My brother John, director of the Eastern Shore Regional Library in Maryland, invited me to speak to his Salisbury Sunrise Rotary Club. In the Zoom meeting last week, I talked about interviewing war veterans. Here are excerpts:
In 1999, we at The Morning Call in Allentown wanted to do a project on military veterans to mark the end of the century. The idea was to invite Lehigh Valley vets to write about their wartime experiences, and we would publish their accounts in a section called War Stories of the Century. When we didn’t get as many submissions as we hoped, I grabbed a tape recorder and set out to do some interviews.
It was a big learning curve. I’m not a veteran, and I didn’t have any particular interest in the military. But I was interested in the personal accounts. These were people who had put on a uniform for the country and had seen and done extraordinary things. Many were lucky to have survived.
One of the first vets I met with was Olaf Marthinson. He was 102 years old. He had helped to defend the country from Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa in 1916. A friend introduced me to Olaf, saying, “Come here and shake hands with history.”
That was the start for me, and I was hooked. Over the next 17 years, I interviewed more than a hundred war veterans, most of them from World War II, but also some from the Cold War and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. These were everyday people who had played a role on the world stage at critical times in our history.
How did I know that the people I was interviewing were the real McCoys, that they did what they say they did? Right off the bat, I insisted that they show me their discharge papers, which give a summary of service. These are absolutely important, but you have to keep in the back of your head that documents don’t always tell the truth.
If the vets had a medal or claimed to have one, I asked to see the citation that says why they got it. I once came across a veteran who wore a medal for valor he hadn’t earned. He was in his late 90s and confused. He had indeed shown bravery in combat and sincerely believed he deserved the medal, so he got it from a military medals dealer he knew.
If I wasn’t sure about something, I asked an expert. A Navy cargo pilot said he flew the Hiroshima bomb’s tail assembly to the Pacific. I contacted a historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He saw no red flag. An Army cryptographic technician said he decoded and delivered an urgent message to Patton. It was from Eisenhower, setting the final date of the Normandy invasion. I spoke with the keeper of Patton’s papers. He said that’s plausible.
A Navy crewman on a landing craft said he saw Eisenhower and the king of England together on a dock in the run-up to D-Day. One of Britain’s top military historians, Antony Beevor, emailed that George VI had gone to the coast before the invasion, so it was plausible.
For fact-checking, there’s a wealth of resources you can tap — many books and a vast amount of information online, on authoritative websites. Things like unit histories. A Marine who lost his legs in the Korean War told me it happened during a mortar attack. I found his unit’s after-action report online and was able to confirm his account and add more detail.
There’s a D-Day order of battle, listing the units that participated in the assault. That helped me with two vets I interviewed who said they landed in France on D-Day, but when I checked, it turned out they hadn’t. They had landed on Normandy beaches, just not on June 6, 1944, but later. They weren’t trying to put one past me. It’s just that over time, they had become confused.
When I did these interviews, usually I had at least three meetings with the veteran, often more than that, and sometimes over several months. Each visit, the story became richer. I think it’s because the interviews got them thinking more. It was in their heads, working on them. So with each visit, more details got layered on. When I was done, I asked the vet to read the story for accuracy, and that would sometimes yield more material.
One of the last steps before publication was having a photographer shoot video of the veteran. I always attended these sessions and ran my own recorder, because magically, when the vet got in front of a camera, he or she remembered even more, or said something in a more meaningful way, and I could add that to the story.
Getting back to the idea of shaking hands with history, Marthinson, the vet in the Pancho Villa campaign, saw “Black Jack” Pershing in the Arizona desert. Bob Carl was a merchant seaman at the start of World War II. When he was a boy, he met Lawrence of Arabia. Carl Schroeter, before he was drafted, worked in the bakery at Princeton. On his way to work early in the morning, he’d exchange hellos with a wild-haired old guy on a bench. It was Einstein.
Through these veterans who were sitting right in front of me, I had a connection with some of the most famous people in history.
Sometimes the interviews did not go smoothly. Joe Poster was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a POW of the Japanese. He got mad at me one day. He said I was making him remember horrible things and it was giving him nightmares.
We met weekly for several months. When the two-part story was about to be published, he got cold feet. He worried that people wouldn’t believe what he had endured. I told him that he had told his story from the heart, and I thought the readers would believe him. The story ran. Here’s how it ended:
I think to myself, my God, Joe, what you went through! I can’t say how I made it. I lived day to day. I was scared all the time. I thought maybe tomorrow those Japanese will kill me. I never knew whether they were going to murder us or not. That’s the way it was for three-and-a-half years, even till the last day.
Joe was glad it was published. When he went out to dinner, the people in the restaurant recognized him from the newspaper and stood up and applauded him. He was amazed. He told me, “Since that story ran, I can do no wrong!” He would be gone in a year.
Sometimes you learn little things you never heard anywhere else. Bob Hutchings was a clerk for Eisenhower. He said that when Eisenhower was in North Africa, he had his own cow. He had a private who did nothing but take care of this cow.
Most of these generals had stomach problems, because those guys had to be under tension all the time. Eisenhower was not exempt from that. He drank the milk for his stomach.
Part of the wonder of storytelling is that you can paint a picture with words. Here’s Dan Curatola, who was in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day:
When I got to shore, a shell hit and I went down. I tapped a corporal in front of me and said, “Boy, that was close, wasn’t it?” He didn’t answer. I saw he was dead. Thank God, I had seen dead men before, in Africa and Sicily. But some of the younger troops who hadn’t seen action just went out of their minds. You’d see them screaming and running the wrong way.
Sometimes the vet just doesn’t have much to say. That was true of Alton Knappenberger. He lived in a trailer in the woods, where I interviewed him. In 1944, he got the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off a German attack near Anzio with a Browning automatic rifle.
I just did what I had to do. You go in there and just try to get them guys before they get you.
Sometimes I had to do a little prompting to get someone to open up. Charlie Toth was a Marine who fought on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. The first time I sat down with him, he started rattling off facts and figures. He said his unit went to this island and then to that island and did this and that, and so on. After maybe 10 minutes, I stopped him. “Charlie, I need you to tell me about your experience.” He just stared at me. What he said next became the beginning of his story.
If I started telling you what I have seen, I would never sleep again. Sometimes, the picture comes. You see the flames, you see the explosions. It’s right in front of you, broad daylight, right there. It never goes away, and there’s no medicine for it.
I interviewed a couple of guys who fought in the German army. One was Eddie Sakasitz, who was machine-gunned while riding a motorcycle in Italy and almost died. What he said about going up against the Americans in Italy was almost funny.
We were bombarded day and night. Our artillery would fire 20 to 25 shells at the American positions and get 20,000 shells in return. We wished our artillery wouldn’t fire at all.
Some scenes are horrifying and heartbreaking. Horace Rehrig was aboard the carrier Ticonderoga when kamikazes attacked it. He found his best friend lying on the hangar deck. He was flash-burned, and his right arm was blown off at the shoulder. Tears streamed down Horace’s cheeks when he described what happened.
I quick took some packing and held it on his wound and put his head in my lap and tried to comfort him. He was crying. He kept saying, “I’ll never make it.” Finally we got him down to sick bay. The doctors put him on an operating table. He had his knees up and was waving them back and forth. And then they just stopped. It just plays hell with you when you see stuff like that. I felt so bad about it that I just can’t ever forget it.
One of the women I interviewed was Cecilia Sulkowski, a front-line Army nurse. A week after the Korean War broke out, she arrived in Korea with a MASH unit.
My most traumatic experience was seeing our first patients. It still leaves me teary, still affects me with the most sadness. They were seasoned soldiers, not rookies. Some of them were old enough to be my father. Physically, they weren’t hurt, but they were completely broken down mentally. They’d reach out to you. You’d sit on their cot, or squat by it, and hold their hand, tell them that you understand why they’re feeling the way they are. It was a female presence, a softer voice and gentler touch.
Dick Richards lost his jaw to a German shell. Doctors rebuilt it, but he was forever disfigured. After many months in a hospital, he went home to his wife.
Betty told me once that she hadn’t expected to see me looking the way I did. She said it took her the longest time to accept that that’s the way it was going to be. And she said she knew that I could go on, and she was going to help me however she could.
Don Miller was a B-17 flight engineer. He told me about one of the saddest days of his life. He couldn’t go on the 12th mission with the crew he’d trained with in the States, because he had a bad head cold. His B-17 was shot down over Germany on that mission, and all of his crew mates were killed. After his story ran, a restored B-17 came to Lehigh Valley International Airport, and its crew offered to give World War II fliers a free ride. I asked Don if he’d like to go, and he said yes, but warily.
As we drove to the airport, he said he was afraid that when he got on the plane, he would see his buddies at their positions, the pilot and co-pilot, navigator, gunners. He was afraid he would see their faces, and it would be too much for him.
We went on the plane ride together. Afterward, I asked him if he’d seen his old crew mates. “I did,” he said, “but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
There are many more stories about sacrifice and courage. Most of the veterans I’ve interviewed have since died. But their personal accounts, as I recorded them, are still with us. They’re online and, in the case of World War II veterans, hard copies are at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Everyone who served in a war has a story to tell, even if they never saw a shot fired in anger. It’s unfortunate that many of these stories never emerge or are lost to the ages. I see my own role in preserving some of them as payback, as my way of saying, “Thank you for your service.”