Veterans’ voices locked in the vault

Tom Wells is a Vietnam veteran who was drafted to the Army in 1965. He ended up joining the Navy and worked out of an armory. He shared this story and more with Hancock Historical Museum curator Joy Bennett, who is collecting oral histories from local veterans to be uploaded to the Library of Congress. Bennett is also writing a book about Korean War veterans. (Photo courtesy of the Hancock Historical Museum)

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

If you’re a veteran, the Hancock Historical Museum wants you.

Joy Bennett, the museum’s curator, has been collecting oral histories of veterans for the museum. She is also writing a book on Korean War veterans and their experiences.

Bennett records the stories on the StoryCorps app. StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization whose mission, according to its website, is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” The idea is to “teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters,” the website states. “At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

The StoryCorps app can be downloaded onto a smartphone or a tablet. It’s possible to record up to 45 minutes, and include a picture.

Some veterans already have their stories written, and they give them to Bennett. But talking with her often jogs their memories.

The oral history then gets uploaded to the Library of Congress. It’s available to the general public if they search, but Bennett always sends the family a direct link.

She tries to let each of the veterans talk as much as possible, but asks a few questions each time including their rank, where they served and — her favorite — what they did on leave. She’s hoping for a wild story, but so far it’s “all very normal.” She tries not to ask anything “that might stir up some major memories.”

Most of the time, her subjects “don’t think they’ve done anything that spectacular,” Bennett said. Or they’ll say, “I didn’t do anything heroic.” One veteran was driving a truck near the front lines in Vietnam and described it as, “I just drove a truck.” But, Bennett said, he was right there on the front lines. And she said stories many veterans consider “mundane” might include, for example, sailing on a giant ship across the Pacific — something she herself has never done.

“Not everybody’s had this experience,” she said.

She also asks about the veterans’ time before and after serving. One man had met a young woman right before shipping out.

“He was too afraid to ask her out,” Bennett said. When he returned home, she no longer worked in the same place, but he tracked her down. And they got married.

Bennett has recorded Vietnam and World War II veterans’ stories on StoryCorps, but her book is specifically focused on Korean War veterans. They’re mostly now in their 80s, and there’s a concern that their stories will disappear, she said.

She said about 80 percent of the veterans bring their wives along to the interview. The wives help them stay on track, prompting them, and are often great about remembering dates. It also makes the veteran feel more comfortable, she said.

“The wives usually tend to bring things, too,” like pictures, Bennett said.

Bennett said her hope for the future is that people will get to hear these first-person stories, to understand what happened during these wars. In school you might learn the date that the Korean War began, or the name of a particular battle, but this makes it more personal.

“This is what the individual soldier thought. … I feel like that makes it more real,” she said.

Melvin Cole served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He sailed to Korea on a Navy ship, a journey that took a month in 1951. (Photo courtesy of the Hancock Historical Museum)

One individual soldier Bennett interviewed was Korean War veteran Melvin Cole, who served in the Army, beginning in 1950. He shared a story of his unit being without water for several days.
“Our tongues started to swell,” he said.

He could hear water down a steep hill, and knew that tying barbed wire onto a small tree, then moving the barbs, could create a rope, allowing him to go down a cliff with six water canteens to fill, then crawl back up the barb rope.

“I was glad I was raised on a farm, so I knew about barbed wire,” he said.

He had sailed to Korea on a Navy ship, a journey that took a month in 1951. There were rough waters and the soldiers slept on cots stacked four to five high. And almost everyone was seasick.

“You can imagine what that is like,” Cole said.

He was in a machine gun squad, and the outfit was moving back and forth across Korea. There were land mines in rice paddies and even along walking paths, he said.

Cole also talked about spending five days in Japan on leave. He rested instead of going sightseeing, but he did get some souvenirs to take home.

Also in the StoryCorps archive is an interview Kim Turley conducted with Vietnam veteran Tom Wells, a Fostoria native who was drafted into the Army in 1965. He ended up joining the Navy, thinking it would keep him from being ordered to Vietnam. It did not.

He worked out of an armory, issuing ammunition and weapons to those who needed them, and delivering them — mostly during the day, he told Turley, who noted that it would be harder to be seen at night.

“You always had a target on your back,” he said.

But, he said, he was lucky. “I came back with no bullet holes.” And the people he worked with survived, but “we did see bodies and blood.”

Cole’s account, too, includes several tragic anecdotes.

“You never know what’s going to happen up on the front line,” he said.

Wells ended up with “a lot of problems” related to Agent Orange. His wife noted the many awards he had received, but he said the ones you should be impressed with are those who didn’t make it back.

“The heroes are still over there,” he said.

He said he made many good friends in the service, but lost touch with most of them.

“You try to forget a lot of that stuff, but your buddies, you remember,” he said.

Bennett has interviewed about 15 veterans so far but said, “I definitely need a lot more Korean veterans.”

Her intent is for the book to come out soon. Next semester the museum will have an intern who is an English major, who will work on editing it.

Anyone interested in contributing their story can call the museum at 419-423-4433 or email Bennett directly at jbennett@hancockhistoricalmuseum.org.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
saraarthurs@thecourier.com
Twitter: @swarthurs



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