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SideLines: Honoring the stories veterans tell

Published: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 10:26 a.m. CDT

It's always a little touchy, asking veterans if they want to talk about their wartime experiences. You never want to dredge up bad memories, because you never know what they went through.

On the other hand, it's an appropriate subject for certain holidays, such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day. I really don't know of any better way to honor them than by asking them to share their experiences. They deserve to have people know what they did for us.

Some want to do. Others do not.

I only remember my uncle, who saw some heavy fighting in the Korean War, talking about what he saw once. A couple of the stories he shared were so vivid I still can't get them out of my mind. It's hard telling what he left out. But with all veterans, you never probe, you just let them tell what they want the way they're comfortable telling it.

My father, who served in the Navy during World War II, seldom talked about any of the action he went through. He did like to talk about a typhoon they went through, and how they had to tie lines around each other to avoid being blown off their ship; how their beer was always so hot they could barely drink it; and the wild celebration that took place at sea when the Japanese surrendered to end the war. He told me all the guns were fired off in a tremendous barrage at night, lighting up the Pacific Ocean.

I'm not sure, but that may be why he liked Fourth of July fireworks so well.

DeKalb County historian Sue Breese told me the same thing about her father, who was a sergeant during World War II. The only thing he told his children, she said, was that he made doughnuts during the war.

Last week, I was fortunate to talk to a group of World War II veterans who were willing to share some of their experiences. Some of the stories were more dramatic than others, but all of them were interesting.

Clifford Johnson, for instance, spent his entire time in the service supervising food sanitation in Wisconsin. While it wasn't the most exciting service, it was still a necessary task that he served as a duty to his country. At 98, he was the oldest veteran I talked to.

Fayann Horton Stone, 84, wrote down some of her thoughts and experiences as a corporal in the Junior Auxiliary of the Army Air Corps, known as the Civil Air Patrol. Among her many duties was to guard local airports, help new recruits experience flying, teach enemy plane spotting and "any other details that youth could do in the absence of men."

Her father was an air raid warden, often patrolling the darkened streets of their hometown at night to make sure everyone was obeying blackout ordinances. That made sense, since she lived in the state of Washington, the closest state to the Aleutian Islands, which the Japanese held. I've often wondered why it was necessary to have blackouts in this area, so far from either ocean.

Perhaps the most moving experience Stone wrote about was the sudden disappearance of local Japanese families, their houses and businesses boarded up, as they were escorted to internment camps. Since Japanese-Americans had done most of the harvesting on fruit and vegetable farms, local high school children had to be recruited to take their places.

Stone has written two books. Another veteran I talked to, Robert LaConto, is also writing a book, on his experiences flying bomber missions in China.

One veteran, after reluctantly sharing some wartime stories, had a change of heart and asked not to be included in my story. Out of respect, I agreed.

That's another way, maybe even a better way, to honor them.

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