and youth organizations find and interview the veterans in their communities. Their stories, recorded in print and captured on videotape, are submitted to Washington, where the Library of Congress archives the stories in its permanent collection and creates a Web page with the stories and memorabilia of each veteran. The national initiative has collected more than 40,000 submissions.