Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Let's begin at the beginning

Back in the summer of 2006 I was sick with some kid of flu or something. It was one of those illnesses that make it too unpleasant to sleep. My wife isn't a big fan of war movies, so I took the opportunity offered by those late nights to watch the Band of Brothers series on DVD. At certain points during the program the camera is on actual veterans talking about their experiences. One of them mentioned a grandson asking about his service. I thought, "I should ask my own grandpa about his time in the Army." He had mentioned little snippets of stories throughout the years, but I never sat down with him to really talk about it. So, when I was feeling better, I started calling to interview him.

I lived in Maryland at the time, and he was in upstate New York. The phone calls were a nice bonding experience. Although he was quite active in his neighborhood, he was living alone. The frequent calls were welcome, and he enjoyed sharing his memories. No one had asked for so many details before. He's not really much of a storyteller, so he had never really forwarded the info on his own. In fact, my mom tells me that he never spoke of the War until about the 1990s! The silence wasn't because of horrid memories. Although, men in his outfit were killed, he wasn't in a front-lines infantry unit. I think he kept quiet mostly because he didn't think it was worth talking about. He told me that everybody back then (at home and abroad) was doing their part for the war effort, so there was no reason to bring it up afterwards. Yet, the 519th story is proving to be a fascinating one!

My initial interviews were pretty informal. I asked questions and while he spoke I scribbled down notes as fast as I could. As we went along I picked up more scholarly oral history techniques. A nice oral history guidebook was suggested to me. Interestingly, it turned out to be a book that I had designed, The Oral History Manual. It's not the finest cover design I ever did, but the text was very useful! I bought a tape recorder, and started recording our phone conversations.

Meanwhile I had also tracked down other men from his unit. I thought they could fill in the broader picture. The 519th Port Battalion was reactivated during the Vietnam conflict as the 519th Transportation Bn. Veterans from this war have set up an association website. It was here that I found Bruce and Dave. These two guys have been immensely helpful in my research. They provided me with photos (to add to my grandfather's extensive album), anecdotes, newspaper clippings, various details, and contacts for other veterans.

When I first set out on this project I intended it to be a short collection of my grandfather's stories. As I spoke to the other guys I started to think I had enough material to publish a book on the unit as a whole. I had always thought that WWII was a subject that was overly studied. I was really quite surprised at how much history has been hidden. In the UK the 519th Port Bn. loaded the ships for the Normandy invasion. It landed in the first wave on Utah Beach. Once there it transported the supplies needed for the advancing Allied army. It continued work in the Belgium port of Antwerp under constant German rocket attacks. The men that were a part of this had alot of stories to tell. My book aims to get those stories out there!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment! You can email me too (see at right).