(The American Red Cross Greater Long Beach Chapter participates in Veterans History Project, a U.S. Library of Congress project, which strives to collect and preserve the first-person narratives of American military veterans of all wars and conflicts. Below one volunteer shares her experience as a participant in the chapter’s volunteer training session held Feb. 7, with a group of veterans aboard the U.S.S.Battleship Iowa in San Pedro.)
by Sandy Van, Communications Volunteer
I work as a journalist, so I’m a storyteller by trade. But today, I’m feeling a little intimidated.
I’m aboard the Battleship Iowa in San Pedro for a Veterans History Project volunteer training session, and I’m joined by Red Cross project leads Mike Farrar and Janice Wong and about a dozen vets. Among the group are a filmmaker, former defense worker, a retired schoolteacher and Army reservist. What brought them (and me) here today was something pretty special: an opportunity to help preserve soldier narratives for future generations in a special permanent collection at the Library of Congress in our nation’s capital.
Korea, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq, Philippines … these guys have served all across the world, which in my book qualifies them as master storytellers. Some have even taken to storytelling as volunteer docents on the Iowa. These are guys who have spent 25, 45 or even 70 years refining their war tales, indulging anyone who asked about their most daring military pursuits.
For instance, try spending just a few minutes with Bob DeSpain, a WWII vet who at age 16 decided he’d enlist in the Navy the day after he learned of the attack at Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Tennessee, which his brother served aboard. By the time he returned home at 19, he’d survived a Japanese ambush, which sank his ship off the coast of the Philippines, and saw shipmates get eaten alive by sharks. Having been a lifeguard in his civilian days, Bob rescued a few of them out of the water — some of them Midwestern boys who grew up on the farm — and waited alongside them in limbo for three days until a U.S. landing craft boat appeared and took them in.
To say the least, I felt humbled and fortunate to spend an afternoon learning about history from none other than some who lived through it.
When it comes time to introduce myself to the circle, my face flushes a bit. I already know that whatever I have to say can’t hold a candle to anything these guys have been through. But this group is attentive and patient. Jolly and full of wisecracks. A total boys club of the biggest boys club. This should make for an interesting afternoon.
As Mike and Janice take turns outlining the project, I look around the room and am impressed at how everyone is so attuned to the speaker. The men, well beyond their prime fighting years, with hair grey from age, were like students once again, patiently raising their hands with questions.
Is it okay to bring up Pork Chop Hill if they don’t address it?, asks a Korean War vet, referring to a set of controversial infantry battles in 1953. Can we talk about our own experiences to encourage them to open up?, asks another. It’s obvious this group isn’t only knowledgeable, with the kind of sensibility and tact needed to interview people who have seen the horrors of war. They want to do it right.
By the time the presentation and story sharing are over, I realize we’ve gone a half-hour past the scheduled time. But I assume that’s what a good conversation with one of these guys is like. A half-hour-long minimum interview can easily become one, two, or even 3 ½, as I’ve been told.
Or, maybe time just flies when you’re on a boat. I don’t know.
I’m excited to be part of the process, and looking forward to my first interview. It’ll be nice to be the one listening, for a change.