As decades pass, WWII veterans reassess memories
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH AND DAVID OWENS | The Hartford Courant | Published: May 25, 2014
HARTFORD, Conn. — Their memories are clear, undimmed after seven decades.
John Fletcher can see dead German soldiers stacked in a truck and multicolored parachutes dropping on Bastogne, Belgium, in the desperate winter of 1944-45.
A scene from August 1942 plays in Ted Cummings' mind, the unexpected sound of music on a blood-spattered ridge.
Rico Pace remembers that the sand was dyed red on Omaha Beach as soldiers struggled inland on June 6, 1944.
Images of a Nazi death camp are locked in Ben Cooper's memory.
Many Connecticut veterans of World War II, now in their late 80s and 90s, have only recently revealed such vivid pictures. Some have written about their roles in history's deadliest war, but only for family and friends. Others have spoken to students and civic groups and agreed to videotaped interviews available to anyone with Internet access.
Stories that haven't been told vanish with those who hold them. About 555 World War II veterans die each day, according to the National World War II Museum. Of the approximately 16 million who served, just over 1 million are still alive, about 13,000 of them in Connecticut.
The Veterans History Project at Central Connecticut State University has recorded interviews with about 700 state war veterans. Soldiers, sailors and Marines who were unwilling or unready to speak publicly have reconsidered as they near the end of their lives, project Director Eileen Hurst said.
"A lot of them were scarred, but they didn't talk," Hurst said. "They came home, they wanted to go forward with life and forget. The problem is, you don't forget."
Looking for interview subjects several years ago, Hurst called Cummings, a U.S. Marine veteran from Manchester. Cummings declined, but Hurst called again recently, and this time Cummings embraced the chance to tell his story.
"If you're not careful," he said, "war becomes almost casual and sanitized. ... It's all forgotten or it's barely touched on, and the awfulness and size of that conflict was something that should not become a passing thought of casual interest.
"So the stories should be told. War — there's no glory in it. There's just horror and stuff that leaves bad memories, yet there are some good ones, too, because somehow, men and women retain their humanness in all of the chaos."
The Veterans History Project did a three-part interview with Cummings: "When he opened up, he opened up," Hurst said.
The Piano Player
Then 18 and serving with the 1st Marine Division, Cummings describes a moment in August 1942 on a grassy ridge bisecting the tiny island of Tulagi in the Solomons, a first objective in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
"We came out of the half light of the jungle into the brilliance of the South Pacific morning and it was like being in a balcony seat in a large theater," said Cummings, 90, a retired insurance company owner.
"To the right, we could see everything — the invasion fleet anchored, wakes of the small boats ferrying supplies into the troops that had landed the previous day, and the air was heavy with smoke from burning buildings and oil stores and there was a bite from the cordite in your nostrils.
"You could hear the cough of the mortars and the long roll of them firing and the crack of rifles. In a cut in the ridge ahead of us, we could see the mouths of caves and the winking of enemy machine guns, and suddenly a Marine began to rappel down the face of the cut with a satchel charge fastened to the end of a long pole, and he stuck it into the end of that cave that he was targeting and it blew.
"Suddenly, two dive bombers came in very, very low and the pilot and the gunner waved to us and they dropped their 250-pounders on the cut and you could feel the concussion from the exploding bombs and the heat.
"Off about a mile and a half, Marines were landing on two specks, former volcanic cones, Gavutu and Tanambogo, and a Navy destroyer was firing its guns ahead of those Marines. You could hear the "whump, whump," and to the right, immediately to the right, was a smashed, large white house that we found out later was the resident high commissioner's house. There were large pools of dried blood on the ridge, on the grass. There had been a hell of a fight there the night before.
"The house was crumbled from shell fire and yet next to it, in between the splinters, was this piano with one of its feet shot off so that it canted. All of a sudden we were standing there seeing all this, smelling it, feeling it, and this Marine got out of the file, walked over to the piano and as he moved toward it our eyes met and his eyes danced a little bit. They were bright and he was kind of half smiling.
"He moved up to that piano and with all of the chaos going on he played — I don't think a half dozen of us heard him because of the noise — he played, 'You may not be an angel / But angels are so few / So until the real thing comes along / I'll string along with you.'
"He played it again. The humanness of the act! Then he looked and our eyes met again just briefly. I never saw him again. I hear that song occasionally. ... He played it. He meant it. A few of us heard it, and when the bombers flew overhead, they smiled and waved. They didn't hear."
'I Always Cut It Short'
Pace, 92, of West Hartford, served with the Army's 197th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion. He fought in five battles and witnessed the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
"I was in the first wave on Omaha Beach" on the Normandy coast of France, he said. "We got off the ship at 6:30 in the morning. We were on the beach six to eight hours before we could get up that hill."
When his halftrack rolled off a landing ship, the beach was "nice brown sand." Hours later, the sand was red with the blood of thousands of American soldiers, he said.
Pace said that in the years after the war, he spoke with his family about some of what he experienced during the war, but otherwise said little.
"Details are too horrible to talk about," he said. "I always cut it short.
"I didn't want to get reminded again of what I went through. Now, I'm 92. I remember it as a picture in my mind — the agony, the crying, the poor GIs running around, getting hit, bombs going off, soldiers calling out, soldiers blowing apart, screaming, fear."
After the war, Pace worked for 47 years at Allen Manufacturing Co., volunteered as a tour guide at the state Capitol and continues to volunteer two days at week at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford.
In the first years after he returned, he would sometimes wake up screaming, he said. Time has healed many of those old wounds, he said, but once in a while he'll dream about it again.
"It eats you alive inside, and that's only part of it. Everybody suffers."
When he talks about his experience, it is so others "know what war is all about, how gruesome it is, how sad it is."
A Witness At Dachau
Cooper, 92, was a combat medic with the 45th Infantry Division, one of the units that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.
Cooper arrived at Dachau the day after it was liberated. He was horrified by what he saw — misery, starvation, the systematic murder of men, women and children.
"I was overwhelmed by the inhumanity," Cooper said. "My God, it was horrible."
The surviving prisoners were in deplorable condition. "I couldn't tell men from women," he said.
Cooper carried a camera with him throughout the war, and he took photographs everywhere he went, including at Dachau. What he saw continues to haunt him.
"You just can't forget," he said. "They were innocent people."
After the war, he shared his photos, but was troubled by the response.
"I showed the … pictures to my family and people in my neighborhood," he said. "'Oh, that can't be,' and, 'It couldn't have been that bad,'" were the responses. "So I put them away and didn't talk about it. I went on with my life."
After the war, Cooper got into the family package store business and joined the Jewish War Veterans. He got to know many of the death camp survivors who settled in West Hartford and in Hartford's North End.
"A lot of fellows took up drinking," Cooper said. "You had to do something to get over what you saw in combat. It was locked in my chest. It just bothered me."
In 1990, a schoolteacher in Torrington asked Cooper to speak about his wartime experiences. Since then he has spoken many times to school and civic groups about the Holocaust and what he saw. He speaks each year at Hall High School in West Hartford, his alma mater, and at Conard High. Lately, he's been joined by his close friend Henny Simon, who survived the death camps.
Cooper said he is deeply troubled by those who deny that the Holocaust occurred and the ease with which young people can come across that information and become confused.
"The kids today are very vulnerable," Cooper said. "If they hear a lie long enough, they think it's true."
Talking about what he saw, bearing witness to the Nazis' crimes, has been good for Cooper.
"It's been a healing process for me," he said. "I've noticed when you get it off your chest and you can talk about it, it does help."
Joseph Borriello, 90, of Meriden, was a radio operator with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. At age 76, after retiring as a school administrator in Meriden, he wrote a book about his experiences, mainly for his children. Here, in a passage from the book and from an interview, he describes a 1943 minesweeping mission in Tunisia and the first GI he saw killed:
"The first day we went out to clear a mine field, we were instructed in the use of a mine detector. We worked in pairs, one on the detector and the other putting down tracing tape as we went along to show which area had been cleared."
The type of mine they were clearing, Borriello explained in the interview, were called "Bouncing Betties." Barely visible, their needle-like prongs protruded above ground. When triggered, the antipersonnel mine jumped from the ground and sprayed shrapnel. Stepping on a prong, Borriello said, made a noise like the snapping of a dry twig.
"If we missed a mine with the detector and stepped on one, at the sound of the pop, we were to yell, 'Mine,' and we all turn and hit the ground that has already been swept," he wrote. "One of the fellows in the next row to us was named Cpl. Tom Redmond. About 20 yards into the mine field, he yelled 'Mine!' and we all hit the dirt. For some unknown reason, the mine was a little late in exploding. Apparently Tom thought it was a false alarm, so he started to get up. That's when the mine exploded and he was riddled with shrapnel.
"For three days," Borriello said, "every time I closed my eyes, I saw Redmond getting killed."
'We Never Saw Him Again'
Fletcher, 89, of Manchester, was with the U.S. Army's 10th Armored Division, one of the units that fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He says his memories of the war are "like it happened yesterday," yet he never talked about them, even with his wife and four children.
He's matter-of-fact about it: "I didn't feel anybody was interested. … Guys got killed; it didn't make me go crazy."
After retiring from a career as a lawyer for insurance companies, Fletcher took a writing class last year at the local senior center. He dropped the class after completing several essays about his war experience.
"I couldn't think of anything else to write about," he said.
Here he writes about the siege of Bastogne:
"After several days, our supplies were running low. We were down to about 12 rounds per man, and short on food. … There were waves of C-47s overhead, which dropped multicolored parachutes, which might have been made in Manchester. The women in town were delighted to get them, to make clothes. During the German occupation, material was hard to get.
"Renee Lemaire [a Belgian nurse who had been helping the Americans, Lemaire was killed when the Germans bombed an aid shelter] had hoped to get one of them for her wedding dress. We gave her relatives one and I believe they buried it with her."
Fletcher also remembered German soldiers killed in an artillery barrage. The Americans loaded the bodies head-first into a truck, "and all you could see was their boots," Fletcher said.
"You get a mind-set. You're killing people and they're killing you, and you kind of lose your humanity — or you go crazy."
In an essay titled, "Feelings," Fletcher wrote about a soldier who had reached the end of endurance.
"There were men who lost their minds during the combat period. In our war, they called it 'combat fatigue.' … I remember that we had one man, a replacement, who acted 'numb' all the time. We sent him back to the medics. They didn't believe he was ill, so they sent him back up with the next load of replacements.
"Just a few days later, we were situated on the top of a flat hill. The German shells, with flat trajectory, were going over our heads and exploding about a hundred yards behind us. We were standing by our half-tracks eating breakfast when they brought in some mortars, and the shells were exploding around us. The man was hit in his steel helmet with a piece of shrapnel that dented his helmet and raised a welt on the side of his head. He went completely berserk, and this time the medical staff believed him. We never saw him again."