Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why I began recording veterans' stories

Alyce Freeberg

Often I'm asked  how I got started preserving the stories of America's World War 2 veterans.  Like some of the veterans I've interviewed, I have a standard response. However, while listening recently to a 1995 interview with Hilding and Alyce Freeberg, I discovered something a bit more candid and off the cuff.

Alyce Freeberg: This is wonderful (my book "Tanks for the Memories"). I'm very moved by all of this.

Aaron Elson: I think that, I started this, actually I got this little tape recorder when my dad was in the hospital, this very one. I said "I'm gonna go sit down with him and make him tell me his war stories."

Alyce Freeberg: Good.

Aaron Elson: I didn't. I left it home. I went to visit him in the hospital, and then he got out of the hospital, he didn't follow his diet, and then two weeks later he had a heart attack and passed away. But the tape recorder was in a drawer, and I took it with me, I got the newsletter, it was sent to him like five years after he passed away he was still getting it, and I found one and I wrote to Ray Griffin, and he wrote back and said why don't you come to a reunion, so I did. That's when I started doing this, I had the tape recorder, I found three people who remembered my dad. But at the same time, I couldn't believe the stories that I was hearing. And like Andy Schifler said, and this is something I've heard so many times, that they never tell these things to their kids.

Alyce Freeberg: No. He (Hilding) doesn't, either.

Hilding Freeberg: And the only reason my daughter has the stuff is because she was here a month ago or so, and we got talking about the Army, oh I know, what I heard on the radio, on TV, they said that all the people, all the Army personnel that were involved in D-Day are heroes, so I told her, hey, I'm a hero. I think it's D-Day 10, or 6, I don't remember, but I'm a hero, being I was there.

Alyce Freeberg:  Yeah. And that's how she wanted them. She's one of those really interested people, you know.

Hilding Freeberg: So she took it all. Then I had a book of, one of the infantry...

Aaron Elson: The 90th Infantry?

Hilding Freeberg: Well, it wasn't the 90th, the book I had on, but it showed all around where we went also. So she took that. We were attached to the 90th, but I don't have nothing about the 90th, not a thing.

Aaron Elson: But that's one thing that a lot of fellows who were there just don't...

Hilding Freeberg: No, they don't say nothing at all.

Aaron Elson: Even Forrest Dixon said, he's got three grown children, and he's very active, goes to all the reunions, he said one day he was talking with somebody and the other person referred to him as Major, and he said his son said, "Gee, Dad, I never knew you were a major."

Alyce Freeberg: He never mentioned that he was a major.

Aaron Elson: So that's why I started doing this, taking the tape recorder and putting some of this stuff down. Because I think in 25 years it will be good to have as complete as possible a look at one unit. I don't think anybody is doing anything like that from this perspective.

Hilding Freeberg: No, they're not.

How times have changed, a Valentine's Day story

Lou and Olga Putnoky, in 1994

   I should start calling this feature the "clip of the week," but I've been adjusting to a new job and experimenting with tapes I recorded in the hospitality room at reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion. Some of those tapes have considerable background noise and I'm hesitant to post excerpts until I've tested them on some unsuspecting listeners.

   In the meantime, with Valentine's Day fast approaching and a long overdue email newsletter to put out, I may not get to another clip of the day for a couple of millennia, so I've selected a love story for today's "clip of the (almost every) day."

   My full-length interview with Lou Putnoky, a veteran of the Coast Guard who served on the USS Bayfield during four invasions, including D-Day, is included in the "D-Day Tapes" collection. This story, excerpted from that interview, was told to me by his wife, Olga, while Lou was on the phone talking to a former shipmate about their upcoming reunion. The following clip is also included in my audiobook "Tales of Love, Food, Booze, Jumping Out of Airplanes, Meeting General Patton and Winning World War 2." A loose transcript follows.

Lou Putnoky: Normandy as I know it and Desert Storm as I've seen it on television, the one big factor sticks in my mind is press coverage. During the war, and many people, you had one hundred percent censorship. Now Desert Storm, you didn't have it, because it's a different world. And I've often said to myself, we could never... (phone rings)

Olga Putnoky: This has been so funny, because Lou has been getting calls from all over the United States. And it is cute because, the best part of it is, in 48 years I've never been able to get him to go to Las Vegas, I've been dying to go. And he's been getting calls from all over the United States, and the conversation will start out, "Are you that tall, skinny, curly headed kid?" And Lou will say "Are you the redhead that I pitched the football to and fell off the dock," and so forth. It's the nicest thing, it's wonderful.

Aaron Elson:  How did you and Lou meet?

Olga Putnoky: Lou and I lived in Carteret, and we belonged to the same church. I was, I think five years old and he was six, I was in the church play, and his mother and he were sitting in the first row, he said, "See that dark-haired girl? When she grows up I'm gonna marry her." And we went to different schools, I went to Woodbridge, and he went to Carteret. We started to date, nothing serious until after he got home from the service. We were friendly, and we did go to different schools, but we dated occasionally.

Aaron Elson:  And you have how many children?

Olga Putnoky: We have two children. We have Bruce, he's 44, and Diane who's 40. Our son was born in 1950. He lives in Holmdel, and our daughter lives in Carteret, nice and close by.

We'll be married 48 years in May. We just had four 50th anniversaries, our close friends. And our children were invited to all of them, they just could not get over it. Lou's parents were married over 70 years. His dad was 102 when he died. We had him for six years or so, taking care of him. Most of our friends have been married around the time we got married. Lou's buddy, his closest friend, his shipmate, he called this morning from Long Island, William Uhlendahl(?), we visit, we're godparents.

We do not live for just today, I think that's the thing of it. Today's youngsters live for today. I was at a checkout line of a supermarket a couple of years ago. There were two very pretty young girls, and one said to the checkout girl, "Well I hear you're getting married. What made you decide?"

She said, "Well, you know, if it doesn't work out, so I'll get rid of him." I was just shocked. I didn't say a word, I just listened, but what fools. Don't get married if you have that kind of an attitude. But, we've just been very lucky, very, very lucky in our relationship. I guess we picked the right friends.

Aaron Elson:  Did you work in a defense plant?

Olga Putnoky:  I worked in U.S. Metals, I was the first girl hired in personnel. They hired me in '41, and I stayed on until '49.

Aaron Elson: Did they make ammunition?

Olga Putnoky:  Oh yes, yes. They had, and our bosses used to go to New York, or North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, to recruit labor. You know, all the boys and the men from around here were in the war, in the service, so they were a very big copper industry. We had the war bond rallies, it was really nice, everybody's attitude was, most of the women in town worked there, because the men were in the service. I have some pictures of the women who worked there. They had such an attitude, these nice, quiet old ladies, even the elderly women came to work, and they just put their noses to the grindstone and they worked. We had a lot of women during the war. And then slowly as the men came back they were replaced.
- - -
Here are some clips from the audio CD "Food and War," which is included in the audiobook "Tales of Love, Food, Booze, Jumping Out of Airplanes, Meeting General Patton and Winning World War II."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Clip of the (almost every) Day: Ellsworth Howard

Ellsworth Howard

For my next oral history audiobook, I'm considering a collection of vignettes recorded in the hospitality room over the years at reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served.

Yes, there's background noise, and I'd like some feedback from listeners as to whether the background noise is too much of a distraction to make for a quality audiobook.

Today's audio clip is from the 1993 reunion. Ellsworth Howard was the executive officer of A Company, and became the company commander on July 13, 1944, when the original company commander, Clifford Merrill, was wounded. Howard himself was wounded a little more than a month later, on August 18 or 19, at Le Bourg St. Leonard, during the closing of the Falaise Gap.

Here is an audio clip of the conversation, along with a transcript to make listening a little easier:

Ellsworth Howard

Aaron Elson: Where were you wounded?

Ellsworth Howard: On my body, or ...

Aaron Elson: Both.

Ellsworth Howard: I got shot in the belly, a shell fragment in the belly, in the Falaise Gap. We were there when it first started, walked right into it. Courtesy of Jack Galvin.

Aaron Elson: What did Jack Galvin do?

Forrest Dixon: You got this on, or don't you?

Aaron Elson: It's on.

Ellsworth Howard: We were in relief, A Company was. Colonel Randolph had given us instructions, you're gonna be here for several days, so clean up your tanks and your guns and write letters. Before the day was out, why, he came over and said "I need you to send five tanks up there to Le Bourg," and I said, "I don't think I've got five tanks. We've got the engines out of the darn tanks and their guns are out and everything else."
He said, "Well, you're gonna have to do it."
I went back and told Szirony [maintenance sergeant Steve Szirony] "We've got to have five tanks right away." So they, after a round of obscenity, put together five tanks.
He [Colonel Randolph] said there's nothing going on up there, that B Company's been up there on guard duty for a while and there's nothing going on, they're just tired and need to be relieved. So they pulled out and we went there with five tanks and had to fight our way in there. And before the day was out, we had everything we had in there. Then I found out that Galvin and Dougherty were drunk up there, and Randolph pulled them out because they couldn't handle it. We just about lost our whole company in that deal. When I got shot we were down to six tanks. What was the number of that tank destroyer outfit [the 773rd]? Their medic picked me up and hauled me back, and there weren't any hospitals around there, because of the way the front was moving, the hospitals didn't know where to set up, and they took me over someplace, and the best I can remember there wasn't a darn thing there, but they let me lay on that ground there on a cot until they put up a tent, they called a hospital unit in there and I stayed there for a while, and I stayed there for a while, and then they took me into Chartres and flew me back to England.