Tag Archives: Library of Congress

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.

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.

Celebrating Omaha’s World War II Veterans

April 25, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs, Headshot by Bill Sitzmann

As a kid, my grandfather’s World War II experiences were the stuff of legend.

Army private first-class Robert Wesley Meigs fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He crossed the Remagen Bridge and survived a German artillery blast. The explosion killed two of his fellow infantrymen, and the shrapnel remains in his arm to this day. As Allied forces marched onward—and he got out of the hospital—Grandpa returned to the front. He even helped to liberate a concentration camp; he remembers how the starving victims scattered across the countryside when U.S. troops opened the gates.

But he didn’t talk about the war with us grandkids. A case full of his medals—including a Purple Heart—remained tucked away, out of view. Our father told brief anecdotes, but the stories were incomplete. And we were scared to ask for more details.

Then one day, during my undergraduate studies, a military history class gave me an opportunity to sit down with my grandfather. A class project was my excuse to pry into his role in the Greatest Generation’s fight against global fascism.

A transcript from the 2005 interview is now collected by the Library of Congress Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project, and an edited version is posted on Omaha Magazine’s website, here.

Today, Grandpa is 94 years old. I am still learning from him—about life in general, and about his time in World War II. But the stories and perspectives of his generation are becoming increasingly scarce with the passage of time.

One Veterans Day not long ago, I thanked Grandpa for being a hero. He corrected me. “The real heroes never made it home,” he said with a stern face.

In the fall of 2016, he moved from Nebraska to Idaho to live closer to my uncles after my grandmother had passed. Before leaving town, he shared an unexpected anecdote: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was peed on?” Grandpa said, laughing, as he recalled another soldier’s “misfire” in the crowded foxhole. It was a crude awakening after he finally managed to catch a moment of sleep between German artillery bombardments.

The stories of World War II and the experiences of veterans are as diverse as the Americans who contributed to the war effort. Omaha Magazine’s May/June issue celebrates Omaha’s veterans of World War II with a multi-part story package. The issue’s publication coincides with the 73rd anniversary of D-Day and the Allied storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Omaha Beach—one of five Normandy beachheads—is synonymous with America’s entry into the war. My grandfather did not participate in the invasion. But the entire nation would soon know the infamous codename of D-Day’s bloodiest beachhead. The city of Omaha eventually became his home. His children graduated from local high schools. My father met my Nebraska-raised mother in Omaha, and the rest is history.

Our May/June issue is especially rich with local history stories. Higgins Boats (boats utilized in D-Day beach landings) were actually invented by a man who grew up in Omaha. After Andrew Higgins’ expulsion from Creighton Prep High School, he joined the Nebraska National Guard.

The Omaha metro remains home to many World War II veterans. Several of their stories (excerpted in this issue) are captured in a new book by Joyce Winfield, a retired Midland University professor of journalism. Leah Meyer, the interim director of UNO’s Office of Military and Veteran Services, explains how others can contribute their own veteran interviews to the Library of Congress.

But there are many ways Omahans continue to celebrate the lives of World War II vets—evident in the work of two local filmmakers. Ben Drickey followed his grandfather on a trip to Germany, revisiting his time in the war. The film project kickstarted Drickey’s career in film production. Meanwhile, there is the story of Shawn Schmidt’s 48 Stars, a film that tells the stories of World War II veterans in their own words. Schmidt’s father fought in World War II, but the son never had a chance to document his story. Now, he is making up for lost time while there’s still time with other World War II vets.

Omaha Magazine salutes the veterans of World War II, and all of the men and women who have put their lives on the line for America. We hope you enjoy the issue!

This letter appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

History Comes to Life

October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Durham Museum underwent a $1.2 million renovation this past year. But most of the improvements are not visible to visitors, according to Executive Director Christi Janssen. Behind-the-scenes work, such as security cameras and new heating and air conditioning, were main concerns. The renovations were another step forward in improving the visitor experience, the museum’s priority.

The visitor experience also has been enhanced by close relationships with national partners providing exhibits that would otherwise not be seen in Omaha: The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum; Chicago’s Field Museum; and the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of our physical enhancements have been because of our partners’ needs for their exhibits,” says Janssen. “National museums have standards and requirements for their exhibition partners. They want a staff that understands what it takes to mount a successful show.” Exhibit costs can range from $50,000 to $500,000. “Security is a major part of the cost,” she says. “For the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, we had 24/7 security.”

The partnerships that Omaha’s regional history museum has forged have led to a new era of exceptional traveling exhibits.

Partners on Display

In 2004, the Velde Hall of American History was completed, providing environmentally controlled space for traveling exhibits, which further encouraged national partners to send exhibits to the Omaha museum.

In January 2011, the Library of Congress sent to Omaha With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition. “The Library of Congress said it was the best installation in the five-city tour,” Janssen says.

The Durham works with other partners, too. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry sent Mindbender Mansion this year, among the museum’s best-attended exhibits. More than 70,000 people visited. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, an upcoming exhibit (that includes Lady Gaga’s meat dress) will be on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Feb. 9-May 5, 2013.

Traveling exhibits from partners are sometimes matched with a compatible exhibit put together by Durham Museum curators. Examples are current exhibits now on display: The American Soldier reflects soldiering from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. Its companion exhibit, Worn with Pride: Americans in Uniform, gives a local angle to the same topic.

You may be surprised to learn that the museum’s largest artifact on display is right before you as you enter the parking lot. It’s the Art Deco-style building the museum sits in. The building was constructed in 1931 by Union Pacific as a station for railroad passengers who traveled in elegance.

Building2 copy

Walking into the museum’s Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall for the first time is an awesome experience. Interior walls are limestone with polished black Belgian marble and terrazzo floors. The ceiling is gold, silver, and aluminum leaf. Brass lighting fixtures hanging from the 65-foot-tall ceiling each weighs one ton. It takes 45 minutes to replace a light bulb.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood said he designed the building “to depict the strength and masculinity of the railroad.” Because Omaha is Union Pacific’s headquarters, an all-out effort was made to construct a special building.

As airplanes, interstate highways, and Amtrak provided new ways to travel, passenger trains dwindled. In 1971, the final UP passenger train left the station. UP donated the building near downtown to the city. The building became the Western Heritage Museum in 1975. The regional museum is now called the Durham Museum after philanthropists Chuck and Margre Durham, who led a $25 million renovation effort to create the museum seen today.

Membership at the Durham has more than doubled since 2004. About 40 to 45 percent of visitors are from out of town, leaving behind money at local shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Education at the Museum

Households with children predominate the list of visitors coming through the museum doors, a major change since 2004. The Durham has set out to make the museum a place of education as well as fun for children. Museum staff follow state education standards, work with local Nebraska and Iowa school districts, and distribute curriculum guides as a resource for teachers.

An example is the curriculum ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Students are asked to identify a U.S. president, his years in office, and a major event tied to him.

The Velde Gallery of American History is a destination for many class field trips. Children also can sign up for summer camp and for summer workshops that offer educational games and tours.

These upcoming exhibits throw a spotlight on topics of educational interest:

  • Girl Scouts: 100 Years of Courage, Confidence and Character—Nov. 3, 2012 – June 9, 2013
  • We Want the Vote: Women’s Suffrage on the Great Plains—Feb. 23 – May 26, 2013
  • A T. Rex Named Sue—May 25 – Sept. 8, 2013
  • Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear—Sept. 28, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014

20120917_bs_2179-Edit-copy_2

Saving Omaha’s Pictorial History

Two years ago, Durham Museum staff began the long process of digitizing more than 700,000 historical photos from the 1860s to the 1990s and making them searchable online.

Yes, you read that number correctly. More than 700,000 photos that document Omaha’s history from frontier days to modern days are in one archive. Some of the negatives and prints are more than a century old and were in danger of being lost to history as they deteriorated.

The Durham turned to interns for help. Each spends about 20 to 30 hours a week to archive and document the collection. The interns also get hands-on experience by building exhibits around the photo archives. Photos are organized in 17 different collections. So far, 50,000 of the photographs in the archives have been posted online, where they can be viewed or purchased for a minimal amount at durhammuseum.org.

“Ak-Sar-Ben is the most recent collection of photos and artifacts,” says Janssen. “We want to be the repository for all things Ak-Sar-Ben.”

Some people using the photographs are compiling family or local histories. Others are writing books or producing documentaries.

“There are not many communities that have this kind of historical documentation,” says Janssen.