Project saves oral histories

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AIKEN --- In March 1943, Trenton native James F. Huiet, on the cusp of his 18th birthday, joined the Navy to avoid being drafted by the Army.

Little did he know that more than a year later on June 6, 1944, he would be aboard a ship at Omaha Beach, embroiled in one of the most important battles of World War II.

The gunner's mate third class was on the USS LST-212, a naval vessel that carried tanks and troops across the English Channel to Omaha Beach. It was the third Landing Ship Tank vessel to hit the beach, and by that time, there had been hundreds of casualties.

"The ocean was red instead of blue," Mr. Huiet, 82, said as he sat at Aiken Technical College across from a tripod-mounted camera recording his memories. "The only thing that ever bothered me when we landed, there were so many bodies in the water there we crushed some of them."

Since January, veterans' memories have been recorded by the Augusta-Richmond County Historical Society for the Veterans History Project, approved by Congress to collect oral histories from veterans of all wars. The recordings will be stored at the Library of Congress.

"Over 60,000 vets have participated nationwide," said Fred Gehle, the director of Augusta's historical society and the project's area coordinator. He said 439 veterans have been identified locally.

The veterans of World War II are in their 80s, and of those the historical society have contacted, a fair number have died before they could be interviewed, Mr. Gehle said.

Mr. Huiet is among more than 200 World War II veterans from the Aiken area whose story has been recorded.

He remembers how the first tank that rolled off the vessel he was on was the guinea pig. As it cleared the bow's massive ramp, if it didn't hit a mine, other tanks would make sure to follow

The five-mile beach was a minefield that troops had to negotiate while dodging fire. When troops and vehicles off-loaded, Mr. Huiet and the rest of the crew were at the mercy of the tide.

It would be 12 hours before the LST could leave the beach, and when it did, the crew took wounded and dying soldiers back across the English Channel. In all, Mr. Huiet said, they made 33 trips back and forth.

At one point, hours into the invasion, some Polish "solders in German uniforms tried to surrender, but ... they were shot," Mr. Huiet said quietly.

In Aiken, the interviews are conducted Wednesdays at Aiken Tech by Bill Tilt and Stan Schrader, Army veterans who had been employed at the school for about 20 years. Interviews also are conducted at Augusta Technical College, and in some cases, Mr. Gehle said, interviewers have gone to a veteran's home if they were unable to travel.

From the interview, four DVDs are made -- one for the veteran, two for the historical society, and one for the Library of Congress.

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.


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