Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’

A reminder for Veterans Day. My classroom is gone now, but Mr. P is still with us, at 95. I hope the lessons stick with you, kids.-MR

 

the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my first book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

alvin 3

Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

Read Full Post »

THE THIRD BOOK

I’m putting together the final edits for my new book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume II. The subtitle is War in the Air—From the Great Depression to Combat. In it, I track the wartime experiences of seven or eight veterans of the air war over Europe. I also make some surprising discoveries regarding a family cousin who was killed at age 20. I’ll be posting some excerpts over the next few days.

I know that some folks subscribed to this site for the Holocaust educational material. While this may not be directly related to the Holocaust, understand that it is all about keeping the memory alive. And I have to tell you that some of my biggest cheerleaders for these stories about our World War II veterans come from the Holocaust survivor community.

Maybe I’ll start with the guy who lived on the corner for most of my life. In 1969, he also became my younger brother’s godfather. Thirty-four years later he ran into some of my students at a garage sale. They found out he was in World War II, and asked him for an interview for my class.

I had no idea that Dick was even in World War II. Here’s just an excerpt. You can order the full book here; the paperback edition will be out Sept. 1, 2017.

 

War in the Air-Flight Engineer Dick Varney

Richard Varney

I grew up during the Depression. I remember that day in 1929 [when the stock market crashed] very well. I was about 17 or 18. I had been working for two years; I went to work at 15 years old with working papers. My parents, God bless them, they grew up in an era when school was not that important. You went to work as soon as you were able to help the family. I don’t think you people understand what I am saying or what that means, but it meant a lot. But I wish that I had gone to school. I did later on, but I made it in life without [a formal education]. I had to do it my way. I worked at the sawmill on Haskell Avenue in Glens Falls; it’s not there now. I also started playing at dances in a band when I was 17 and did it for a long, long time; it was a lot of fun. It was quite necessary then because the wages then weren’t what they are now. I took lessons for a little while on the violin, but I played by ear from then on. I also taught myself to play the alto and tenor saxophone, which I still have, incidentally.

You have to realize that when I went to work at the Imperial factory, later, if you weren’t late or forgot to ring in and out, you got 40 cents an hour. Can you imagine that? You worked 40 hours; you got sixteen dollars a week! Now on this, you had a family to support—it isn’t like what it’s like today. In the Depression era you could buy a home for 1,500 dollars. You couldn’t hang a door for that now! Money was something you didn’t have, but you didn’t feel deprived in those days because nobody else had any money. No, you probably had one change of clothes, maybe one pair of shoes if you were lucky. You didn’t wear them in the summer because you didn’t want to wear them out. I’m not exaggerating, because you just didn’t have the money. You made do. You didn’t eat a lot of prepared food, you [improvised and] cooked your own. You ate a lot of things… [Have you ever had] dandelions? We used to go and pick them. Clean them, cook them, you make do. You just didn’t always have money with those kinds of wages.

*

On December 7, 1941, I was working at the Imperial Color paint factory in Glens Falls. It was a shock— I was outraged naturally, because it was a sneak attack.  But it was not unexpected; believe me, we had been heading towards it. In fact, in my opinion we were already in an undeclared war; we were actually in it because we were supporting England. We had been giving them everything they needed; from then on it was just a matter of time before we all got into it.  But Germany and Japan declared war on us first.

I was not a kid; I was 30 years old at the time. I was married and I had no idea what the future was going to bring for us, because I did not know what they wanted to do. I don’t think anybody relished the idea of going to war; nobody does. But nevertheless, I think we had a level of patriotism at that time that we won’t ever see again; certainly we don’t have it now. Everybody was behind it, the whole situation, at that time. I don’t think you heard anybody wondering whether we should go in or not, because we were in. In retrospect it was so long ago now, a lot of the details are not as sharp as they should be maybe, but I can remember most of it.

Richard ‘Dick’ Varney, flight engineer, first row second from right, and the crew of his B-24 Liberator Source: Richard Varney, Sr..

I was drafted in April of 1943, I think. Then we went through God knows how many schools, how much training, to prepare us for it.

I took my army basic training in Miami Beach. It was tough duty in Miami Beach. [Laughs] After that we were assigned to air mechanic school, and there I was trained for the B-24 Liberator. I was being trained as the aircraft flight engineer, and my job at that time was everything mechanical on the plane. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility, so you were taught everything about the airplane. Then after we graduated from there, they sent us to Panama City for air gunnery. After that we went to various places and to Westover, and from there our crew was formed. Now this crew, when it was put together, was the first time that I had met most of these people, the enlisted men I met. Then we went to Walker Air Base in South Carolina, and there we met our pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier; from then on, we were a unit—we stayed together, we trained together, all our practice missions and everything. Then we went to Langley, Virginia, and from there we took radar training. And that was the last duty in this part of the world—from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland and from there to Wales. We flew all the way over. Now as a unit we stayed that way. And then when we got there, we were assigned to our bomb group. And there we went through even more training—that’s all you ever did, you train, train, train, and train.

‘There Are No Heroes’

The B-17 crews were the glory boys. The B-24 flew faster, carried more bombs, and flew higher, but the B-17s were the glory boys. We didn’t name our planes like they did. We had ten to a crew in the 24s, yes. Originally they had a ball turret on the bottom but when we got over across the ocean they took that out and they put the radar transmitter in the bottom, where the belly turret was. That left the engineer free to do everything mechanical and the assistant engineer flew the top turret [gun] in my plane.

Finally we were scheduled for our first mission, to Hamburg. It was a vital mission, in the sense that Hamburg had all their oil refineries. And without that, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t have gasoline, they couldn’t have anything, so you could destroy it because it would certainly limit their supplies. It was a very important mission. And because of that they concentrated their [fighter] aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to protect it. So that’s a target I really remember, believe me.

I’ve seen planes go down, naturally. And the only things you’d look for were how many ‘chutes came out of it because when an airplane gets spinning, you couldn’t get out. Sometimes because of centrifugal force, the spinning of the plane would kill you, because you couldn’t get out. As I said before, I never got hurt. It was always the other guy. And the frame of mind that you have is something that most people can’t understand—you can see this happening, but it’s not you. It becomes an impersonal thing; it has to be, because you would go crazy if it wasn’t. Not that you didn’t have sympathy for the people but still, it wasn’t you. I don’t know how to explain it. But there are no heroes, contrary to what people may think. It’s like a job. I don’t think there are any heroes up there because you’re just doing your job, you have to—you either did, or you didn’t come back. You don’t have time enough really to be scared a lot.

*

Our missions were all over. They were over the Rhineland, yes sure. And Cologne, Dusseldorf, whatever you can think of. And we hit them wherever they were—we bombed as far as Austria and Czechoslovakia; in fact we even hit Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s retreat.

Most of the missions we flew were around 20,000 feet and believe me, in the winter time at that altitude, it’s about minus 70 degrees. That’s cold. But we did have heated suits, heated clothes. And of course under those circumstances we still had our job to do. As an engineer, I had duties at the time. I had to check to make sure the generators were synchronized, I opened the bomb bay doors, and I transferred fuel. All of these things were part of my job. I won’t speak for the other people; they had their own jobs. But that is what I did.

*

‘Something Always Goes Wrong’

Did anything ever go wrong during your job?

 

Did anything ever go wrong? [Chuckles] Oh, something always goes wrong. Yes, I remember one time when we got ready on the ‘IP’, which is the Initial Point, where we start the bomb run to the target—I forget where the mission was to—well, they loaded the bombs all right. But there’s a propeller on the back of it, and when you drop them, the wind screws the propeller off. When that propeller comes off, that bomb is armed; it won’t go off otherwise. But when the group crews load them, they’re supposed to put a safety wire through it, in each thing. Well, somebody on that mission [laughs], they didn’t put the safety wires in. So when I opened the bomb bay doors, the wind hit them and I called the pilot on the intercom and I said, ‘I got news for you, we got 10 thousand pound bombs here that are now armed. The propellers are all off.’ Any piece of flak coming through would hit the nose of them and… [Makes the sound of an explosion] that would be all she wrote, you wouldn’t find anything! It didn’t though. But that’s one time I sweated a little bit, I can tell you. [Chuckles]  You couldn’t fix anything. We were on the ‘IP’. You couldn’t take evasive action, you couldn’t do anything and we’re flying right through that flak. But when they dropped the bombs, it was fine.

Flak

I learned more about the German anti-aircraft than I did about anything else because that was the only way you could defend yourself against anti-aircraft; oh yes, we picked up holes, sure. Flak holes. And they generally fired in bursts of three. They used their 88s, they called them, and at different levels. The first one would be 18,500 feet, and another one would be at 18,700 and so on; three. They’re like steps. And they would try to bracket you with the target. And each battery they had of anti-aircraft was three guns, usually. But they so had many of those batteries at some of our targets! When they started firing, you would have thought there was a thunderstorm up there, you know what I mean? But I never lost it, I never lost an engine. I did lose the oil out of one when we landed because there was a hole in the oil reservoir, but the pump in it was strong enough so I didn’t lose the engine in the air. No, I made sure the engines were alright before we went up. As I said before, I don’t make that much of that because there’s not many heroes up there. You’re doing your job, that’s all. But for flying personnel, we had the highest rate of causalities than any branch of the service, because there’s no foxholes up there either, no place to hide, but [we were lucky.] Out of our original crew of ten, we only lost two. There was a bomb group that was short a co-pilot and a tail gunner. And we weren’t scheduled to fly that day, so they assigned them to that other aircraft, from the other group. And they got shot down. They didn’t come back.

You didn’t do too much worrying because it’s something that you were trained to do, and you had to do it and you’re busy and taking care of the duties of the job. You didn’t have much time to think about anything else. No, I don’t think we always wondered—of course, it crosses your mind naturally, why wouldn’t it? When you look out the side window and see a plane going down, it isn’t you, but naturally you’re going to wonder about it, you know… But as far as that, that’s all there’s to it. I mean, the way the job was—what in retrospect, what I did like about the air corps was that despite the hazards, if you went over and came back, you did have a place to sleep. You weren’t like an infantryman sleeping in a foxhole! You ate in the mess halls; you did get your hot food. But outside of that, as I said, I don’t think there were many heroes flying up there—I can’t say I worried too much—because what are you going to do? If you don’t like it, are you going to get out and walk? You’re going where the plane goes, that’s all there is to it. And that’s it. But I can’t say I got to take much credit for that. The only thing you can take credit for is being able to function under those conditions. You take 70 degrees below zero and you’ve got murderous work, and if you take your gloves off, it wouldn’t be for two minutes and your hands would be frozen. Outside of that, that’s the part of it.

*

I’m just telling you that I don’t feel that air combat was such a personal thing. It only gets personal when you’re flying through flak or got another plane coming at you or something—then it gets a little bit personal. So, like I say—what are you going to do? So I don’t pretend to be a hero; I just did my job, and I was good at my job, too. I made it a point to be, because I wanted to learn everything about that plane that I could. [When I entered the service] I never expected to fly. I thought I’d be a mechanic at my age. Instead of that, I wound up over places, I’ll never know how, but I did. I was in pretty good condition physically I guess. Not very exciting, but that’s the way it is.

This interview took place in 2003. Dick Varney passed away on April 28th, 2008, just shy of his 97th birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Varney and my kid brother, 1969.

Read Full Post »

How soon we forget. Or perhaps, we were never told. That is understandable, given what they saw.

But, it happened. Many of the boys never came home.

And that, dear reader, is why we can’t afford to forget.

You can read the reviews, but my favorite commentary on my first book was not written or published. A dear friend told me that one of her close relatives read the book, and that she had cried all the way through it. She finally realized what her father had seen, and gone through, and the friends that he had lost.

And it helped her make sense of her own life.

Just because the shooting stopped, it did not mean that the war ended. In many ways, it still lives on. And I hope that this book takes a step in the healing process. The book is a catharsis, for both the veterans and their families. But more importantly, it’s a way to honor and remember those who did not return home. The veterans are leaving us, and it is up to us to remember. For own own sakes, as much as theirs.

You can get the book here at Amazon, in print and electronic format. For signed copies, you can go here.

I have more books on the way, if you care to sign up for advance notification.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by, and for being one of those who appreciates that Memorial Day as more than just the de facto start of summer. Hit a ‘SHARE’ button below if you think someone else will appreciate it.

Matthew Rozell

Author, teacher of young people, and blogger on things that matter.

 

Read Full Post »

I hope you had a great weekend. I decided to spend my weekend with a fellow who has been gone for a while. And I had a blast.

tom collins jan 04

This weekend I edited an interview we did six or seven years before the our veteran, sitting comfortably in his favorite chair in his button-down sweater in front of the Christmas tree, passed. He was suddenly alive, animated, an old man telegraphing the emotions and feelings long buried about some of the most formative years of his life-conveying them to a young person who was genuinely interested; who CARED.

When you edit a raw interview, you have to absorb it all first. The surroundings, the line of questioning, the emotions and the back and forth of the memory machine. You pray that the transcriber, if it was not you originally, was relatively engaged and committed to a literal interpretation. And thank goodness for the advent of the digital access to the tapes we made, when we donated a copy to the New York State Military Museum.

We’d move on a minute’s notice and find a place to put our guns into position. [When we were in combat] there was fear, lots of it. But I was in charge of the howitzer and the gun crew. We might be getting shelled ourselves and our infantry getting pounded. We sometimes found ourselves in fluid situations. The Germans might be attacking or we might be attacking and it was very fluid—we might be moving forward or backing up. You never knew—[behind the lines], you never knew what was happening, whether we had them on the run or whether they were counterattacking—so we had to think in terms of getting things ready to move, because we might have to get the hell out of here. We had the fear but we were so busy and had so much to do and make sure it got done that it sort of beat the fear. In other words, you were scared to death, but you did the best you possibly could.

Armed with all this, without putting words in the subject’s mouth, I have to arrange his recollections in line with the actual events of the day. Thus it was with Mr. Tom Collins, an artillery sergeant responsible for a 105 mm gun crew in Italy.  As it turned out, he was interviewed by his own granddaughter, one of my students a long time before he passed. And he told her things that he had never told anyone else in his life–but only because she cared, and asked the right follow-up questions. That is clear in the transcript she produced for her project afterwards.

When we got home, the sudden change [to civilian life] seemed difficult for me. I felt more and more that I had changed, so I would stay home. I didn’t go anywhere. It took me a couple of weeks before I would go out, you know, go downtown. I remember the first few times I went uptown from there—I wouldn’t go unless my sister was with me, I wouldn’t go alone. I can’t really put words on it but I really felt strange. I felt unusual. I thought, ‘Will I talk right, will I act right?’ because when we were in the army, foul language was common place and using crazy phrases like the southerners used, things like that, it became the way I was speaking and living. But [after a while] I warmed up and I was fine.

Tom Collins passed in 2011. Yet because of the prescient efforts  we made, years and years ago, he will live on in the minds of more than just his family. You can see more about him below, and you can read about him in the upcoming book I am working on. You did good, young Catie.

Thank you, sweetheart. It was a pleasure.

Rest on, Tom Collins.

(You can order the first book here.)

 

 

Read Full Post »

edwin israel by matt rozell

edwin israel by matt rozell

I’m working on my second and third books simultaneously, the trilogy of World War II and Holocaust stories that have shaped my life though the narratives of those who lived through it. One of the most gratifying things is recalling the conversations I recorded over the course of nearly two decades. Most of the subjects are now deceased.

Edwin Israel participated in the invasion of Normandy, Sicily and North Africa. He received 2 Bronze Stars. One time he captured three soldiers who were trying to kill him, marching them back to his lines at gunpoint, with an empty rifle pointed at them. Another time he evaded capture by pretending he was dead and lying down on top of a German soldier he had just mortally wounded. When the enemy patrol passed, the dying German, in perfect English, told him to take his stuff.

I got up and [this German I shot] starts talking to me in English, he says he’s from Coney Island, in Brooklyn, he went to visit his mother in Germany and they put him in the army. And he was dying, and he says to me, ‘you can take my cigarettes; you can take my schnapps’. Then he died right underneath me. And I imagine he knew I had shot him…

He was a first scout who navigated his way back to his lines at night by following the stars. One time he crossed through a minefield and back without knowing it.

Before the invasion of Normandy, he rolled craps all night before going in on Omaha Beach. He had all the money at the end, and loaned out money to the guys who wanted to keep playing. Not one of them survived.

His beloved captain, who had been his CO all through the war, warned him about the mines on the beach before disembarking. The first thing that he did after that was step on a mine and get killed.

 

Everything was very lucky for me.  I just happened to do this, or happened to do that.  When they counterattacked that time on the hill, I just figured I’ll lay down on top of that soldier and make believe I’m dead. I used to go scouting at night by the stars—I used to look up and see where certain stars were, so that I could find my way back. That was how I found my way back when the fellas and I went to the mountain—by stars—through the minefield. We were so lucky. But you know, I never worried about getting wounded; it never bothered me.  I was only worried about getting captured, never worried about getting shot.  I said, ‘They’re not going to shoot me.’  That was my attitude. I volunteered for everything. I only worried that I was going to get captured.  With my name, I figured, oh, they’re going to kill me. That’s the only thing I worried about.

 

I interviewed him four months before he died, twelve years ago. The tape was then buried but has since been rediscovered. Lately I have been working on and editing his transcript for days. There is a noble feeling akin to resurrecting these men that makes the time so worthwhile.

Look for the next book this summer. We’re bringing Ed back.

TOFS Book Presentation

 

Read Full Post »

Vet tells his story: from Pearl Harbor to the classroom

by Liza Frenette

Alvin Peachman

Nineteen-year-old Alvin Peachman was playing pingpong when he heard about the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His heart might have skipped a few beats, like a ping-pong ball skittering across the table. But it didn’t take too many heartbeats after that for him to enlist in the Navy.

“We heard the news on the radio. There was no TV then,” he told students at Hudson Falls High School recently. The idea of the U.S. Navy being so outrageously attacked seemed unthinkable.

“We thought it was a joke. Then, we heard President Roosevelt ask Congress for a Declaration of War. And I knew that I’d be in it,” Peachman said. “There was war fever. There were posters to inflame your patriotism.”

Always interested in history and geography, he said he knew right where Pearl Harbor was. Information about Pearl Harbor Day can be accessed in a free lesson plan at the American Federation of Teachers’ “Share My Lesson” site.

“I volunteered for the Navy. You had to be in perfect physical condition,” Peachman said.

At the time, he was working on the docks in New York City, where he’d come to find work away from the coal mines of Appalachia, where he grew up. He unloaded coffee on the piers. “I could rip the pier up!” he boasted.

It’s been a long time since Peachman was in front of a classroom, teaching students about history. But, at 93, he still lives just down the street from the small and rural Hudson Falls High School where he taught from 1951 to 1983. So he came on over recently to spend several hours with two classes of students, talking about his experiences during WWII. He fought in the Pacific Theater, which spilled out on a map behind him for students to see. A white-haired man with sparkling blue eyes, he sat comfortably in front of the students, wearing a brown cardigan, telling them how he slept in a hammock on his ship with 50 men in a room the size of their classroom.

He showed them a metal chunk from a kamikaze plane that attacked the U.S.S. Witter, a destroyer escort ship off Okinawa. Peachman worked as a radio operator and barely escaped death. Students marveled at the piece of history.

Peachman earned $21 a month for his service in the military, but he had to pay $6.50 of that for insurance because, he recalled, “If you got killed and didn’t have insurance, your mother got nothing.”

His service included fighting in the Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and New Zealand. When fighting on land, he said his helmet served as a wash basin to shave and wash. Many comrades got malaria or other tropical diseases. “You’d get dysentery and be so sick, you wish you were dead,” he said.

Sometimes he was “10,000 to 12,000 miles away from anywhere on the ship,” he said. He crossed the equator a half dozen times and lived through a typhoon, where waves slammed the ships sideways. People had to be tied down so they didn’t get washed away. More than a thousand lives were lost during the two-week storm, Peachman said.

Those weren’t the only challenges.

“I saw no girls for two years and that bothered me,” he said, as students laughed with him. “You go nuts!”

He got out of the service on a Friday and enrolled in college in New York City the following Monday. “I studied like a bulldog,” he said. He worked on Wall Street and then for Western Electric, but his commute was long and he found the city crowded. He went to New York University to get his history degree, and then found a listing for a teaching job in Hudson Falls.

“When they told me the train fare was $15, I almost collapsed,” he said, breaking out into a huge smile.

His host for the day at the school was Matt Rozell, who used to be Peachman’s student. Now, Rozell has written a book, The Things Our Fathers Saw (The Untold Stories of the WWII Generation from Hometown USA — which includes interviews with Peachman and many other veterans. Peachman also passed around a book with photos of his bombed out ship and pictures of his comrades.

“This book will help to remind those who are young and who are living in today’s confused world, that freedom is not free,” Peachman said.

http://blogs.nysut.org/blog/2015/12/07/pearl-harbor-attack-prompted-dockworker-to-enlist-retired-vet-and-teacher-tells-students/

 

Read Full Post »

the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my first book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

alvin 3

Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »