Oral history project records veterans' stories
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Paul Craver, an 80-year-old ex-Marine, was sitting in a small room in the Redbud Hills independent retirement community, wisps of his silver hair protruding from beneath a red cap emblazoned with these words — “U.S. Marine Corps Retired.”
Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Ron Burkhart, who was at Redbud Hills Friday to interview Craver and two other military veterans as part of a Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Project, asked him to look directly into a digital video recorder sitting on a tripod a few feet away.
Craver complied, then began telling his story — how at age 17 he dropped out of Eminence High School so he could join the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I was tired of farming our 100-acre farm,” he said. “And I wanted some action.”
He said his first drill instructor at boot camp in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., was an “SOB.”
But he liked his second drill sergeant, which is why he presented him with a free bottle of booze.
“I was on cleanup detail outside the noncommissioned officers’ club and came across an unopened bottle of Kentucky bourbon,” he said. “I put it in my footlocker for about a week, but then decided that if the DI found out about it, I would be in big trouble.”
So Craver asked for a private meeting with the DI, which was granted.
“Sir, on behalf of our squad, I would like to present you with this small token of our appreciation,” he said. “He was speechless.”
After three months of boot camp, Craver was one of three members of his platoon to graduate “private first class.”
“That was because I was the third highest ranked shooter in my platoon,” he said. “The Marines place a great deal of importance on shooting. You got $5 extra pay for being an expert shooter, $3 for sharpshooter and $1 for marksman.”
Craver served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He once left Korea on a troop ship that picked up some members of the Air Force along the way.
“They were all drunk,” he said. “They fell down on the ship and started throwing up, making the deck slimy with vomit. When a typhoon hit our ship and caused it to start pitching, they would slide from one end of the ship to the other, banging their heads on the bulkheads.”
During his 22-year military career, Craver served in a variety of capacities — doing repair work on aircraft, becoming a drill instructor, and teaching new recruits how to improve their shooting.
“That was fun,” he said. “Each platoon would send me their top three shooters and I would train them on the finer parts of shooting.”
But Craver learned that drill instructors, known for their toughness and verbal abuse, are also human beings. He once saw a DI in the mess hall, shaking so badly that coffee was spilling over the edges of his cup.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“I just made the mistake of telling a kid if he didn’t qualify during a shooting drill to save a round for himself — and he did,” the DI said. The man had killed himself.
Craver retired from the military in 1970. He moved to Orlando, Fla., and worked as a detective, bill collector and claims adjuster. Later, he sold insurance for a living.
After retiring for good, he bought a 37-foot motor home and, along with his wife, spent two years traveling across the country — stopping at places like the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. “Those two years were the happiest years of my life,” he said. “When my wife died on June 2, 2011, I went to pieces.”
Before ending the interview, Burkhart asked Craver if he had any advice for future generations.
“Leave everything to God and don’t worry,” he said. “When it’s your time to go, you’re going to go. And remember that dying is not the end. It’s really just the beginning.”
About the project
The purpose of the Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Project is to record veterans’ personal accounts of war to be preserved in the Library of Congress and used to convey the realities of war to future generations.
Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Ron Burkhart, volunteering with the Area 10 Agency on Aging, interviewed three veterans at Redbud Hills Friday. But he and two other female volunteers plan to interview 200 more in this area, about half of whom are World War II veterans.
He said since the project began in 2001, more than 800 war veterans in Indiana have been interviewed.