Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Interview a Veteran

May 29, 2017 by

The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.

In the summer of 2015, while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, I had the privilege of interviewing 14 veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War as part of an internship with Rep. Brad Ashford’s office. The experience opened my eyes to a different generation of soldiers (I work primarily with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at UNO’s Office of Military and Veteran Services).

My first interview was with Darrald Harsh, a pilot who served in Europe and was captured by the Germans after parachuting from his plane. Harsh talked about his time in the POW camp, which was liberated by Gen. George Patton’s army.

Each interview followed a basic formula, starting with an overview of their lives before enlistment.

Helen Shadle, an Army nurse who served in Japan during World War II, discussed growing up as the youngest sibling in a large family, living on a farm, hitchhiking to school, and enlisting in the Army the first chance she got. She said the military offered her the opportunity to advance in an era when such opportunities for people like her were few and far between.

Many of the veterans held back the worst details of their war experiences. For some, mundane details were among their most cherished memories of deployment.

Jack Hetterich, who served in Europe, described the harrowing conditions of the march from France to Germany in the middle of winter. He recalled how his favorite care packages were filled with hand-knitted socks and treats that could be shared with fellow soldiers.

Bob Alden, who served in the Navy during World War II, said if you have the opportunity, enlist. “You learn a lot about other places and other people—what their lives are like,” he said, adding, “You survive if you make the right decisions.”

According to George Ostermiller, who served in Japan and assisted with the post-atomic bomb cleanup of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, “There’s nothing good about a war. It made me realize how fortunate we were at the time.”

Ostermiller said the military taught him about “patience, honesty, and integrity.” A feeling shared by many of the veterans, including Alden. “You’re responsible for all your decisions, every day,” Alden said. “All through military life, you have decisions you have to make on your own.”

All the interviews ended with the same question: “What would you like future generations to know about your experiences?” Harsh and many of the veterans expressed a similar response to that question: “Love your country, stay good. Do what they tell you, and don’t hold a grudge,” he said.

The Veterans History Project offers an excellent way to give back to your community. Contributing interviewers have ranged from Eagle Scouts to nursing-home volunteers.

Each interview takes 60 to 90 minutes, and the experience can be life changing. To get started, visit the Library of Congress website. If you are interested in helping, reach out to your local places of worship and retirement homes. Connect with your senators and representatives for assistance in recording these interviews with the Library of Congress.

Visit loc.gov/vets for more information and to download an interview packet.

The author of this article, Leah Meyer, is the director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article appears in the May/June edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

A Family Masterpiece

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Some childhood memories stick with you. Dave Carroll, a retired Union Pacific manager, holds onto the memory of one fateful childhood leap that dented his grandfather’s prized 1950 Mercury.

“I’ve got so much of my life in this car,” Carroll says. When he was about 6 or 7, Carroll was playing with cousins at a tree house on his grandparents’ farm in Fullerton, Nebraska. His grandfather John Carroll’s out-of-commission vehicle sat under the tree house.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Instead of going down the rope ladder, I jumped out of the tree house onto the car and I caved the roof in.”

Carroll remembered his grandpa’s large hands. “He got in the car and he took his hand and popped it out, and I thought, wow.” Some wrinkles remained in the car’s roof and would stay there for many decades. “The funny story is, years later, I paid to fix that roof,” he says.

His grandmother, Etta Carroll, bestowed him the car after his grandfather passed away. Then she accidentally sold the car for $50 to a neighbor kid, while Dave was serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Dave and his father, Jack, travelled to Fullerton to get the car back after Dave returned from overseas. The duo were quickly chased off of the property by shotgun.

“We went downtown and we found the local constable. He was having coffee at the coffee shop. My dad knew him. We told him the story and he said ‘come on, we’ll go back.’” The story ended well for Dave, who was still in possession of the car’s original title. And the car has been with him since then.

Over the years, the Mercury was transported across the United States on a flatbed trailer while Carroll worked his way up at Union Pacific, from a position on the track gang to one in management at the company’s headquarters. His career led him to places such as Sydney (Nebraska), Denver, and Cheyenne. At every new location, Carroll brought along his beloved Merc’. “My intention was to build it, but being a railroader, I didn’t have the time or the funds.”

Carroll returned to Omaha in the ’80s. He met and wed Dianne Cascio Carroll, owner of Anything Goes Salon. Soon after, he began his odyssey of fixing the Mercury. Having the roof repaired is just one of the many changes Carroll has made to his car.

“There’s so many things that have been done to this car,” he says. Over more than 30 years, Carroll says he has spent thousands of hours refurbishing the car. Some projects were finished, only to be torn up again and redone so that he could try the ever-evolving products in the industry that worked better. “That’s my problem,” he says. “I redo things.”

He has often lost track of time while working in his garage in the Huntington Park neighborhood in Omaha. “I’ve had my wife open the door and say, ‘you know what time it is?’ I look at the clock and it’s 10 after 1 in the morning and I’ve got to be to work at 6 in the morning.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about my parents, and honoring the memory of my grandfather. I kept this car because it was in the family and it’s never been out of the family.”

Carroll’s imagination has affected every aspect of the car, from the striking Candy Purple body color, to the custom purple snakeskin roof interior. The air-conditioning vents were salvaged from a 2002 FordTempo. He ordered the custom-made steering wheel from California, and the windshield from Oregon. Thanks to Carroll’s insatiable creativity, the car has a digital dash, an electrical door opener, a late-model motor with custom aluminum valve covers, four-wheel disk brakes, rounded hood corners, a smooth dash and Frenched-in (curved) headlights.

The restoration has also been helped by Ron Moore of Moore Auto Body, Rick White of Redline Upholstery, and Rod Grasmick, an antique auto restorer. Using qualified professionals means that Carroll knows his car is taken care of, but he also finds them to be knowledgable friends.

“I have a couple of friends that are helping me with this car, that’s how our [automotive] community is—everybody helps everybody,” he says.

Will the car ever be finished? “My dad is always telling that he hopes to get to ride it in when it is done, and him being 92 years old puts a lot of pressure on me,” he says.

“My wife says, ‘you’re taking forever.’ Well, look at it this way, there’s better and newer stuff coming out all the time,” Carroll says. And so the journey continues.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Forever Heroes

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When I first saw him, I had no plans to write a book about Nebraska’s World War II veterans. It was just a few days after Veterans Day in November 2015. I was in a writing slump and sitting in a Fremont restaurant. When I stood to get a second cup of coffee, his cap caught my attention: “World War II—Korea—Vietnam Veteran.” When I approached him and thanked him for his service, his immediate response was to thank me for thanking him.

I remember thinking that man has a story to tell. Writing one story about a three-war veteran soon expanded into interviews with 21 World War II veterans for a book titled Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans.

My veterans include 19 men and two women. Seven were drafted between the ages of 17 and 24, the remainder enlisted between 1941 and 1945. Now, their ages range from 90 to 96.

During my research last year, the following statement from the U.S. Veterans Administration proved that a book on World War II veterans can’t be written fast enough:

“Approximately every three minutes a memory of World War II—its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs—disappears. Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now mostly in their 90s. They are dying quickly—at the rate of approximately 430 a day.”

A recent check revealed that rate of attrition has increased to 492 a day. Four of my veterans have recently added to that statistic.

This is why it’s imperative to preserve the stories from these men and women. However, it isn’t just World War II experiences that need to be shared.

The United States Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Its website states, “VHP’s mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.” Visiting the website loc.gov/vets explains how people can get involved with the project. A printable “Field Kit” includes interview questions.

A story doesn’t have to be submitted for inclusion in the Veterans History Project. Its resource materials can be accessed even if an individual just wants to preserve—written or oral—a veteran’s story for familial records. It’s simply important that veterans’ stories are not left untold.

Not everyone is comfortable with the process of interviewing veterans, but no one should dismiss the opportunity to thank veterans for their service. It’s a simple gesture that’s simply appreciated.

It was my privilege to have 21 World War II veterans share their stories with me. Enjoy the following three summarized stories of those veterans who are “Forever Heroes.”

Ben Fischer, an operations board tracker in World War II

Ben Fischer

Ben Fischer was sleeping aboard the SS Cape San Juan, a U.S. freighter/troopship, when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine about 300 miles south of Fiji. It was Nov. 11, 1943, and about 5:30 in the morning.

“The torpedo knocked the engine room out and the ship was leaning to one side,” Fischer says. “Oil [from the ship’s engines] was floating around and we were given orders to abandon ship.”

He swam toward a smaller six-man life raft. The raft was framed with wood and covered with wood decking. Barrels, which Fischer estimated to be about the size of 30-gallon drums, circled the perimeter.

When he first climbed into the raft, Fischer sat on a barrel with both legs inside. As more men climbed aboard, everyone sitting on barrels switched positions.

“We straddled the barrel with one foot in the water and one foot inside the raft,” he says. “We could get more in that way. We were just as close as we could make it.”

More men were crouched on the floor. With 33 men on the raft, Fischer recalls that it was “so full that we couldn’t get another person on.” He adds, “The barrels didn’t hold us up floating anymore. Our life jackets kept us floating.”

The next day, Fischer was still stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Then, he saw a seaplane in the air. It was picking up men who were floating in their lifejackets. He stresses it was right to rescue those men first.

“I saw it up in the air, but we were too far away [for the pilot] to see us,” he says, noting that he never saw any sharks in the water and believes the crude oil from the sinking ship probably kept them away.

Ships in the area headed toward the sinking SS Cape San Juan. Men on a destroyer rescued Fischer and the other 32 men after they had been on the raft for 30 hours.

The destroyer took the rescued men to the Fiji Islands. In the hospital for 10 days, Fischer’s eyes were treated because of reactions to the crude oil.

“One man went blind, and three or four were sent home because of eye problems. I was lucky,” he says.

The San Juan was carrying 1,464 men that included Fischer’s unit, the 1st Fighter Control Squadron. Of the 117 men who died, Fischer says 13 were from his squadron. The San Juan stayed partially afloat for another two days after the attack, sinking on Nov. 13. Fischer, and other men in the 1st Fighter Control Squadron, received the Purple Heart.

After about three months in Australia, Fischer’s Army Air Corps squadron began island hopping around the Philippines. As an operations board tracker, Fischer’s responsibility was to determine if planes were friend or foe.

Two different times during the island hopping, Fischer’s ships escaped encounters with a Japanese kamikaze (suicide pilot). While on one of the islands, he received announcement of the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945.

Upon arrival in San Francisco on Nov. 5, 1945, Fischer says he was content to make his way back to Nebraska without boarding another ship.

Ben Fischer died at age 97 on Feb. 20, 2017.

Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell

Ray Mitchell

On May 28, 1944, Ray Mitchell’s 10-man crew in the 100th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force left base in eastern England. Their destination was an oil refinery in Magdeburg, Germany. Each bombing mission included Mitchell’s squadron of 21 B-17s.

“As we approached the target, about 20 ME 109s [Germany’s principle fighter planes] attacked us. We suffered heavy damage and the airplane was on fire,” he says.

The crew was ordered to bail out. Mitchell, a waist gunner, was behind the bomb bay near the middle of the plane. He explains how pulling a cable attached to the escape hatch released it.

“You have super strength at a time like this,” he says. “I pulled apparently at too much of an angle and broke it. This is almost an impossible situation now because you can’t bail out if the escape hatch isn’t gone.”

Finally able to get the escape hatch to release, Mitchell was ready to jump when the B-17 went into a spin. “It slammed me down on the floor. My radio operator landed on my back.” Estimating the aircraft was at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, Mitchell was beginning to see trees and fenceposts and Germans.

“Every time we made a revolution, I could see the sky, and then the ground, then the sky, then the ground, and it isn’t very far away,” he says. “You think about everything you did when a little kid. It’s not going to hurt me; it’s going to hurt the people back home.”

Then the plane broke in half and Mitchell was pulled outside. He managed to attach his chest-type parachute and pull the rip cord. “It was a relief to see 28 feet of silk up there. It was just 700 feet—not 7,000—before I hit the ground. It wasn’t long until the Germans showed up.” Of the original 21 B-17s in the squadron, only one aircraft was shot down on May 28. “That was us.”

He explains, “You’re not supposed to weaken and talk, so it was a lot of Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, USA” The eight-digit number was his serial number. “You say that over and over and over. They ask you what group you’re from, what kind of airplane you were flying, what altitude were you when you came across the Channel, things like that. Then you just repeat your name, rank, and serial number.”

Mitchell was a prisoner of war at Stalag VII A, located just north of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. He says the thought of freedom “goes through your mind all the time. It was never any doubt in our minds who was going to win the war, but whether you were going to be around when it was over.”

On April 29, 1945, around 9 a.m., gunfire was heard. Then, at 10 minutes after 12 in the afternoon, an American flag was raised. It wasn’t long before Sherman tanks crashed through the fence that surrounded the POW camp. “Literally, thousands of prisoners bolted out of there,” Mitchell says.

On May 1, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the Third Army, arrived at Moosburg “in his jeep with his dog, and a pistol on each hip.” It was two days after liberation and Mitchell was still in the camp. “I was a POW about 11 months and a few days, but before I finally got out, another 10 days had elapsed because I was one of the last to leave.”

Now at age 94 and 72 years after his service in the Army Air Corps, including just over 11 months as a prisoner of war, Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, U.S.A., answers his own question: “Was I proud to serve? You bet.”

 

Infantry Rifleman Mel Schwanke

Mel Schwanke

Am Army officer in World War I probably would have been proud to have his son enlist in the Army during World War II. But what happens when the son wants to enlist in the Marine Corps?

Mel Schwanke knows from experience. He says his father hollered in resistance. And since a 17-year-old enlistee would need parental permission, the paper would not be signed. “So, I talked my mom into signing my papers.”

As an infantry rifleman, Schwanke was trained on firing the Browning Automatic Rifle. The .30-caliber rifle was an air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed weapon.

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the naval ship carrying Schwanke’s platoon arrived at Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa became the largest amphibious assault, the last major battle in the Pacific Theater, and the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific. There were more than 250,000 total casualties. Together with Schwanke’s 1st Marine Division, the 6th Marine Division, and five divisions of the 10th Army, a total of 183,000 troops fought on Okinawa.

Excessive rain meant slow movement through mud on the island. High temperatures, together with the rain, resulted in high humidity. Also, the Japanese were occupying numerous caves. They had constructed an estimated 60 miles of interconnected passages in tunnels, which Schwanke says made combat difficult.

Seven days before Okinawa was secured, on June 12, 1945, Schwanke had his most life-changing experience of the war. Of his original platoon of 63, he was one of only five men who survived the island.

“We had some Japanese trapped in a cave under us and we were lobbing hand grenades down at them, and they were throwing hand grenades up at us. Sometimes we would catch them and throw them back down and they would explode immediately.”

Because he was on a walkie-talkie to call for a flamethrower tank as reinforcement to help get control of the cave, Schwanke was distracted. Suddenly, a buddy yelled, “Mel, get rid of that thing at your feet.” It was a Japanese hand grenade.

“I went to reach for the sucker and it went off right in my face.” He explains the grenades were made of scrap metal, so metal pieces shot in all directions when they exploded.

“One piece severed my watch band, one went in right next to my eye and my hearing was affected. Lots of pieces lodged in my stomach, in my leg and arms, and a big one by my spine.”

Schwanke lost most of the sight in his left eye, which still won’t rotate in its socket. “I have to turn my head to see,” he says. Pieces of shrapnel too close to his spine could not be removed.

For 11 months, he was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, California. He endured multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel pieces and extensive physical therapy to renew his strength. He was presented the Purple Heart while recuperating.

Reflecting on his almost two years of service during World War II, Schwanke, 91, says, “I was absolutely proud to serve and have no regrets about joining the Marine Corps.” Schwanke adds that, at the end of the war, his father was also proud. “My dad was OK by then that I was a Marine.”

For more information, pick up a copy of Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The graveyard in Normandy.

Memories, Tradition, and Families

May 26, 2016 by
Myron Roker

Myron Roker

World War II ended 70 years ago, but Myron Roker still feels the pain of battle. He served with 324th Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division on VE Day. The 93-year-old now lives in Glenwood, Iowa, and still carries shrapnel from a wound sustained in France. His hearing is almost gone, stolen by explosions in war.

But the most painful wound he carries is the loss of friends in combat.

“Freedom is not free,” says Roker. “We have to pay for it. Those are the heroes. The wounded and the ones that gave their lives.”

Memorial Day has a deep, personal meaning for Roker.

“I lost a close buddy over in France to one of our own mines. Sometimes I still tear up,” Roker said.

He and his wife, Karen, spend Memorial Day at the graves of family members in their hometown of Clatonia, Nebraska.

A Family Tradition of Service

Thomas Shimerdla

Thomas Shimerdla

Thomas Shimerdla’s family has a proud military tradition. When he was fighting in Vietnam, so was his brother. His father served during World War II in the 14th Army Air Force. His grandfather fought in France during World War I.

When Shimerdla was a youngster,  Memorial Day meant visits to cemeteries with his father and grandfather to honor veterans.

Shimerdla enlisted in the U.S. Navy Seabees when he was 19. He spent two years serving in Vietnam, a war that took more than 58,000 American lives. “I lost classmates in Vietnam. I think about them on Memorial Day,” he says.

He fought in the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968 that turned Americans against the war. Many who fought faced danger in Vietnam and disdain in the United States.

For Shimerdla, Memorial Day is about spending time with his children and grandchildren.

Before suffering injuries in a motorcycle accident in October, he was part of the American Legion Riders, and rode with them to a cemetery on Memorial Day. “I was proud to be there, honoring soldiers who were killed,” he says.

The motorcycle enthusiast also rides with the Patriot Guard Riders, formed to provide shield from harassment at the funerals of “Fallen Heroes.”


Tradition and Family

Susan and Bill Eustice with son Sean

Susan and Bill Eustice with son Sean

Susan Eustice says tradition is a big part of her holiday. She agrees that time with family is what Memorial Day is about. For four generations, her family has spent Memorial Day at Lake Okoboji.

“My mother was six weeks old when she first spent the holiday at the lake,” Eustice says.

Her mother’s paternal grandparents, the Rectors, built a home at the beach. Eustice is also related to the Clarke family, who were among the first families to settle on Okoboji’s Omaha Beach.

This year Susan and her husband, attorney Bill Eustice, plan to enjoy  fireworks, boating, swimming, sailing, biking, and dinners with family members. He and his band, The Firm, will perform at the Barefoot Bar.

They haven’t missed a Memorial Day celebration at Lake Okoboji in three decades. For them, the day is about tradition.