Saturday, May 24, 2003

History preserved - by the people who made it

Project asks war veterans to share their story

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Marcus Ware of North Avondale was assigned in 1944 to one of the first all-black Navy bands.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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For years, Tom Coyle didn't talk much about his World War II experience as a sergeant in an artillery battalion.

"When I left the Army," says the 81-year-old Middletown man with wispy white hair, "I was finished with the war."

But in the half-century since his military service ended, the retired lab technician's perspective changed. "As we get older, we like to pass our experiences on to people," he says.

His chance to do that came when a younger brother interviewed him for the Veterans History Project, a program of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Coyle was able to draw on many still-vivid memories: steaming to Europe aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner, fighting in France and Germany and liberating concentration camps.

Memorial Day weekend, when the nation honors its war dead, is an appropriate time to highlight the project, which collects and preserves audio- and video-taped oral histories, as well as materials such as letters, photographs and home movies. There's a certain urgency: About 1,500 U.S. veterans - mostly from World War II - are dying each day.

Coyle is among 7,000 war veterans and civilians nationwide whose stories are part of the project. It was created by Congress in 2000 and covers World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.

The purpose, says project director Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, is "to preserve memory, to look at history as it's really lived, not only as it's written about from the standpoint of powerful people."

[IMAGE] Tom Coyle of Middletown holds a drawing of himself made in 1944 while he was a sergeant in an artillery battalion. At left is Tom's brother Joe, who interviewed him for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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To do that, the project relies on everyday folks - such as sons, daughters, friends, students and librarians - to gather information.

In Tom Coyle's case, it was his brother Joe's granddaughter who first became involved through school. But she lived more than 200 miles away, so Joe, who lives in Springboro, drove to Tom's Middletown home and interviewed his brother.

"One memory would lead to another, and he went on and on," says Joe Coyle, 64, who saw no combat as a Marine from 1958 to 1961. "It was very interesting."

Interesting, indeed. Tom Coyle was a month shy of his 21st birthday when he was drafted in July 1942. After nearly two years of training, he boarded the Queen Mary for a five-day voyage across the Atlantic. Men slept in bunks stacked four and five high while the ship changed course every few minutes to keep German submarines guessing.

"If the guy above you got seasick, just scoot back," Coyle says.

On the battlefields of France, he helped keep the howitzers of the 313th Artillery Battalion supplied with ammunition. That meant shuffling from the relative safety of ammo dumps to the frenzied front lines.

"You'd die a thousand deaths each time you had to go back up (to the front) because you knew you were going right back into it again. There's noise. You feel it. And you smell it, that gunpowder in the air. And when you go through a town ... you can smell those burned bodies."

Volunteer interviewers can find all the information they need to participate in the Veterans History Project in a kit available online at Web site.

The kit includes sample questions for veterans and civilians, information about transcribing interviews, directions on how to donate materials to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center or to other archives, information about other oral history projects and project forms.

For more information about the project, call (202) 707-4916, or write: The Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20540-4615.

Coyle still recalls the image of the first dead soldier he saw: a German lying on his back, helmet on, face badly swollen, the chin strap drawn tight "like a banjo string." But nothing could prepare him for the concentration camps his outfit liberated: Buchenwald, near Weimer, Germany, and Ebensee, in Austria.

Coyle pulls out several small black-and-white photos taken at the Ebensee camp. One is of a crematorium. The others show emaciated prisoners. In one especially poignant picture, an unclothed man with arms thin as broom handles lies on the wooden frame of a bed that has no mattress.

"I talked with him," Coyle says. "He was a Russian physician."

It all seemed unreal, he says.

"See, I grew up back at a time when we left doors open and we'd walk outside at nighttime. Our culture didn't include violence, and then all at once you see something like this, you see man's inhumanity to man. It was more shocking to us, I think, than it is to the ones coming along now."

Many such moving stories are part of the Veterans History Project, McCulloch-Lovell says. But interviews also are laced with humorous anecdotes, such as "stealing a ham from the skipper and cooking it in the boiler room for the guys."

McCulloch-Lovell herself has interviewed a dozen veterans. Last August she traveled to Burlington, Vt., for a reunion of World War II vets who served with her late father aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS Hobby.

Among those she met and interviewed was Raymond Gormas, 79, of Sycamore Township, who was a sailor on a sister ship, the USS Gillespie. For most of 1943 his ship escorted convoys across the Atlantic. The last two years of the war, the Gillespie operated in the Pacific, participating in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, among others. The ship, with Gormas aboard, was anchored in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender.

"I love hearing these stories," says Jeff Johnson Yaw, a 46-year-old a special education teacher who lives in West Chester. He learned of the project a year ago and interviewed his father, Bill, a World War II Navy veteran. Yaw has since recorded interviews with six more vets, including Marcus Ware of North Avondale, who Yaw met at Batavia's WOBO-FM (88.7), where both men are volunteer deejays.

Ware, a 77-year-old retired postal worker, was happy to participate. "A lot of people don't know what black Americans did during World War II," he says.

He told Yaw of joining the Navy in April 1944, a month after his 18th birthday. Ware, who'd played trombone since junior high school, was assigned to one of the first all-black Navy bands.

"I was a kid born and raised in the West End. Getting a chance to play in a Navy band I thought was the greatest thing in the world. I thought I was going to get to travel around the world."

He got as far as Pearl Harbor, where he played with a 17-piece group called the West Loch Rockets. The black musicians performed at dances, parties for white officers and the like. They were housed in segregated quarters.

"I only went on liberty twice in Honolulu," Ware says. "The first time, some white Marines saw me. They were half drunk, and wanted to know what I was doing with a musician insignia. They cursed me, called me everything, and wanted to fight." They let him go after he promised he'd never return to town.

When he ventured back to town a year later, he was hassled again.

"Mississippi at that time couldn't have been any worse than Hawaii for black servicemen," he says. He was partially disabled when an unexplained explosion rocked the base in the middle of the night.

Yaw, who hopes to do more interviews, says the veterans are proud to know their stories will be preserved by the Library of Congress and made available to future generations through the American Folklife Center Reading Room.

Still, it's difficult for some people to share their stories. McCulloch-Lovell met a veteran in North Dakota who was in Hiroshima, Japan, after the atomic bomb was dropped. Tears filled the eyes of the craggy-faced man, now in his 70s, as he said he'd never been able to talk about his experience.

"But I'm gonna try," he told her.

"I was very moved by that," she says, "by the sense that he felt it was important, after all, to pass his story on."


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