Beyond the call of duty

New book, video illuminates World War II stories of heroism, hardship

“Time did steal many pieces of the story, but in the end the race was won and you hold in your hands the evidence of that victory.”

 

– Steven J. Rauch

A young student Fred Gehle was talking with mistakenly thought “WWII” was “World War Eleven.”

A World War II veteran Gehle went to interview in a motel room had hung sheets on the wall. Some 70 years after imprisonment and torture by the Japanese, the veteran still wet his bed at night.

This is the Grand Canyon of awareness looming between generations. The younger may have little conception of the great struggle to defeat tyranny on two sides of the world and the titanic sacrifices made to do it. The older lived it.

We need to make sure members of the Greatest Generation lay down their often agonizing memories before they’re gone completely, so that present and future generations, like them, never forget.

Problem is, back in the days before we knew anything about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – back when a general like George Patton might slap a “shell-shocked” soldier for supposedly being a coward – you didn’t talk out your trauma. You buried it with the honored fallen, came home and quietly tried to somehow integrate back into a civil society where the guy around the corner wasn’t out to get you and the customer walking in a restaurant wasn’t looking to shoot you.

The World War II generation is famously known for having done this – having mistaken repression for stoicism and courage.

Indeed, in just the past few years Gehle saw one Aiken veteran’s stunned family hear him speak – for the first time in front of them – of having nearly been bayoneted from behind in the jungles of New Guinea before a buddy shot the approaching Japanese fighter. It was one of two near-death experiences he’d never mentioned, even to his closest intimates.

We can’t let these glimpses of honor and horror fade from world memory. They must be preserved, to inform and inspire present and future generations.

Congress authorized the Veterans History Project in 2000 to make sure that’s done, by creating an impetus and a repository at the Library of Congress for the memories of all war veterans.

Augustan Fred Gehle and the Augusta Richmond County Historical Society he’s been a director of ran with it, creating this area’s project in 2007.

After painstaking interviews over the past decade – emphasis on the “pain” – of more than 850 Augusta-Aiken area World War II veterans, the local project has catalogued the memories of 147 of them in a new book called In Their Own Words – Augusta and Aiken Area Veterans Remember World War II. There’s also a companion DVD produced by Augustan Mark Albertin’s Scrapbook Video Productions with the recollections of over 20 of the veterans, called Memories of War.

In praise of the tome, whose initial 500-copy run has nearly sold out after a successful book signing at the Augusta Museum of History Aug. 12, Steven J. Rauch, Signal Corps Branch Historian at Augusta’s Fort Gordon, calls it “the culmination of a 10-year race against time.” Indeed, Gehle estimates half or more of the 147 veterans profiled in the book have passed on since their interviews.

Dozens of volunteers, who gave more than 5,000 hours to research, prepare and interview the 850-plus veterans, as well as three book editors – James Garvey, Douglas Higbee and Hubert Van Tuyll – gave their all to share these poignant stories of heroism and hardship by area vets – our friends, neighbors and family members who not only won the war against despotism but who came back and got back to work building the greatest nation on Earth.

“I got involved because I’m a military historian,” Van Tuyll tells us, “but maybe more important was that my parents were victims/survivors of the Nazi invasion of Holland and lived through five years of occupation. So the Americans and other veterans who defeated Nazi Germany have a special place in my heart.

“Many of the stories have such great impact that I would reread them again and again during the editing process even when I didn’t have to. These were not extraordinary people. They were ordinary folk who accomplished extraordinary things.”

Gehle, who grew up in New Jersey and was 8 years old in 1941, remembers subsequent walks on the Jersey shore when the sand was gooey with the fuel of ships that sank off the coast.

“These stories are important now and in the future,” adds Gehle. “The younger generations that didn’t live through these times don’t realize the commitment in the nation for all people to support our military – to make the sacrifices necessary, whether it was during times of rationing on the home front or doing without some of the pleasures of normal life.”

Other communities around the nation have embarked on similar veterans history projects. But how many can boast such a thorough round of interviews, a comprehensive book with thumbnails of 147 vets, and a moving video to boot?

“I think we’ve gone well beyond average,” Gehle acknowledges modestly.

Beyond the call of duty. Sounds familiar.

 

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