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Living history: War veterans meet with students from Gainesville Middle School

POSTED: February 24, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Jim DeLong holds a model of a B-26, like the one he flew in World War II, during a Tuesday visit to Gainesville Middle School. Listening to DeLong are students Bryan Ortega and Jasmine Myrick.

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GAINESVILLE — They brought old photographs and memorabilia. One veteran brought a model of the bomber he flew during World War II. But most of all, the veterans brought memories of their time spent in the military, during war and peace.

"We need to let these kids know what it was like back when," said Van Peeples, a second-class petty officer during the Vietnam War era. "There was a time when people were actually drafted."

"... I’m glad to see that today (people) appreciate the veterans no matter what war they were in. You may hate the war, but you’ve got to love the warrior."

In a project that involves the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University, some 30 veterans shared their stories Monday and Tuesday with Gainesville Middle School teacher Haynes Kaufman’s sixth-grade language-arts students.

"The purpose of the project is to obtain an oral history of each veteran and also record the history in written form," said Julie Carson, administrative coordinator at the history center.

"Once the papers are completed, they will be shared with the (center). We want to (use) them in either a forum or as part of an upcoming short-term exhibit," possibly sometime in May.

Kaufman, whose students are required to complete their papers by Friday, said she and Carson were talking last summer about the need for such interviews, "especially as, in America, there are 1,000 World War II veterans a day who die."

"I told her ... if she could find the veterans, we would welcome them and interview them."

She brought in a speaker last week to talk about Pearl Harbor and the Doolittle Raid — a U.S. attack on the Japanese island of Honshu in April 1942 — to familiarize students with how and why America entered World War II.

"I really want to instill in these children that freedom is not free," Kaufman said.

As veterans streamed through her classroom Monday and Tuesday, Kaufman paired them up with a group of students. Sitting in a circle and munching on refreshments, the veterans spoke as the students asked questions from a prepared list.

Jim DeLong, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Forces (which later became the U.S. Air Force) during World War II, talked about his 73 bombing missions over Europe. He used a model of the B-26 bomber he flew to give specifics about the plane, including the size and type of bombs it carried.

Charles Lindsey, a colonel who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, brought old photographs of himself and group shots including him, and passed them around to students.

The veterans also recalled vividly their days in uniform.

Susie Harris, a nurse who served in the Army during World War II, recalled an event that occurred while flying in a transport plane over the Pacific Ocean. The pilot called the nurses one by one to the cockpit.

"When I finally got to go up to the cockpit, there was glass all the way around three sides ... so you could see in every angle, except behind you," Harris said. "It was a beautiful sunny day like today ... and the ocean sparkled with the sun on the waves, just like diamonds.

"And there were ships — there must have been a thousand ships — there. ... And the pilot said to me, ‘I wanted you to see this sight because you may never see it again. Behold the United States Navy."

The ships had gathered to prepare for a landing on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

"When I saw those ships with the American flag flying on every one, I was so proud of us," Harris said, her voice quivering. "Because I knew our Navy had been wiped out at Pearl Harbor, and this was just a few years later."

Bill Blalock, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, talked about his service during an era when public support wasn’t as strong.

"The whole country was behind World War II, including the press," he said. "That was not the case in Vietnam. It was a different era. Thank goodness that, to some extent, that’s no longer the case. Although we have a war in Iraq, we don’t have the kind of opposition we had in Vietnam — demonstrations and public destruction of property."

DeLong said that many people didn’t want to talk about World War II, as popular as it was, for years afterward.

"There was very little going in schools about what had happened," he said. "It’s just a disgrace."

He said he’s thankful for renewed interest in that era.

"The History Center has been marvelous about keeping something going," he added.

Students said they enjoyed meeting the veterans, some 70 or more years older than them.

"It’s been extremely interesting," said Travis Davis, 12.

He recalled one veteran talking about being in what he thought was an abandoned house and noticing something unusual about the floor rug.

"There was a door under the rug, and he opened it up and said, ‘Come out,’ " Travis recalled. "And 21 young German soldiers came up and surrendered."

Jessica Vargas, 12, said she had learned much during the interviews.

"It’s important to know stuff about other people we never knew until now," she said.



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