Valley Veterans tell war stories for oral military history project
For Floyd Kizzie, having the chance to talk about his experiences in Vietnam nearly 40 years later was healing.
“I was able to bring back some things and get a lot of things out of my system,” said Kizzie, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam.
George Essey is categorized as a Korean War veteran, even though he never served when war ravaged that Asian country.
Still, the former sailor recalled the day a Frenchman accidentally flicked a cigarette, igniting an aviation gas line and setting off a fire that claimed the lives of five servicemen and three residents of Marseilles.
“I heard someone yell ‘fire drill, fire drill,'” Essey recalled. “When I saw the red flames, I yelled up and told them this is not a drill.”
A medic, Essey helped save one sailor who was burned across most of his body.
A Monessen resident – like Kizzie – Essey served in the U.S. Navy for four years, beginning as the Korean War was concluding.
Essey and Kizzie, like so many other Valley residents, once served their nation. Ironically, many don't realize their stories are vital to creating a living history of their service America, said Ron Chromulak, a U.S. Air Force veteran and volunteer at the Greater Monessen Historical Society. Oral histories of veterans are being filmed at the society's museum on Donner Avenue.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don't have a story to tell,' but that's not really true,” Chromulak said. “Everybody has a story to tell.”
Valley veterans such as Essey, Kizzie and Chromulak are having records their military service preserved through the Veterans History Project.
A project of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, it is primarily an oral history program that collects and preserves the first-hand interviews of America's war-time veterans.
It relies on volunteers, both individuals and organizations, throughout the nation to contribute veterans' stories. In addition to audio- and video-recorded interviews; memoirs; collections of original photographs and letters; diaries; maps; and other historical documents.
Established in 2000, it entails accounts of U.S. veterans from World War I (1914-1920), World War II (1939-1946), the Korean War (1950-1955), The Vietnam War (1961-1975), the Persian Gulf War (1990-1995), and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (2001-present).
In addition, U.S. civilians actively involved in supporting war efforts, such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors and medical volunteers, can share their stories.
Dr. Michael J. Brna is director of the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources teacher professional development program at California University of Pennsylvania. He and his staff tape the interviews. The Greater Monessen Historical Society established a room on the second floor of the museum to conduct the interviews.
Four copies of each interview are made – one each for the participant, the Library of Congress, the university and the historical society.
“It's something everyone would want to keep for posterity,” Chromulak said. “It's a great opportunity for veterans to tell their stories.
“You don't have to be a hero, we're just interested in your perspective.
“We're interested in the effects it had on you, things that happened overseas. We feel it's worthwhile to get these stories out.”
Chromulak noted that TV documentaries by the History Channel and Discovery, for example, often involve research from the Library of Congress. So local oral histories could end up being used in such productions.
In 2007, the Library of Congress and PBS worked jointly to collect oral histories from World War II veterans as a part of the Ken Burns documentary “The War.”
Essey, who distributes an e-mail report for the Mid-Mon Valley Shipmates, sent a link to the oral history Website to all of the organization's members. He has also promoted the oral history program at the Shipmates' meetings.
“It is a tremendous program,” Essey said. “The best part was that I was able to relate freely about my duties in the service, and there was no holds barred. You can talk about all of your experiences in the service.
“I now have, on a disc, all my memories of my two years on a ship.”
Essey served aboard the USS Lake Champlain, an Essex-class aircraft carrier, in the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean.
Essey said the project might make people realize the importance of their service. It will also help veterans of all wars to deal with lingering issues, Kizzie said.
Kizzie served two tours in Vietnam, in 1964 and then in 1966-67.
A Special Forces demolition specialist, he served “in advisory capacity, teaching ethnic Cambodians and later the mountain people of Vietnam to fight.
“I felt so bad for the children. The children got caught up in this,” he said.
Kizzie said is Vietnam experience helped him appreciate what those serving in Iraq went through.
“I hated for it to happen - when people stopped being people and started being things,” Kizzie said. “Now I can say this. Now I know what happened.
“And I empathize with guys in Iraq. They're not killing people, they're killing things. Something happens in your mind. That's the mentality you have to have to survive.”
To tell your wartime story, call the Greater Monessen Historical Society at 724-684-8466 from 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.
“We schedule appointments, and we will provide transportation, if needed,” Chromulak said.
Kizzie said some veterans are reluctant to take part in the program.
“I tell them ‘There's no need holding it back. What are you saving it for?” he said.
Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.