Veterans share war stories, bring WW II to life

Chuck Eilber poses with his World War II Navy portrait (far left), part of an oral history project and corridor exhibit at Croasdaile Village retirement community. Eilber, a Croasdaile resident and NCSSM’s founding director, connected fellow veterans with NCSSM students this past spring.

The project began as an offer to share videotaped oral histories of World War II veterans who are residents of Durham’s Croasdaile Village retirement community. Croasdaile resident Betsey Miller had tirelessly identified all of her fellow residents who are veterans from any arm of service and arranged for each to be interviewed and videotaped. They numbered close to 50, from combat marines and paratroopers to Navy officers and nurses, each with powerful stories to tell from six decades ago. And over the past year — some of them still hearty and strong, others more frail and connected to oxygen tubes, some even wearing their old uniforms — the veterans sat and told their stories.

Miller asked her friend and fellow resident, Chuck Eilber, if North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics might want copies of the oral histories. Eilber was the founding director of the school, leading it from 1980 to 1990. After contacting NCSSM, Eilber got in touch with English instructor John Woodmansee.

“Betsey and Chuck and others at Croasdaile had transcribed all the interviews and made packets for each veteran that included a DVD of the interview, a transcript of the interview, any photographs of the men and women from their time in service, and any memoir that the veteran may have written,” Woodmansee remembers. “They wanted to know if we’d like to have a set for the library, and they’d keep copies in the Croasdaile library.”

Woodmansee welcomed the rich trove of historical material. He and fellow humanities instructor Zach Lechner used the interviews in their classes when they talked about World War II, having each student read a few veterans’ stories.

NCSSM students met this spring with veterans at Croasdaile Village to hear their stories first hand. Photo by Betsey Miller

On two separate Fridays this past spring, Woodmansee and Lechner brought their American Studies students to Croasdaile to meet a dozen or so veterans. The students sat in small groups and talked with the veterans for an hour or so. “All of a sudden, for our students World War II became not something from the distant past but a part of these men and women’s lives,” Woodmansee says. “The veterans loved it too. They really want to know that this generation is paying attention to the lessons that their generation learned from the war.”

The project took on still more poignancy when Woodmansee agreed to have students create a video to introduce the collection. Aimee Maureau ’16 and Kayla Boling ’16 took on the project, working with Woodmansee and NCSSM librarian Stephanie Barnwell, who digitized the videos, then taught the students to extract short clips from each interview. Woodmansee collected 1940s-era music and designed the basic format, introducing each veteran with his or her service photo, name, and rank, then fading into the interview clip. The project had a tight deadline: Memorial Day, when the video would be a part of a Croasdaile Village celebration.

“Aimee and I went to the event,” Woodmansee remembers. “Picture 100 people, and all of them had lived through World War II, in a big auditorium with a big screen to show the video. We stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, then a chorus sang ‘My Country, Tis of Thee’ and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and everyone joined in. Then they sang the anthems for each branch of service.”

Woodmansee had seen the video many times as he helped Aimee edit the sound and smooth out transitions. But at the celebration, “I could really listen to it, I could really hear the stories. Some are funny, and the audience laughed out loud. They also clapped at the heroic parts and sighed at the difficult parts. It was really just a celebration of having lived through all of that and made the world a safer place.”

Watch the video, “World War II Oral History Collection”

Croasdaile Village Executive Director Howard Dewitt is a Vietnam-era veteran, the son of a veteran, and a self-described World War II historian. He readily agreed to help interview some of the residents. He still gets emotional thinking of their stories, including one resident who was reluctant to talk much at first but gradually opened up.

“The man had served in Okinawa sixty years ago and had never told anyone about his time there,” Dewitt says. “He told me about the things he’d done in combat, about the men he’d killed, how he’d had to hide in tombs, and about three years he spent in the hospital following the war. His wife was sitting next to him during the interview with tears running down her face. She told me, ‘We’ve been married sixty years and I’ve never heard these stories.’ His family members thanked us because they learned things about their dad and grandfather they’d never known.”

“It was an extremely rewarding project, truly an honor to work on,” Dewitt says, who laments how quickly we are losing World War II veterans. The man who finally shared his war stories passed away a few months after his interview, as have several others. “I wish we’d done this project 12 years ago, we could have interviewed twice as many veterans then,” he says.

“But you’ve got the fifty of us, and that’s something no one else has done,” Eilber tells him. Eilber himself was interviewed about his three years in the Navy, stationed in Hong Kong and Thailand, just after the war’s end. As a radar officer, his responsibilities included identifying potential hazards such as floating mines in the water. “Not many 18-, 19-, or 20-year-olds have the experience of being in charge of 20 men, many of them older than me,” he says. “It was very maturing.”

Eilber’s Navy portrait hangs with other residents’ wartime portraits along a hallway of Croasdaile’s main community building, a space typically used to show residents’ artwork. The portraits include a label with each veteran’s name, service, and rank. Says Dewitt, “We’ve had more buzz about that corridor display than any other we’ve had.”

Woodmansee says his work with the Croasdaile veterans gave him new perspective on American history and a renewed enthusiasm for teaching history by partnering with the local community. “My generation — I was born in 1963 — we really haven’t been called upon to serve like their generation was,” he says of the veterans. “I experienced patriotism in a way I  never have before, it was really humbling.”

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