They buried Ernie Leh with his 1st Infantry Division pin.
At the service last week in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, the Rev. Robert D. Machamer Jr. read aloud from the story I wrote about Ernie six years ago as part of my series in The Morning Call newspaper, War Stories: In Their Own Words. He read not just a few lines, but the top third of the article. It was about Ernie’s landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The minister, a friend of Ernie’s, was taken by an occurrence on the beach that would have been humorous if the situation hadn’t been so grave:
“On my way up the slope, I had to relieve myself. I stopped and went behind a rock about 5 or 6 feet high. Others passed me and went on ahead. I remember seeing a major and some enlisted men pass by. Just as they got over the next rise, a shell exploded right in their midst, getting all of them. That, I thought, might have been me if I had not stopped to urinate. The brief delay had saved my life.”
Machamer paused and said with a smile that you had to figure Ernie was meant to survive.
As he went on with the story, which I’d put together from Ernie’s own writings and my interviews with him, I thought about the enduring value of recording veterans’ stories, how important they are to family and friends and not least of all, posterity.
Some of my subjects were recommended to me by sons and daughters of World War II veterans whose dads were in poor health. Their children felt they had limited time left and asked me to get their stories down. It’s an appeal I find hard to resist.
Two such interviewees were Earl Metz and Earl Schantzenbach. I worked on them without delay. Their stories ran in March 2003 in the days after the Iraq war began. Metz, who had been a combat engineer in Europe, lived for two more years. Schantzenbach, an infantryman who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, died just five weeks after his story appeared. But their stories will live on.
A Pearl Harbor survivor who agreed to talk with me did not live to see his tale in print. John Minnich’s heart gave out several days after my second interview with him. His family gave me permission to run the story as a tribute to him, and it appeared on the Pearl Harbor anniversary on Dec. 7, 2001. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t sense the end was near.
Veterans themselves embrace the idea that their stories will live after them. Most memorable to me was Joe Poster, who endured the Bataan Death March and more than three years as a prisoner of the Japanese. As his health failed in the months after his story appeared, I heard him tell people on more than one occasion, “That story is in the Library of Congress.” His two-part account is at http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-josephposter1,0,2658608.story and http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-josephposter2,0,2724145.story.
State Representative Jennifer Mann of Allentown contributes to the perception of permanence. When my war story subjects are constituents of hers, Rep. Mann sends them laminated copies of the articles with a note thanking them for their service to the country. This helps veterans see that people beyond family and friends are grateful for what they’ve done.
Even in obituaries, families have noted their loved ones were featured in the series. When nurse Cecilia Sulkowski died in 2008, the reference to my work read in part: “On July 5, 2002, Cecilia was featured in a lengthy article with photos in The Morning Call titled ‘Mending broken spirits, shattered bodies in Korea.’ In the article, she describes her Army experience which included setting up the first-ever Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the first six months of the Korean War… Her vivid descriptions and sharp memory made this story mesmerizing.”
At veterans’ funerals, my stories have appeared among photos and other memorabilia for mourners to see. This is more than gratifying. That’s because beyond the thanks of veterans themselves and their families and friends, writing veterans’ stories is meaningful and lasting. It not only preserves legacies for generations to come, it contributes to our understanding of history.
That’s partly what I aim for in my book about my cousin Nicky Venditti, an Army helicopter pilot who answered his country’s call. In QUIET MAN RISING: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam. In this book which took me many years to write, I also give voice to a young man whose story – like the stories of countless other veterans – would otherwise lie with him in the grave, untold and unappreciated.
I can’t let that happen.