Everyone from the folks at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project to the National World War II Museum will tell you how important it is to get a veteran’s story before it’s too late.
That point was driven home last Friday at the memorial service for Stanley A. Parks of Emmaus, a Marine Corps veteran who wielded a flamethrower against the Japanese on Peleliu and Okinawa. Stan died Dec. 19, five weeks after my story on his World War II experiences ran in The Morning Call.
When family and friends entered Bethany United Methodist Church in Wescosville to celebrate Stan’s life, one of the mementos they saw was a framed portrait of him that Morning Call photographer Harry Fisher had taken. It had appeared on Page 1 with the Veterans Day story. In the photo, Stan is wearing his Marine jacket and cap, and holding a bugle he had taken from a dead Japanese soldier on Peleliu.
Harry’s photo on display was a reminder that getting Stan’s story into the newspaper and online had been the right thing to do.
It almost didn’t happen.
I found out about Stan last April from his brother Don in Allentown, who told me a little about him in a letter. He enclosed some old newspaper clippings about Stan’s exploits in the Pacific, including a photo of 18-year-old Pfc. Parks holding a flamethrower on the beach at Peleliu. There was also a column done 15 years ago by The Morning Call’s Jim Kelly, who wrote about Stan and his three brothers who fought in the war.
“It would be a great interview, I assure you,” Don wrote.
I believed him. For one thing, few World War II Marines had opened up to me. Most didn’t want to bring back the terrible memories. If Stan were willing to talk, I could get a rare, personal insight into the bloody trial of island fighting – something millions of TV viewers had seen dramatized on the HBO series “The Pacific.”
By coincidence, a month after I heard from Don Parks, I got an e-mail from one of Stan’s neighbors. He, too, recommended I do a story on Stan.
I told Don I’d like to interview his brother for Veterans Day, Nov. 11, more than six months away. It was a gamble, given that the youngest WWII vets are in their mid 80s. But Stan was doing all right. In September, when I was ready to start interviewing him, Don told me the bad news: His brother had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer and might not want to talk now.
Had I blown my chance?
No, Stan did want to talk. We met the first time on Sept. 24 at his home. I got his story on my Sony digital recorder. Three days later he was in the hospital for a stay that lasted two-and-a-half weeks. On Oct. 8, I called him in his Lehigh Valley Hospital room and wished him a happy 85th birthday.
We met again at his home on Oct. 21, and Harry joined us to take still photos and re-interview Stan on video.
We’ve been shooting video for the War Stories: In Their Own Words series for years. It’s an online extra for readers. They can get on The Morning Call’s website and read the story, and also, with the click of a mouse, see and hear the vet talking about his experiences for several minutes. I’ve blogged before that the video re-interviews have been a great tool for me, like magic, because the vets often say things in front of a camera that they didn’t tell me earlier, or in a way that improves the story.
The Web is useful for another reason. I had to cut Stan’s story for the print version because of space limitations, but the longer account, with more anecdotes, was posted on the Internet, where story length isn’t an issue. As with all the tales in my series, Stan’s has a permanent home on the site. You can read it at http://articles.mcall.com/2010-11-10/news/mc-veterans-day-war-story-parks-20101110_1_machine-gun-peleliu-foxhole Harry’s 2-minute, 15-second video, which includes historic photos, is on the War Stories home page at http://www.mcall.com/news/local/warstories/
A week after the photo and video shoot, I stopped by Stan’s home and dropped off photos he had lent me to get scanned in at the paper, including the shot of him with the flamethrower on Peleliu. It was the last time I saw him. I did go to his house again, on Nov. 11 when his story ran, to drop off a few dozen extra papers. He and his wife, Barbara, weren’t home. I left the papers on the porch.
Harry and I were shocked to hear of Stan’s death so soon after we had spent time with him. He had seemed OK then. But his condition had deteriorated rapidly.
At the memorial service, his family showed Harry’s video. I’m guessing about 200 people watched it on the church’s big screen. Later, in his eulogy, Pastor Jim Brashear said seeing the video gave him goose bumps. God, he noted, uses people like Stan to give us our freedom.
We all bowed our heads as the pastor said a prayer. One of the blessings he thanked God for was the video, an enduring testament to Stan’s service in the war.
I have often felt affirmation for our work in recording veterans’ stories. As I sat in the church Friday and a bagpiper played the “Marines’ Hymn,” I felt it yet again – intimately. Stan is gone, but his story will live on. Harry and I had done a meaningful service not only for this proud Marine’s family and friends, but for future generations.