'This Is How It Was...'

By Suzanne Wilson
Photographs By Mary Ann Carter

In a local council's oral history project, Boy Scouts use tape-recorded interviews to preserve the personal recollections of U.S. military veterans.

World War II veteran Harry McCullough showed a black-and-white snapshot to the two Boy Scouts sitting beside him. "Here's where we built a road across Trinidad, in case there was an attack over the mountains," he said.

Another photo: "We lived in tents in the Philippines, until we got Quonset huts. We built an airstrip there."

The oral history project provides World War II vet Harry McCullough with an opportunity to finally share with grandson Joe Conley some photos and memories of his service in the U.S. Navy.

The pictures McCullough had saved for more than 60 years showed places he'd been and people he knew during 37 months in the U.S. Navy.

Zach Miller, 16, and Joe Conley, 13, were seeing Joe's grandfather as a young man not much older than themselves. In 1942, the 19-year-old McCullough enlisted in the Seabees, the special naval construction battalions formed at the beginning of World War II. (The unit nickname derived from C-B, the first letters of the words "construction battalion.")

McCullough's military journey eventually took him to China, and his camera went with him. But his favorite shot, he acknowledges, is of the dock in San Diego, when he returned home aboard an aircraft carrier.

Recording our history

At the Buffalo Trace Council Service Center in Evansville, Ind., on a March Saturday, Scouts from Troop 399 (chartered to Evansville's Sacred Heart Catholic Church) were interviewing veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

The Scout interviewers followed guidelines from the Veterans History Project, an effort by the Library of Congress to collect the stories of veterans' service. (See sidebar)

Troop 399's participation started in 2003, inspired by the Eagle Scout project of Michael McCullough (see sidebar), also Harry McCullough's grandson.

Even after Michael had earned his Eagle Scout Award, the troop continued locating and interviewing veterans.

Tape recorders running, the two Scouts were ready with questions for Harry McCullough: "Why did you join? What was boot camp like? How did your service affect your life?"

"Mike provided us with a basic list of questions to ask and said to make up more as we went along," explained Zach Miller after concluding the interview. "It worked perfectly, just like he said it would."

Harry McCullough observed that he, like many other veterans, appreciate an opportunity to tell about their service experiences.

"I think this program is great," he said after his interview. "It gives us a chance to talk. We're all so busy, I hadn't sat down with my grandkids and shown them these pictures." He donated some photos to the Veterans History Project.

"It was the first time he talked to me about it," admitted his grandson Joe. "It gives me even more respect for him, because of all they went through in training and fighting for our freedom."

The Veterans History Project is now a council-wide effort in the Buffalo Trace Council (which serves 15 counties in southwest Indiana and southeast Illinois). At a council event early in 2003, Scouters heard about it from Larry Ordner, a state regional director for U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar, who has been promoting the effort in his home state of Indiana (see sidebar).

Then, in September, the idea was rolled out at the council's annual popcorn meeting as a possibility for either a troop service project or an Eagle Scout project.

Connor Bartek listens to his great-grandaunt, Susan Sohler, 94, describe her World War II duties with the WAVES.

"The project can go on indefinitely in the council," explains Jim McCampbell, board member and chairman of the council's Veterans History Project. "We're capturing all these experiences, and they'll be available to anybody."

Stories to remember

When Wallace Graves, president emeritus of the University of Evansville, related his Army experience as a World War II prisoner of war in Germany, he had the attention of 12-year-old Scouts Larry Boots, Joel Alvey, and Bobby Wilson.

He described prison conditions—35 people in a small room, everyone hungry most of the time. He talked about making close friends, about sharing a few paperback books and a deck of cards, about putting on a mock radio show with one man singing old popular songs.

But there was something else the Scouts wanted to know, because in the midst of all this, Graves had said his family heard nothing from him "until I escaped."

They asked the crucial question: "How did you escape?"

Graves described how German guards were in the process of moving the prisoners to keep ahead of the approaching Russians. But when the Russians arrived and attacked, the guards returned fire, and some of the prisoners fled.

Following the interview session, Graves jokingly expressed his satisfaction with the idea of Scouts participating in such a project.

"I think it's a splendid idea," he observed. "I'm impressed with the genuine interest these young men have in the experiences of old coots."

The veterans' accounts sometimes revealed job descriptions that Scouts hadn't realized were part of military service.

For example, during the Korean War, David E. King was stationed on a "destroyer tender," a ship that stayed docked in Japan for the purpose of repairing Navy destroyers.

The docked ship was "my home for 40 months," King said, and contained just about everything the 650-man crew needed.

"We even had a cobbler," he said, then wondered if the Scouts might associate that word more with a campfire dessert. "Do you know what that is?" he asked, then answered his own question: "He puts soles and heels on your shoes."

During World War II, council board treasurer Edward Hassee was a Navy supply and dispersing officer on another kind of service ship, a "seaplane tender." When his shipmates departed for home, he had to stay on board, waiting for his replacement to arrive.

Susan Sohler, a veteran of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), decoded weather information at Ottumwa (Iowa) Naval Air Station during the war. Telling her story in 2004 at age 94, she was the great-grandaunt of Scout Connor Bartek, who interviewed her.

From another of Connor's relatives, grandfather Matt Bartek, Scouts learned about the phrase "hurry up and wait." Bartek did a lot of that at Fort Benning, Ga., serving in the Army during peacetime from 1955 to 1957.

But in his last month, the Soviets launched their first Sputnik satellite. "Everyone was restricted to base," said Bartek, "and we thought the Russians were coming to get us. It was exciting for three or four days, but [it turned out the satellite didn't do any] spying at all."

Bob Kapperman, a longtime Scouter and 24-year Air Force veteran, served in Vietnam twice as an information specialist, base newspaper editor, and combat reporter and photographer.

As he described his experiences, Scouts could imagine him riding in a helicopter, "turned sideways" in order to take photographs of the ground.

A meaningful experience

Many of Troop 399's Scouts chose to take part in the interviews and learn about an era of their country's history from people who lived it.

"I'm interested in the wars and what our history was and how people felt about it," explained Bobby Wilson.

His father, Scoutmaster Terry Wilson, observed that the Scouts' experience "ties them back to some of the history they're studying in school. When someone says, 'I was there,' it has a tremendous impact."

"Unless you can be a part of a project like this," explained Michael McCullough, "you're never going to hear a lot of these stories; they would never be found in a social studies or history book."

"The veterans enjoyed it as much as we did," he added.

Michael's Eagle Scout court of honor took place Aug. 14, 2004, and he began his service in the U.S. Army two weeks later.

"It makes me excited that one day I can compare my stories to all the ones I've heard," he said.

Contributing editor Suzanne Wilson lives in Joplin, Mo.

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