April 16, 2014

The voices of World War II

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By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

“I always thought if we went down, it would be on a bomb run in a tremendous barrage, but we hadn’t even reached our target when it happened,” recounted World War II B-17 airplane pilot J. Francis Angier. “I saw flak bursting ahead about eight or 10 miles, and I was starting to bank left when a barrage got us. There was about 1,500 gallons of gasoline in the wing, and the plane was on fire. I knew I couldn’t save it, and, eventually, the explosion blew me out of the plane.”

The 84-year-old Williston resident thought for a minute, reliving the harrowing experience as he shared his story in the Dorothy Alling Library on Saturday as part of a nationwide collection of World War II veterans’ stories.

“When the plane exploded, it was falling tail first, so all the debris fell with me and around me. If I opened my parachute, it would have caught fire, or caught some debris and been dragged down. So I fell all the way down ‘til I couldn’t go any further. I went through a little cloud layer, and all of a sudden, there was the ground. I opened my parachute right at the treetops. So I hit very hard. I had shoulder, back, knee and internal injuries. My neck still aches today because of that fall.

“Right away I started getting beaten by the civilians who reached me first. They would have finished me if the military hadn’t arrived, and drove them off at gunpoint.”

Angier said he was taken to the local jail that night, then moved to a Frankfurt interrogation center for 10 days. From there he was taken to Stalag Luft III in Poland, a German Air Force prisoner of war camp and the site of the so-called Great Escape, which inspired a movie by the same name, where he remained for seven months.

Angier’s account is one of the many sought by the Veterans History Project, a nationwide movement sponsored by the Library of Congress in conjunction with award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burn’s latest project, a seven-part series on World War II entitled “The War,” to collect and preserve the stories of World War II veterans.

“When I learned that more than 1,000 veterans of World War II are dying each day in America and that our young people — many of them grandchildren of those brave soldiers — believe we fought with the Germans against the Russians in World War II, I realized that we had to do something,” writes Burns in the Veteran History Project Field Guide.

The guide, which contains hands-on production tips and interview techniques, as well as information on how to submit completed interviews, has been utilized by over 100 public television stations nationwide sponsoring the collection of veterans’ stories in their local area, according to PBS’s Web site.

“Vermont Public Television wanted to know if we wanted to get involved,” said Jennifer Reichert, outreach librarian at Dorothy Alling Library. “So we showed the preview, and then signed on to be a host site for the story collection. I had Recille Hamrell (who coordinates a bimonthly story sharing class at the library) in the back of my mind, and we really wanted to offer a facility for veterans to tell their stories.”

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, several war veterans and war wives came to the library to tell their stories. They were greeted warmly by Hamrell, who promotes storytelling among seniors, and then recorded by stenographer Johanna Masse as Hamrell enthusiastically guided the tellers through their tales. The tellers, like Angier, still vividly remember the events that happened to them more than 60 years ago.

“I spent seven months in a prison camp,” Angier recalled, “during what they said was the coldest winter in 75 years. I remember the cold and the hunger, and being all the time under the gun. The Nazis ordered our execution three times, so we constantly lived under that shadow.”

Hamrell sees it as essential that the veterans get the chance to tell their stories, and to “honor the narratives of their lives.”

“When we tell stories, we create a bond between us,” explained Hamrell. “And often times, when you tell what we call “shadow stories,” somewhere in them we find a pearl. Whether it was the test you failed or the friend you lost, without that pearl, you wouldn’t be who you are.”

The veterans’ submitted stories will be archived permanently in the Library of Congress, and made available at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center Reading Room.

For more information, go to www.pbs.org/thewar.

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