Fred Gehle and his wife haven’t had a meal in their dining room in six years.
World War II keeps getting in the way.
The Augustans’ dining room table is a veritable battlefield of stacks and stacks of memories from the area’s aging veterans of the Second World War – some 800 of them, as a matter of fact. The retired Gehle, the Augusta-Richmond County Historical Society and dozens of volunteers have been interviewing the vets on camera since 2007 to get their stories told and compiled as part of a national effort by the Library of Congress to preserve this national treasure of untapped experiences.
The memories are emotional enough that, almost three-quarters of a century later, some vets can’t even talk about them. Or if they can, they may have to stop the interview to compose themselves.
And sometimes, their spouses admit to having heard the life-and-death tales for the first time.
You couldn’t ask for a better man to head the effort locally than Fred Gehle. Although just 8 years old on Pearl Harbor Day, Gehle is so consumed with the heroism and cohesion of America in those difficult years – both abroad and at home – that he owns some 4,000 books on the subject. That would be more than most libraries.
He picked up three more, on a recent trip to Ireland.
“Everywhere I go, I’m looking for another story,” he says.
His passion for the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation was further stoked by a trip to see the National World War II Museum in New Orleans a few years back. When asked to join this area’s historical society board, he took that passion with him. It spread like the flu.
Now an active 80, the former track star and professional recruiter has been recruiting veterans to tell long-private stories for posterity. It has become a seven-day-a-week mission.
The veterans have to meet three basic criteria: 1) they have strong ties to the Augusta area; 2) they have compelling stories; and 3) they have to be willing to tell it.
The videos will be sent to the Library of Congress, to Reese Library at the former Augusta State University and, of course, to the veterans themselves.
Why? Gehle has the best reason we’ve ever heard: Those veterans “literally saved the world, in my opinion.” It’s in the world’s best interests to know how.
Another great reason comes from a veteran: These stories are living proof of the need to end war.
And yet another reason: We’re quickly losing the vets themselves, and it would be inexcusable if their stories of harrowing heroism went untold. Gehle figures that just since the start of the Veterans’ History Project we’ve lost about a third of the 800 featured veterans.
The best 200 stories are in the process of being transcribed for an upcoming book, on which one University of South Carolina Aiken and two Georgia Regents University professors are collaborating. Gehle and the group need about $20,000 to get that done, and have raised about $12,000 of it – meaning they need another $8,000, which they’ll take in any increments. Contributions, which are made through the Augusta-Richmond County Historical Society, are tax-deductible.
May history record that the sons and daughters of the Augusta area helped save the world from tyranny and darkness.
This group is recording how.
(Contributions may be made to ARCHS -Publication Project, Reese Library, Georgia Regents University Augusta, 2500 Walton Way, Augusta, GA 30904.)