For eleven years, I have been interviewing veterans for my series in The Morning Call, War Stories: In their Own Words. When I mention to friends and family that I talk to old vets and write up their stories, people say “Wow! They pay you to do that? That sounds like fun!” Yes, it is fun, but it is also a lot of work. A once-and-done interview with a war veteran isn’t enough. I have to keep going back for more, because veterans — especially the older ones — remember more each time, and that enriches the story.
One example is my piece on World War II submariner Hank Kudzik, which ran in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., on Monday, April 5, ) I started meeting with Hank last October. We got together at his home, and then again at two meetings of the Lehigh Valley chapter of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII — a Mecca of storytellers. Over the next six months, we met a total of six times.
Key to a narrative is that the subject’s words create an image in the readers’ minds. If I, the interviewer, am not getting the image, my readers will not either. I need to draw out the subject, ask him questions. Looking at pictures is a good way to break the ice. Before we open the album of old photos or the book about Iwo Jima, I make sure I have my recorder running. In Hank’s case, besides photos, he had a schematic drawing of his sub, the Nautilus. He also had a model so he could show me where his station was and where a dud shell once hit the boat.
After we have warmed up over the photographs, I ask to see the vet’s military paperwork, such as a DD-214, a summary of service at discharge, which shows where and when the vet served and what medals he or she was awarded. Of course, the newspaper wants to be sure I am reporting a straight story and not a fanciful one. With the vast amount of information online, it’s pretty easy to confirm the accuracy of someone’s story – as long as the sources are authoritative. Hank told me the Nautilus fired three torpedoes at the Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu during the Battle of Midway. I found an official Navy account on the internet comfirming that.
I have written a book about a veteran, my cousin Nicky, who was killed during the Vietnam War. It’s called Quiet Man Rising, and it has taken me sixteen years to complete. I often feel when I am interviewing a vet that I could write a book, or a three-part series or a television documentary about the guy for Lou Reeta. But newspaper stories have to be kept short, and that’s a challenge. Over the course of a half-dozen meetings, Hank gave me enough information to write a book of twenty chapters. I narrowed his account to four personal vignettes, told chronologically to fit into The Morning Call’s limit of 32 column inches.
The result is a tale that, I like to think, informs and entertains a general audience. The reader is with 17-year-old Hank during a depth-charge barrage, when he’s blasting away at Japanese-held Makin Island, when his Marine buddy dies of wounds on board and when the sub is sinking wildly out of control after being hit by friendly fire.
Most important, the story is not just about one man. Readers will recognize that it commemorates not just Hank’s wartime experiences at sea, but those of all the American sailors who went to war in submarines. I take pride in celebrating the bravery of the men and women who serve in the armed forces, then and now. I love working for a daily newspaper that recognizes the importance of their contribution by including veterans’ stories along with the advice columns, sudoko puzzles and restaurant reviews.