by Sue Ann Rybak
Springside Chestnut Hill Academy graduates Wilson Jones, of Chestnut Hill, Michael Wrede, of Lafayette Hill, and Chris Markos, of Ambler, hope their senior project will have an impact on generations to come.
As part of their project, they interviewed and recorded approximately 35 veterans from various wars and conflicts, including World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to preserve their stories so future generations can hear firsthand their experiences and better understand the devastating realities of war.
The students decided to interview area veterans about their military service after Chip Sheppard, chairman of the Veterans Monument Foundation of Whitemarsh, which hopes to build a memorial to honor veterans in Miles Park, reached out to SCH students after listening to a segment on CBS about a teenager in California who was working to record War World II veterans’ stories.
“He realized that they [World War II veterans] would not be here forever, and their stories needed to be told,” Sheppard said. “I suggested that the Veterans Monument Foundation try to do the same thing. We felt strongly that the stories the veterans could tell, with their emotions, reliving their fears and experiences, would be more moving than any author could write.”
For five weeks, the three teenagers researched, interviewed and listened to veterans share their story. Sheppard added that “most of the veterans were very eager to talk and share what they had experienced, perhaps out of a sense of history and pride in service and maybe wistfulness that others after them won’t have to experience the same thing.”
Sheppard said after the interviews are edited and published on the foundation’s website, they will be submitted to the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project (VHP).”
Wrede said initially, when they first approached veterans with “a bunch of scripted questions, they “shied away,” but when they were “just having a conversation” the veterans would share intimate details, not only of the war but of their life after the war.
One such story was that of World War II Veteran Minturn T. Wright III, who was a radioman with the 106th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge.
Markos, 18, who is majoring in history at Colgate, said Wright’s story resonated with him.
“He did not shoot a single gun at the Battle of the Bulge, which is the battle where we lost more Americans than any other battle including the Civil War,” he said. “This guy was the target, but had no targets. He didn’t even want to take the offensive. It was just stay alive, so he could send out the radio signal. His job was essential. It’s something we don’t think about when we think about war.”
Markos said too often people’s perception of war is based on what they see in movies. He said people often think about service in terms of combat and too often forget about servicemen and women working behind the scenes.
“There is so much more to the military as a whole,” he said.
Wrede, 18, who is heading for Tufts, said the project was interesting because students had a chance to interview veterans who served in a variety of wars and conflicts.
“I think in each story there was a common thread,” he said. “Everyone wanted to serve and they felt like they got something out of it. We heard so many different stories – from a veteran in the military police to a driver of generals.
Wrede recalled a pilot who served in the Cold War.
“He was on alert at all times for nuclear weapons,” he said. “He would often take the nuclear bombs [the detonation cores were not installed] and do training exercises all the time. He talked about all the times there was a false [attack] alert.”
Wrede added that it was interesting to hear his wife’s perspective and hear what it was like to be at his side during a high alert.
Jones, 18, who will be attending St. Andrews in Scotland, recalled an Air Force pilot from World War II, whose plane was shot down in a combat operation and was captured.
“The pilot and his crew were marched into Germany,” Jones said. “He talked about his relationship with the prison guards there. He said by the Spring 1945, the German guards had acknowledged they lost the war and they weren’t particularly interested in beating or brutalizing them – with the exception of the Schutzstaffel (SS) [the elite corps and self-described political soldiers of the Nazi party].
“When the Allies were coming to liberate them, the SS wanted to liquidate the camp, but the regular army wouldn’t let them do that. They [the guards] arrested the SS members and took their weapons away. He said he would often ask one guard how far away the Americans and the British were – until he finally replied, ‘You’ll probably be free by next week.’”
The video and audio interviews will eventually be posted on The Veterans Monument Foundation of Whitemarsh at https://www.whitemarshvetmonument.org/. If you would like to make a donation to help build The Veterans Monument Foundation of Whitemarsh’s memorial called Heroes’ Ground go to their website or send check to Veterans’ Monument Foundation of Whitemarsh, P.O. Box 616, Lafayette Hill, PA 19444.
Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at 215-248-8804 or firstname.lastname@example.org