War Stories: Student Keeps Veterans' Memories Alive in Book
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
The 11th day of the 11th month has special meaning for one Pinecrest High School senior. He is working to keep alive the memories of men and women who fought in World War II.
Nick Reed is writing a book, collecting war stories from every veteran he can find. Some fought island by island across the Pacific. Some landed on the shores of Normandy in the D-Day invasion. Some were captured by Nazis, some by Italian fascists, some by the forces of Imperial Japan. Some escaped. One survived the terrors of the Bataan Death March.
All are heroes to this young man - who himself hopes someday for a military career in the service of the United States.
"The sad reality is, they are dying at an alarming rate," Reed writes in his preface. "Oftentimes nobody gets to hear their stories before they pass away - in a few years down the road, there won't be any veterans left to talk to."
These are unvarnished accounts, sometimes startling in their brutally honest depiction of war. Edwin Persons, who had been a medic with the 101st Airborne Division, told Reed how the war changed him.
"Pretty soon a bunch of the Germans surrendered," Persons said. "The ones that kept their steel helmets on, you had to watch. The people that took off their helmets and put on their soft caps were just fine. The SS troops were the toughest. We would get a few of them and be told to take them to the stockades. Instead they would be taken around behind a building, and were shot.
"You never thought you would be capable of doing it, but you could. Like I said, don't make an American mad. Once you saw a few of your friends killed, you didn't care if you made it or not. You became a killer, and we got good at it."
For years Reed has collected militaria, bits and pieces of his nation's wars that fill shelves in his room at home. Flags of conquered nations hang on his walls. He sleeps in his bedroom museum every night.
Reed says he is not so much a writer as a messenger, only passing along true accounts from real men and women. He began work on the book a year and a half ago, thinking it might make a good senior year project. By early last June, he had completed 16 interviews, with more on the way - B29 pilots, Airborne paratroopers, ace fighter pilots, a radio operator in Burma, prisoners of war - recording their accounts of battle on air, land and sea from the attack on Pearl Harbor to life as civilians after the war.
"These stories are not fiction, but instead the memoirs of men and women who fought for our country during the largest war this planet has ever seen," Reed said. "Historians may correct me, but there truly is no other war that comes even close to the scale and ferocity of World War II."
He begins "World at War: First Hand Accounts from America's Greatest Generation" in the Pacific, where the war itself started for America.
'Pride and Appreciation'
Dennis Bell was 18 on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Less than a year later he was in the Navy, eventually reaching Honolulu himself.
"Being a farm boy from Ohio, I was absolutely awestruck by the number of ships that were there, and then the realization of what happened and the surprise by which it happened," Bell said. "The Japanese had come in virtually undetected. I think that the American public ought to realize that we were awfully close to losing that war, and if we had, life would be very different than it is now.
"There was pride and appreciation for all elements of the American entity that came together. The production lines were so important to keep producing the things that we needed to fight the battles that we needed to fight. The way that people supported the troops was so different than anything that we have had since then. It had to be or we wouldn't have won the war.
"It wasn't easy for those who stayed behind; it was very difficult. People had to operate farms with one person, where they used to have two or three. The ones out there fighting was one thing, but the people back running the supply lines and keeping the farms going, I will forever admire them."
Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Johnson told Reed about rescuing Japanese-held prisoners in the Philippines.
"They had been prisoners for three years, and they were made up mainly of natives, teachers, nurses and a lot of engineers that had been mining before the war," Johnson said. "We got word that the Japs were getting desperate, and that they were going to kill them all. We were sent to free them. We did this by dropping a company of infantry above the camp, and another below the camp. We had people watching the camp for quite some time, and we found out that the guards stacked their rifles every morning at 7 o'clock to do PT. We arranged to make the drop at 7 o'clock.
"They were without their weapons, and we killed about 200 of them. As a result, we saved over 2,000 prisoners and didn't lose one person. In the process, we killed all of the Japs there. The prisoners were all civilians, and even included a 2-day-old baby that had been born at the camp."
'Died in My Hands'
In Europe, Allied forces prepared for a massive attack along the coast of Normandy. On June 6, 1944, Arnold Lambert hit the beach as part of the D-Day invasion.
"On the beach, I saw two other guys in the water that couldn't swim because they had their equipment on, so I started pulling them out," he told Reed. "I got one guy, and I was pulling him along. I put my arm up to try to get another guy on my right, and when I did something went through my elbow and shattered the bone. It didn't hurt too much, so I kept going, and got the two guys into the shore.
"Then I went back in to get some more people, and I saw that one of my corporals was in trouble. So as I was getting him out of the water a piece of fragmentation went in my left thigh. It went in, hit the bone and broke it. That started bleeding pretty bad, so I gave myself a shot of morphine and put a tourniquet on."
Despite his wounds, Lambert kept going back to rescue others.
"I went back in to get some more guys, and started pulling different people out," he said. "I got six or seven guys out, gave them a shot of morphine, but they weren't going to live. I did the best I could with them. I then went back in to get one guy and his arm was just hanging. He was lying right on the edge of the water, and it was hanging just by his skin. As a wave would come in, his arm would try to go back with the wave and he would try to catch it with his other hand. I saw what was happening, but I also knew that he was bleeding so bad that he wasn't going to make it. I went over to him and I picked him up. I told him, 'You're gonna be OK.'
"Don't forget that there was every kind of noise in the world. You couldn't hear yourself speaking. Just -imagine the worst thunderstorm you have ever heard, and multiply it by thousands. Anyways I got him out, and was going to try to do -something for him but -couldn't. He died right in my hands."
'You Had to Be Positive'
POWs held in both German and Japanese prison camps described different experiences.
"The Germans were rough, but the Japanese were brutal," Reed said. "Honestly, I would not want to fight them. They did some terrible things. I mean, the difference! In the German camps - toward the end of the war - they actually let POWs send letters home. Japanese - when they found out the war had ended - they wanted to kill all the prisoners and get rid of all the evidence. They were all on 'the same team' - but the way they did things was completely different."
Niles Maroney spent the last months of the war trying to keep his spirits up in a German prison camp, even as he wasted away from starvation.
"I used to wake up in the morning and yell, 'It's a beautiful day in Chicago!' People would throw stuff at me and tell me to be quiet," Maroney told Reed. "You just had to be positive, and tell yourself that you would come out alive. If not you didn't have a chance."
Word filtered through that Patton's tanks were on the way to free them.
"In about the third week of March, one of the guys made a radio and started getting messages from some place saying that American troops were coming through," Maroney said. "They came through on the 31st of March, but they bypassed the area we were in. It was General Patton and his armored outfit, and they went on through. Two days later they came back to the camp and opened it up for us.
"When we were getting close to being liberated, the young Germans wanted to shoot us all and blow up the barracks. The older Germans didn't let them do it. I went into the camp weighing 193 pounds with a 31-inch waist. I came out weighing 125 pounds, but with a 48-inch waist. The weight went away, but my stomach bloated up. All of the young Germans had run off, but a lot of the older ones were still there when we were liberated. They were all rounded up when we were liberated, but we never saw what happened to them."
'Accomplished My Goal'
Reed spent countless hours tracking down and interviewing his World War II veterans, then typing out their actual words. He feels that nothing can match the quality of their live interviews. He changed nothing, deleted nothing, added not a word.
Every account in his book will be the exact words of veterans. Reed thinks his readers, by reading their recollections word for word, can get a better feel of what that war was like on its front lines - a fascination that began in the fifth grade when his dad showed him a video of the TV series "Band of Brothers."
"Showing a fifth-grade -student a bloody and explicit war film might not seem like a responsible thing to do, but I was captivated," Reed said. "Ninth grade rolls around, and - after watching 'Band of Brothers' again - I thought to myself, 'Instead of just watching war films and reading war books, I could actually go around and meet veterans face to face.' So there you have it. One day I'm sitting at home watching war flicks, the next I'm thinking of ways to become the next New York Times best-seller."
That Christmas, his parents bought him a tape recorder.
"I was beyond excited," he said. "When I told people about my project, they grinned and gave me the 'in your dreams' look. Multiple interviews later, I feel that I can finally say that I accomplished my goal. ... World War II has always been a passion of mine, and having the opportunity to talk with veterans that were there is an honor that to me is priceless."
The task changed Reed from young history buff to something more: a man with a mission.
"It has become my life and my calling," he said. "I did not write this book to receive fame and fortune. I wrote it to pay tribute and memorialize the war in a way that no other book has done before."
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