By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Veterans share their stories with Gainesville middle schoolers
Gainesville Middle School student Shateria Henderson listens Wednesday as Roscoe McMillan answers questions about his military experience during a presentation at the school. - photo by Tom Reed

History walks and talks at Gainesville Middle School.

Julie Carson, administrative coordinator at Brenau University’s Northeast Georgia History Center, worked with Gainesville Middle teacher Haynes Kaufman for the second year to bring the stories of local veterans alive for middle school language arts students.

Tuesday and Wednesday, Gainesville Middle students interviewed more than 30 veterans who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and during the Cold War. Carson said the students are writing accounts of veterans’ oral histories, and Gainesville High School broadcast students taped the interviews to give the history center a video account.

"So many veterans, especially our World War II veterans, are not going to be with us much longer, so we’ll have these bios on file," Carson said. "And students are going to learn more from a person than from a book. First of all, they’re going to listen."

The veterans shared their tales of Cold War-era submarine trackers, pilot missions and even romance. Middle schoolers scribbled dates, names and tales in their notebooks and asked questions to jog details from veterans’ memories.

Kaufman’s sixth-graders had many questions for World War II Army nurse Suzy Harris.

Harris must have been a spunky beauty when she enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1945. The eyes of the now gray-haired nurse twinkled as she recalled her flight from Honolulu to the island of Okinawa, later the scene of the last battle of World War II.

"I was in the cockpit, and I could look out and the sun was shining down on the Pacific Ocean and it looked like diamonds sparkling. ... And there were all these ships as far as my eye could see — battleships, destroyers, warships big and little with the American flag whipping in the breeze. It was a beautiful sight," Harris said.

"And the pilot said, ‘I want you to look down here, because you are on your way to Okinawa, and it’s going to be our last battleground in this war. There will be lots of casualties. I want you to see this sight because less than four years ago, the Japanese sank our Navy in Pearl Harbor,’" she recalled.

From the cockpit of the cargo plane, Harris said she saw an armada of nearly 1,500 ships, nearly all of which American women and men had turned out with unprecedented speed. Harris told students the atomic bomb was still a well-guarded secret at the time. The ships were stationed off Okinawa, an island just 350 miles south of Japan, and were prepared to invade Japan at a moment’s notice.

"We were getting ready for the invasion (of Japan), which would have been horrible," Harris said, referring to U.S. military estimates at the time that projected the Allied forces would lose at least 500,000 troops in an invasion.

Many historians agree the significance of the bloody battle of Okinawa in early summer of 1945 was overshadowed by the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, about a month before the Japanese officially surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945. But Kaufman’s students got the inside story about Okinawa.

Harris said she clearly remembers when news of the atomic bombs’ success rippled through her field tent where she was diligently keeping soldiers’ wounds clean.

"We celebrated," she said. "The men with guns started shooting their guns off like firecrackers. We had a lot of gunshot wounds come in that night, because sometimes they weren’t paying attention to where they were shooting."

But Harris left Okinawa with much more than great stories.

One afternoon while stationed on Okinawa, the Philadelphia native put on a fresh coat of lipstick and implored her lieutenant to have troops build a ramp to the latrine to prevent unsavory leftovers from being tracked into the field tents. He said he’d do it if she did him a favor.

"‘Well, what kind of favor?’" she asked. "He wanted me to go on a date with him to the beach that Sunday, on his day off."

U.S. Army Lt. Bill Harris of Thomasville built that ramp, and then became her husband. Suzy Harris said they had three children and 62 wonderful years of marriage together before he died in December.

"I had lots of boyfriends there, because they were everywhere," she reminisced to students. "But you can’t beat a good old Georgia boy."

Retired Air Force Col. Robert Goble, a pilot during the Vietnam War, said he enjoys telling students his combat stories.

"It’s to let them know I’m proud of my country and proud of the Air Force," he said. "And to let them understand, too, there’s a lot of other people in the world besides us, the United States. It’s a big world out there, and I’ve seen most of it."

Other veterans said they want to remind young students they live in a country worth fighting for.

Gainesville Middle seventh-grader Roberto Remes said he admired U.S. Navy veteran Roscoe McMillan for his bravery as he piloted Soviet submarine scouting missions in the Atlantic during the 1960s.

"Landing the planes on the boat when it was moving — I’m impressed," Roberto said. "It is a cool way to learn about history."