Tracking Down the Truth: How to Check the Facts in a War Story

The newspaper I work for has fact checkers on staff. The fact-checking for stories about veterans provides special challenges because their material is from so long ago and far away. Of the more than 80 military veterans I’ve interviewed over the last decade, a few have told me stories about major brushes with famous people, and in one case with a particularly notorious bomb.

I had to be careful for my series in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., “War Stories: In Their Own Words.” Memories of long-ago events can be hazy, and age can play tricks on a person. When a veteran tells me stories that feature high-profile people, I find  it isn’t enough to run to the library or search the Internet for checking information.  When I can’t find the answers in the library or online, I have to come up with other ways of verifying the stories. Accuracy, after all, is everything, and I didn’t want someone knowledgeable telling me after publication: That has never happened with my stories.

One of my interviewees, Andrew Cisar, was a cryptographic technician with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army headquarters in England in 1944. His story was that he deciphered a top-secret message from the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, informing Patton of the final date for the invasion of Normandy, D-Day. Cisar remembered the hour and day he got the message for deciphering, and how it was so critical, he had to deliver it to Patton personally.

How could I confirm this?

It’s is easy to contact a professor, a government historian or an independent scholar who has published to good reviews.  All of these types are used to phone calls and will advise you.

I went right to the top – Martin Blumenson, a military historian who served as a historical officer with the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies in World War II.  Blumenson has been described by The Washington Post as “a leading historian of World War II who wrote the Army’s official account of the D-Day invasion and was perhaps the foremost authority on the life of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.” It wasn’t hard to get Blumenson on the phone. After I told him Cisar’s account, and answered questions he had about Cisar’s service, he said Cisar’s story was plausible. The story ran on June 6, 2004.

LC-USZ62-25600 Library of Congress image

Eisenhower addressing paratroopers (LC-USZ62-25600)

Jerry Webre was a Navy lieutenant who co-piloted cargo planes across the South Pacific. On a summer day, he saw unusual freight loaded onto his plane at a base along the San Francisco Bay. He said it was the tail assembly for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. His C-54 carried the part to Honolulu, he said, and another crew took the plane from there.

How to check?

An online search turned up Alan Carr, historian at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where work was done on the atomic bomb. I e-mailed him the details of Webre’s account.

“No red flag here,” he e-mailed back. “Though I can’t confirm Mr. Webre’s involvement, his story certainly seems plausible.”

H.M. King George VI of the United Kingdom.

H.M. King George VI

Another Navy vet, Dr. John Hoch, recalled that  he had been on a landing craft moored in southern England in the days before the D-Day invasion, waiting to take troops across the English Channel on June 6, 1944.  He said General Eisenhower and King George VI appeared on the dock about 30 feet away from him.

I couldn’t find anything that put Ike and the king together at that time. A newsroom librarian couldn’t either.

But a historian at The National World War II Museum (formerly the National D-Day Museum) in New Orleans suggested I contact an expert on George VI. So I looked up British historians and, through a publicist, reached Antony Beevor, author of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.

In an e-mail, Beevor wrote of Hoch’s seeing Eisenhower and the king together: “It is plausible on 4th or 5th of June, but not on June 6th, as ships had left and the King was broadcasting live to the nation that morning.”

With that, Hoch’s story got the green light.

For my book QUIET MAN RISING: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, about my cousin Nicky, I interviewed many veterans who had known Nicky. Before I wrote up my interviews with them, I asked the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for their personnel records.  A veteran’s service is public record, though some information, such as birth dates and current addresses, are withheld by law as a matter of privacy. This way, I could make sure the vet was who he said he was.

No matter how daunting the task, there’s always some way to go about verifying a veteran’s account. You might not be able to nail it down completely, but at least you can approach the truth. It’s a matter of taking the time to ask around, then following through. Professors, independent scholars and government historians can advise you on checking out the information you have about a veteran. If you go to the Resources page on my website, you will find a list of places that can help you get started in verifying veterans’ stories.

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