Preserve the memories

Local World War II veterans put their stories on tape for a national history project

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By LINDA DOWNING MILLER

The term "reality TV" conjures up images of young adults pursuing romance, money, or celebrity in situations made for television ratings. Local residents will soon be able to access a more sobering dose of true reality--the videotaped memories of some of Oak Park's World War II veterans. 

The Oak Park Public Library, the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, and the Village of Oak Park joined forces late last summer to participate in a national Veterans History Project. Launched by legislation in October 2000, the project charges the Library of Congress with collecting audio- and videotaped oral histories of America's war veterans, as a way to honor and preserve their experiences. 

Debby Preiser, public information officer at the library, helped start the local effort after hearing about the project from veteran Henry Walshon. 

"I received some information in the mail about it," Walshon recalled "I'm 82. I don't know how long I've got to go. I was not a big hero, you know, but I did encounter a lot of interesting things."

Preiser had coordinated veterans programs at the library and was intrigued by the idea of preserving these stories at the local and national level.

The project moved forward with volunteer power. The Historical Society, including Executive Director Frank Lipo, Research Center Director Diane Hansen, and board member Peggy Tuck Sinko, provided space at Pleasant Home and helped organize and conduct interviews. The Village of Oak Park provided camera equipment and expertise through Joe Kreml, manager of the government access cable channel 6.

Walshon may not describe himself as a hero, but he flew on 48 missions in World War II as a bombardier navigator. He enlisted voluntarily in 1943, after an angry woman spat at his father, then head of Chicago's draft board, and accused him of keeping his own son out. Though Walshon had a legitimate deferment and was enrolled at the University of Illinois, he joined the Marines the next day.

His many close calls during the war are now captured for posterity. Nine local veterans have been videotaped so far, and Preiser hopes to have some tapes available to the public in December. To keep the effort manageable, organizers are focusing only on World War II veterans living in Oak Park.

"This has really been a special project," said Preiser. "All the people involved to this point have been passionate about [it]." 

"Because we're at war now, it's very contemporary talking about some of these things," Lipo added.

Sinko observed that the stories span the range of emotions: "Things that have been funny and light-hearted; things that are very gut-wrenching and serious."

Here's a glimpse of the content being captured from three local veterans.

Signing up at 17
Jim O'Hara's memories of the Navy begin before he enlisted, as a high school student in Chicago.

"Two fellows in the neighborhood were in the Navy and would come and hang out by the park," O'Hara recalled. "Myself and a few other fellows were so taken up with those white uniforms and those shiny black shoes."

O'Hara and several buddies became interested in an aviation machinist mates' school at Navy Pier. They joined up and were sworn in at the old post office in downtown Chicago, on Oct. 27, 1941. Because he was under 18, O'Hara was eligible for a four-year commitment (versus the typical six-year hitch). 

While he was at boot camp at Illinois' Great Lakes Naval station, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. 

"Starting with our battalion, they cancelled all these special schools, and we were all shipped to sea," O'Hara said.

He remembers boot camp as being a lesson in order and discipline. He learned to roll his clothes and tie each end with perfect square knots. He learned Navy terminology, how to sleep in a hammock, and how to lash it up with seven knots for the seven seas.

O'Hara and others then headed west.

"It was a first-class Pullman train," he remembered, smiling at the memory. "I'd never been on a train in my life."

O'Hara was assigned to the USS Henderson for nine months. A Navy transport, the ship's initial mission was to evacuate Navy families from Hawaii. 

"We worked about 17 hours a day," O'Hara recalled. "When we got leave, I'd get a hotel room and go to bed. I had to sleep."

O'Hara transferred to the USS Salt Lake City, a heavy cruiser, and was assigned to the anti-aircraft division. 

"My first battle was aboard that ship, and it was almost my last battle," he said.

The Salt Lake City was part of an American force dispatched to intercept a Japanese supply convoy in the North Pacific. Neither side had air or submarine assistance during the four-hour gun duel, known as the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.

"At one point, we were dead in the water," he said. 

Crew members managed to restart engines, and Japanese forces ultimately withdrew.  O'Hara later learned that two of his ship's senior officers had said their final good byes during the battle, fearing the worst.

"Being young, I had no fear," he said.

O'Hara's scariest moment in service came on the USS Cassin Young, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, near the Philippines. 

As a nighttime attack strategy, Japanese forces used flares to illuminate targets.

"This flare opened up, and I felt like it hit me in the head," O'Hara said. 

His saddest moment came on the same ship, during the Battle of Saipan. 

"Japanese families were retreating up the mountain. The mothers and children were all dressed in their finery. The mothers were picking up their children and jumping off the high cliffs onto the rocks," O'Hara recalled. "That's how terrible the Japanese propaganda was: 'You don't want to fall into the hands of the Americans.'"

Tragic memories like this darken O'Hara's face, yet he's proud of his experiences and the men with whom he served. 

After the war, O'Hara earned a degree in civil engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, courtesy of the GI Bill. He married his wife, Helen, in 1952, and they bought their first home on East Avenue in 1969 (on the same block as their current home). They've raised five children and now have 16 grandchildren. 

"One of my ships [the Cassin Young] is commissioned as a historic vessel in Boston," O'Hara said. "They've heard a lot of Navy stories in this house."

Discovering tragedy
Bill Cassin has shared his war stories with family members, participated in past veterans programs, and willingly shared his memories for the Veterans History Project.

"I have no agenda," he said. "The only thing I hope is that the rest of the world realizes how horrible war is. It's really not the best way to go about solving problems."

Cassin and his wife, Ginny, have eight children, born and raised in Oak Park.  Cassin grew up here and remembered the porch of his childhood home, on South Elmwood Avenue, being "filled with cookies and baked goods for the USO. My mother set up a center for the collection of pies and cakes." 

Cassin had started college at the University of Notre Dame when he received his draft notice through his parents. A glitch in a physical prevented him from enlisting in the Air Force, a personal ambition, so Cassin reported for duty in the Army on March 17, 1943. After a stop at Ft. Sheridan, in Illinois, he headed to Camp Buttner in North Carolina.

"They take you out of your family situation, and they just shock the dickens out of you," Cassin said. 

He later had an opportunity to request a transfer to the Air Force and was sent to Miami Beach. 

"The thought of going down to Miami Beach for the winter suited me fine," he remembered.

Before he could complete that training, the United States declared air superiority in Europe and stopped programs to train new Air Force recruits. Cassin was transferred back into ground forces and ended up in an armored division. He landed in Le Havre, France in April 1945.

"You know in the Bible when they say there's not a stone upon a stone? That's what Le Havre looked like," Cassin said. 

As a reconnaissance scout, Cassin manned a 30-caliber machine gun on the back of a jeep. Typically riding with a driver and a corporal, Cassin was sent out ahead of armored vehicles to make sure areas were clear. He can recount several close calls, including one cold, snowy night in the Black Forest region of Germany. 

"Civilians told us there were 10,000 German soldiers inside these woods. They sent in three jeeps to see what was going on," he said, with a wry laugh.

After a tense, all-night patrol, they determined that the woods had been cleared. 

Among Cassin's most vivid war experiences is liberating an American POW camp in Lindberg, Germany. Investigating what looked like a good observation post for the enemy, he and fellow soldiers discovered a former monastery that had been turned into a prison for captured American fliers.

German soldiers, on the run in the war's final days, had abandoned the facility.  Cassin estimated there were about 100 men, many ill, injured, and lying on Army stretchers. Cassin's team called for immediate medical help.

"They were totally emaciated," he said, with emotion. "They hadn't been fed--no medical help at all. The inhumanity to man. That's what really grabs your heart and squeezes."

Just a day or two later, Cassin's jeep stumbled on another horror: Dachau concentration camp.

"We didn't know what it was. We were told to secure that end of it," Cassin recalled. 

After a tank plowed down the gate used as the guards' entrance, Cassin and fellow soldiers discovered the camp's gruesome secrets.

"We saw boxcars full of bodies," he said. "These inmates started drifting out, emaciated and dirty."

Through an interpreter, inmates told American troops that guards had packed up and left. Again, Cassin's division called for immediate medical help. He remembers passing a sleepless night in the camp's guard quarters, an artillery duel going on overhead. 

After the war in Europe officially ended, Cassin stayed on in southern Austria and Germany, rounding up suspected Nazis. Times there were easier, and Cassin enjoyed moments of being "a tourist."

When he learned he was heading home, he cabled his fiancee with a marriage proposal. Cassin was surprised to discover on his arrival that the wedding was scheduled for the following weekend. 

"I had to find six GIs that were home and willing to stand up for me," he said.

Cassin returned from his honeymoon in Michigan to learn atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan. He still had to report to an Army camp in California but completed his service there. Cassin and his wife returned to Oak Park, where he attended the Ray Vogg School of Photography and launched a successful career.

Their oldest son served in the National Guard, but his unit was never called up.  Cassin is thankful for that.

"The things you see in a war, they are very shocking. It's tragic. I felt inside my whole being I would rather go myself than have [my children] go through it," he said.

Among the first women
Elizabeth Dowell's memories of service during World War II offer a first-hand look into the early role of women in the armed forces. 

In January 1943, Dowell applied to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, less than a year after Congress had passed a controversial law creating the WAAC. The organization was initially established as separate from the Army. Legislation later made the WAAC an official part of the Army, and the extra A was dropped from the name.

The intent was to train women in military jobs that did not involve combat.  Beyond nursing, these were the first military roles for women. 

Dowell recalled picking up an application to join from a department store. At the time, she lived with her family in Jersey City, N.J.

"I watched and heard all the war news, the march across Europe. I wanted to travel," she remembered. "My stepfather had been in World War I. I felt I wanted to do my part."

In February, Dowell left her job as a clerk for the Community Service Society of New York and boarded a troop train to Oglethorpe, Ga. 

"I have a postcard I don't think the men got," she said. "They said to send it to your mother to make sure you arrived safely."

Dowell's basic training included getting up early for inspections and learning routine tasks like cleaning barracks and latrines. She took classes in first aid.

Along with fellow recruits, Dowell was among the first WAACs on the West Coast, serving at Santa Ana Army Air Base. The base trained bombardiers, navigators and pilots, and later processed returnees. 

Dowell was assigned to the personnel office, in the service records section. 

"We had to keep records up to date; when soldiers were shipped out, [we would see] that they had appropriate medical shots," she said.

Other WAACs held jobs in the base's psychological research unit, motor pool and supply department. They slept in bunk beds in three buildings. Dowell became fast friends with her upper bunkmate. 

"I maintain contact with a number of friends, and that was the best part," Dowell said. "We worked every day. Sometimes if there was nothing special going on, they would give us Saturday afternoon and Sunday off."

She visited nearby destinations, such as San Francisco, San Diego, and Tijuana.  Early on, she traveled to Hollywood on a truck to make a recruiting film with fellow WAACs and two Hollywood actresses. It took three weeks to make the 15-minute film.

"It showed us running out and getting in order. It showed us doing KP," she recalled.

The recruiting film eventually played at Grand Central Station, and Dowell's mother took the train to see her daughter's image on the big screen.

Discharged in December 1945, Dowell moved to Chicago, where her family had relocated. She graduated from Roosevelt University under the GI Bill, attended graduate school, became a social worker, and married another veteran. The couple moved to Oak Park in 1967.

Dowell has reservations about passing her experiences on to the Library of Congress. She wouldn't be comfortable "recruiting" today. She's interested in sharing her war memories locally and hopes to donate some of her memorabilia to the Historical Society. 

One old photograph in Dowell's collection captures her "KP fatigues"--a green and white striped seersucker dress (with bloomers to match, she remembered). 

"Today's women are joining a much different thing. I'm not sure I would have the guts to sign up," she said.

More information about the national Veterans History Project can be found online, at www.loc.gov/folklife/vets.

Contact Preiser, at 697-6915, for more information on local participation.
 

On Nov. 18, 7 p.m., the library will host another program honoring veterans: the Bataan Commemorative Research Project, organized by teachers and students at Proviso Township High Schools.

 

 

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