Western Pa. veterans from World War II step up to share tales
World War II veteran Jack Watson most remembers the stench, the inescapable smell of decaying bodies that permeated the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
The five-week fight ranks among the deadliest in the Pacific Theater, having forced soldiers into intimate confrontations where “you were sure as hell right in the line of fire — continuously,” recalled Watson, 91, of Upper St. Clair, a former Marine Corps sergeant who turned 21 on the Japanese island.
Yet his family would not know for 70 years the horrific details of his combat, an ordeal he recounted in January during a two-hour conversation for the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative.
The Western Pennsylvania project has recorded interviews with about 215 World War II veterans since 2012, capturing their memories as members of the famously reserved generation finally loosen up and reveal more information in their waning years, organizers said.
“Our stories are all that we have when we leave. There are photographs; there are our artifacts. But who we are, what we did, what we meant to people — all those things get related through stories,” said project director and founder Kevin Farkas, 49, of West Mayfield in Beaver County.
He partnered his effort in 2012 with the nonprofit Veterans Breakfast Club, a regional story-sharing program started in 2009 by Todd DePastino and Dan Cavanaugh. Recording sessions are free for veterans of all wars, whose spoken stories appear at veteranvoicesofpittsburgh.com and will be stored at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
Interview requests are available through the website.
“I quickly found I was really learning a lot more about life than I was about history, that there are a lot of life lessons in what the veterans have to share,” said DePastino, 48, of Mt. Lebanon.
Most of the project participants are World War II veterans, whose modesty helped keep them from the limelight for decades, said Barbara Gannon, an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
“It took, really, until even the 1990s before people started to notice them,” Gannon said. She cited NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw's 1998 book “The Greatest Generation” and the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” as key to calling attention to World War II veterans and leading to the war memorial on the National Mall.
Renewed public interest and encouragement from family members are helping nudge more elderly veterans to record their stories, whether for local projects or the national Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, veteran advocates said. Many participants report wanting to build an accurate historical record as they recognize their advanced age.
Nearly a million World War II veterans survive in the United States, down from about 4.3 million in 2003 and more than 15.6 million right after the war, federal numbers show. About 57,800 live in Pennsylvania or list the state as their home, according to the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
“In all these years, no one had ever asked me anything about it. I had never been invited to talk about it,” said Harold G. Hall, 92, of Scott, who was an Air Force pilot stationed in Alaska during the war.
He spent an hour this week recording his war stories for Veteran Voices, spurred through a family connection to the project. Hall hopes the project “would help Americans recognize that (the war) happened,” he said.
Bob Buckler, 90, of Shaler went next before the microphone. A former staff sergeant in the Air Force, he was aboard a B-17 bomber forced to land in February 1944 in Sweden after coming under German fire. He stayed in the Nordic country through November that year.
“I was one of the fortunate ones to go to Sweden. We were losing 10 percent of our planes every time we flew over Germany, so a lot of those people didn't make it,” Buckler said.
At the Veterans History Project in Washington, materials centered on World War II account for more than half the 96,000 collections that workers have assembled since 2000, program coordinator Monica Mohindra said. She said each collection usually represents one veteran, many of them quick to deflect recognition and credit.
Only by combining each veteran's story with the rest can historians paint a full portrait of a conflict, Mohindra said.
“Every veteran's story is important,” she said.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.