C.J. Marshall: Significa: Preserving the past for future generations
Let me tell you a story.
Twenty years ago was the 50th anniversary of the Second World War. The newspaper I was working at the time responded to the event by having the reporters -- including me -- interview veterans from that historical event.
The resulting stories provided a fascinating look a one of the most important events in world history. Here were the men who had actually lived through the war, recounting what they did, what it was like, and what affect it had on their lives.
Fascinating stuff, no? And for me, the most fascinating story of all was also the toughest one to get.
I was informed by one of our readers that there was a physician in the area who not only served during the war, but had also been interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Because I had not yet written a story about a World War II P.O.W., I was absolutely intrigued by the idea, and contacted the fellow in question.
I found that the doctor was not a bad fellow, but extremely crotchety and set in his ways. He was 85 at the time, and so I understood what was going on. Initially he agree to talk to me, although I could tell he was pretty reluctant to do so. Then before I could speak to him, he called and told me he'd changed his mind and would rather not discuss what he had gone through during the war.
I responded by doing something I had never done before in my profession as a reporter. I wrote the gentleman a nice letter, in which I expressed my disappointment at not being able to tell his story. I told him I thought it would be a mistake not to do so, given the fact it was so important for stories like his to be available to future generations of people as yet unborn. I also thanked him, and informed him that if he still did not wish to be interviewed, I would purse the matter no further.
A couple of days later, the gentleman called, and told me he'd reconsidered his decision and agreed to meet and talk about his experiences as a P.O.W.
OK, I admit I'm shameless. I'd laid a guilt trip on the doctor, and it worked. But I could smell a good story in him, and I'd truly meant what I said about preserving that story for future generations. Because it doesn't take that long for living memory to become history. More on that in a bit.
As I suspected, the doctor turned out to be a fascinating -- if very challenging -- interview. He'd served in the Philippines during the Battle of Bataan, as well as when the U.S. forces retreated to the island of Corrigador. After the Philippines fell to the Japanese forces, the doctor was interred -- first in an old Spanish fort, and then later transferred to a P.O.W. camp in Japan itself. He was in the camp when the atomic bomb was dropped, and the war with Japan ended.
The interview took most of the afternoon, and I wish I had room here to pass on some of the many things he spoke about. And I wasn't kidding when I said it was a challenge. He insisted I not use a tape recorder, which was fine, but he also grumbled because I took too many notes. I stopped, because I was afraid he would terminate the interview too early. However, I know a few tricks in which I can keep key information in my head and still write it down later, as long as too much time has not passed. So I was able to get a four-part story from his experiences during the war.
When the articles were published, I met the doctor again afterward, and although he didn't say much, I could tell he was pleased with the results. That was great, but the best thing came to me second-hand from the person who had initially informed me about the doctor and his experiences. Said person told me he had spoken to the doctor's daughters and other family members, who said that this was the first time he had ever spoken to anyone about what had happened to him during the war. And they were extremely pleased to have that information.
It's things like this that make my job worthwhile. I can say with all due immodesty that those stories were a fine piece of work about a fine man who performed a great service for his country during one of its most trying times. And I got him to perform another great service by permitting me to record for posterity what he had done during the war.
So what is this all about? Well, this past Monday was Veterans Day, and amid all the celebrations, I noted a disquieting fact. The World War II veterans, once numbering over 16 million right after the conflict, are now down to about one million. Most are now in their 80s and 90s, with death quickly taking more of its toll each year.
In my opinion if a vet dies without telling his story, it's a terrible, tragic loss. Because it means that his -- or her -- story will be lost forever, never to be told. If you have relatives or friends who served during the Second World War -- or any other war for that matter -- now would be a good time to talk to them about their experiences during the conflict. And please, record it or write it down. Because once living memory fades turns history, it loses a personal side which can never be regained if it was never spoken of in the first place. By recording such important information, we can insure that the experiences and sacrifices of those who served their country during the war will be heard and cherished by many future generations to come.