Veterans Day is Sunday, Nov. 11

Sebastopol's Nancy Heilesen Sandborn is a volunteer for the Pacific Coast Air Museum’s Oral History Team. She has been interviewing World War II and Korean War veterans for the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project. Here's what she's learned: 

“We were just doing our job,” is the most common phrase we have heard in three years of interviewing Sonoma County World War II veterans for the Library of Congress. Most veterans, no matter their branch of service, assignment or outcome of their experience, have let us know this was their focus during that greatest challenge to America’s freedom.

After nearly 60 interviews, we have learned the following of America’s World War II veterans:

• They are humble and unassuming about their service during America’s greatest challenge since the Civil War.

When approached about sharing their story, most respond with, “I wasn’t a hero; you don’t want to interview me.” My response is to tell them that, “Your part in that conflict was important; every job was important for victory. All of you had to work together to overcome that evil foisted upon the world. America needs to hear your story. It needs to become part of our nation’s historical record. Young people need to hear what you did, what you sacrificed to guarantee them the life they enjoy today.”

• Vets sent overseas did not know what the “big picture” was about the war. They did not know what was going on outside of their own immediate field of operations. They focused on the “job we had to do.” They trusted orders were given in the effort to defeat the enemy, and that is all that needed their attention. Only after the war did they learn much about the war.

• The experience they had as young men of 18, 19 and their early 20s is the most profound experience of their life and affects them still today in their 80s, 90s, and 100s. They may not talk to you about it, but they are thinking about it all the time. They did not seek help for the “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” That was not recognized at the time as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They came home and carried on with their lives.

• Seventy years later, memories of loss and gratitude bring feelings often resulting in overwhelming emotion and apologies for showing such.

 We always tell them it’s perfectly OK to show those feelings. For some it is the loss of a buddy in battle, the death of FDR, the discovery of the inhumanity of a concentration camp, witnessing the death of innocent civilians, or the tears of their mother upon their homecoming, that elicit profound emotion. These “silent warriors” are not unfeeling veterans.

• Their families may not know what their fathers, mothers or grandparents experienced in the war.

 Many a son or daughter, bringing their parent to the interview has said upon its completion, “I have never heard this before!” “I didn’t know what he did during the war” or “He never talked about it.” It often opens a new conversation and opportunity for understanding, respect and bonding within their family.

• Sharing their story and being acknowledged for their contribution to the war effort results in renewed pride. Every story is interesting. Every story is unique and they are often surprised that our oral history team thinks so!

• They are humble in thanking us for allowing them to be interviewed. They don’t realize the thanks comes from us, as representatives of the American people, first, for their service that defended our nation, and second, for allowing themselves to be interviewed, for contributing to the record of America’s story.

Honoring elderly vets

Finally, I have learned that Americans need to give more respect, honor and thanks to our senior citizens who became citizen soldiers and defended America in that great war of the 20th century.

 You don’t know what stories and treasures lay within that senior slowly crossing the street and causing you consternation because he is so slow. He may have stormed Omaha beach on D Day to keep you free.

Perhaps that elder struggling with a walker in the doorway of the store hindering your entry flew through flak and death over Germany, bailed out of a flaming B17 bomber, endured a POW camp and suffers with health issues today, all to keep you free.

Maybe that woman struggling to write her check at the grocery store worked to save a soldier whose legs were blown off or held the hand of a sailor so he wouldn’t be alone as he died. She gave up her civilian life and entered into war to keep you free.

That gentleman who startled when the car back-fired in town the other day may have survived strafing by a Japanese Zero and mortar bombardment before pulling himself up a cliff to storm the enemy with his body and a rifle as his only defense to keep you free.

World War II veterans are everywhere in your life. They have endured death and destruction, witnessed civilians executed by the enemy, liberated Nazi death camps, zipped up body bags over their best friends, thrown themselves into battle never expecting to survive, loaded trucks with ammo and driven under fire to get it to the front, typed reports, stocked pharmacies, turned bomb craters into airfields, threw bridges across rivers, removed mangled limbs, delivered death notices to families. Every job and all assignments were important in the all-out war effort of America in World War II.

These veterans kept America from being taken over by fascism. They kept us free. You should honor what they did over 70 years ago and thank them for keeping us a free nation, still, today.

The Pacific Coast Air Museum’s Oral History Team is actively interviewing World War II and Korean War veterans at this time for the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project. Each interview is catalogued and entered into the Library of Congress, the archives of The Pacific Coast Air Museum in Santa Rosa, and each interviewee is provided a copy (DVD) for themselves and their family. For interview information, contact 575-7900.

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