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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Collecting Veterans' Stories Before They Are Gone Forever

As Memorial Day approaches I’d like to remind readers that if you know any veterans, be sure to get their stories before they are gone. Once they are gone, a part of history goes with them. Record what they say, write it down, put it in a book, post it on a blog, publish it, or send the story to a history magazine. These stories are precious and offer a unique perspective different from the history of professional writers who often have an agenda.

The following are examples of veterans I knew who passed away before they ever told their full stories. Both are tantalizing in that they surely knew much more than they revealed.

The first was my father-in-law who served in Patton’s Third Army. In the Battle of the Bulge he was blown out of his tank and survived, seriously wounded, while his younger friends all died in the tank. He slowly recovered and could have returned home, but instead made his way back to his company which by then was occupying a defeated Germany. He would only talk about his battle experience with a friend who also served in the military (in North Africa). He always wondered why he survived and his fellows did not. When asked questions, he would give short answers. He did not want to talk about it. He did share this non-battle experience though. In Bavaria, his new buddies and he went searching for water to drink. Arriving at a nearby house an old German told them that “… in this country we don’t drink water, we drink beer!” And they were glad when he gave them some.

The second story involves a brother’s father-in-law. He, too, was in the Battle of the Bulge. Only he was one of those unlucky officers trapped behind enemy lines. He saw, heard, and endured some terrible things, not the least of which was the suffering and death of soldiers who served with him. But again, he did not want to talk about it.

While recovering from wounds, a doctor taught him how to cope with his anger and frustration. He would wake up even in the middle of the night and write down his thoughts in great detail. Then he would crumple up the paper and throw it away, never to be read by another human being. Although he became a successful executive in the printing and publishing world, he continued with the routine that was taught to him. He would often wake up from a nightmare, write down his thoughts, and throw the paper away. Then return to sleep. Would he tell the full story to his family? No. Never. He died just a few years ago, taking all the history with him.

Again, if you know a World War II veteran, or any veteran of any war, go ahead and coax the story from them as best you can and share it if you can. The personal eyewitness stories are the best.


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