Uncle Charlie was a soft-spoken gentleman farmer: A tall, raw-boned, square-jawed man with a head full of white hair and eyebrows to match, who never stepped outside of his Durham, N.C., home — whether to tend to his old mule or walk to the mailbox — without putting on his tan fedora. He was always smiling, calling all the girls “shugah,” the boys, “son,” and generally making everyone in his presence feel as if he or she was the most important person in the world.
Uncle Charlie was also a former U.S. Army medical corpsman who had experienced some of the most hellish combat in the Pacific during World War II. In fact, his experiences were so horrible that for the rest of his life he could not tolerate the sound of a child’s cap pistol, or the mere hum of a propeller-driven aircraft overhead.
But whenever I asked — as all boys do — about the war, he just smiled, put his big, leathery hand on my shoulder, and said, “Son, I got to travel a lot and enjoy the beautiful blue waters of the Pacific.”
Uncle Charlie never talked about the war; not until that first Christmas after I had graduated from Marine boot camp. “Now I’ll tell you,” he said. And he did: Terrible stories of men being shot to pieces on a remote beach; of being hunkered down in a hole trying to comfort two 18-year-old draftees scared to death, crying, and praying as shells exploded all around them throughout the night.
His brothers, my Uncles Gene and Romey, also experienced combat, but in the European theater.
Uncle Gene described the feeling of awe as he prepared to set sail for the European continent from a base somewhere in England, watching as the massive, seemingly endless air-armada of transport planes and gliders — en route to Normandy — literally darkened the skies above him.
Uncle Romey talked about how — as an artillery forward observer — he watched as a German infantry patrol was completely destroyed by the shellfire that he himself had radioed-in the coordinates on.
“One minute I saw young men who looked like us — just wearing different uniforms — walking across a quiet field,” he told me before he died a few years ago. “The next minute, they were running and screaming and being ripped apart and burned.”
My uncles’ stories are similar to those of so many other World War II-era veterans (now numbering less than three million). But each story is also unique — a special narrative-expansion of recorded history, and we are losing them at a rate of over 1,000 per day.
But it’s not just the veterans of World War II: There are some 17 million living American war veterans — from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan — and the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project is gathering as many of those unique stories as possible before they are lost to history: doing so through family and friend-conducted audio and video-taped interviews with veterans.
“The largest oral history archive in the nation [according to its website] with over 50,000 collections,” the Veterans History Project received a Congressional boost on Monday when House Resolution 770 was passed, calling on all Americans “to interview at least one veteran in their families or communities according to guidelines provided by the Veterans History Project.”
I wish I had done so with my uncles and my dad, a Korean War Veteran, before they passed. But it might have been easier said than done.
“The problem is similar to what Tom Brokaw encountered when he was interviewing veterans for ‘The Greatest Generation,’” Col. Bob Patrick (U.S. Army, ret.), director of the Veterans History Project, tells National Review Online. “The veterans would say, ‘You wouldn’t understand. You weren’t there.’ They’ll talk amongst themselves, but often not to outsiders.”
Beyond that, wartime experiences are experiences that many veterans say are best forgotten.
“They don’t want to open that door again,” says Patrick, who also directed the National World War II Memorial Project through its 2004 dedication.
Veterans do however often choose to talk about their experiences as they near the end of life.
“Maya Angelou once said, ‘There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you,’” says Patrick. “So I think many veterans eventually want to rid themselves of the burden, clear the deck so to speak. It’s all about timing, and the time is often later than sooner.”
This weekend marked two important veterans’ anniversaries: The 232nd Marine Corps Birthday (Nov. 10) and Veterans Day (Nov. 11). I spent a portion of the weekend with a friend and former Marine who landed in the second wave on Iwo Jima and who would ultimately be carried off Iwo with two shattered legs.
Everybody needs to connect with the veteran in their life: Be it the barber, the guy sitting in front of you at church, your Uncle Charlie, or that Marine veteran you’ll see this weekend. We need to thank them for their gift of freedom, and their stories need to be recorded for both the research value of the human experience as well as the inspiration value.
Though he does not believe it is necessary for all young Americans to serve in the military, Patrick says it is important that future generations be inspired to involve themselves in things bigger than themselves. And America’s military veterans are those who have done just this.
— A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at “The Tank.”