|The Art of the
Interview - Serious Sit-downs with WWII Veterans
As Remembered by Tony Welch
Transcribed audio recording by Adrian Chalmers* (4/2/2011)
You’ve been doing World War Two oral histories now --- how many years?
“Well…in a serious way, since around 1973. I was the first one in my family to serve in the military since the Civil War – a span of ninety years. Back in the mid-fifties I worked in the same Eighth Naval District headquarters office as Howard Gilmore’s widow. Her husband skippered the submarine
Growler and was the first sub sailor to be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Mrs. Gilmore held an administrative job with the Navy – guaranteed employment for life. She told me this story and I’m sure that’s when I first got hooked. She began by saying she was personally responsible for having sent hundreds of mules to a watery grave. Mules? Mules in the Navy? Well…I was all ears. It turns out these mules were rounded up during the war from sharecropper farms throughout the southern states. Mrs. Gilmore was the project manager and co-ordinated various civilian contractors whose job it was to purchase, assemble and arrange the mules’ transportation to various war zones in the Pacific where they’d serve as infantry pack animals. The loaded merchant ships would sail down the Mississippi from New Orleans, enter the gulf and then -- wham! Three cargo vessels in all, each one torpedoed and sunk months apart by German U-boats. Something like 800 mules sent straight to the bottom. So….first her husband, wounded topside in a surface engagement and lost overboard when the sub submerged. Then her mules – sunk by enemy subs. And then the final blow -- Growler sunk with the entire crew in 1944. Think of it – the same men her husband sacrificed his life for – now also lost. Learning about this sequence of events left me intrigued – and all the more so because the story teller was a lady who’d suffered so many slings and arrows. I also got to know a couple Navy lifers, CPOs nearing retirement age. I set about picking their brains. One of them, a coxswain, told me he drove a landing craft loaded with GIs on D-Day. He caught a chunk of artillery shrapnel that shattered two ribs and punctured a lung. He then proceeded to show me the jagged scar on his back, while drawing my attention to the fact that the scar was roughly shaped like the letter ‘u’. Which it was. The chief then proclaimed that the ‘u’ stood for Utah – as in Utah beach, which is where he was wounded. Well…. I came straight up off my chair! I asked him if I could touch it. Hey– how many people ever get a chance to touch a genuine war wound? He kind of stared at me for a long moment and then replied: ‘Just be damn quick about it.’ (laughs) So anyway, now you know how I became addicted.”
When you interview a vet, what’s the preferred setting? Is it important to create a certain atmosphere?
“Well, let me just say….and this came as a surprise…there’s scores of instructional pamphlets and even books on the subject of how to conduct an oral interview. I only recently discovered them on the internet. The majority are detailed and often very fussy – like what clothes to wear to the interview. A lot of it reads like a psychology course – using certain inflections in your voice – learning to recognize facial expressions and their meanings. Reading body language, that kind of thing. Like a detective interrogating a suspect. Or a personnel manager interviewing a potential employee. Always follow a certain formula to fit a given situation. It’s not that what’s offered isn’t useful – it’s just that there’s way too much of it to absorb. I can’t get into all that or I’d become totally focused on myself. For me, keeping the
subject focused is more important than anything. Otherwise, you end up with a plate full of scrambled eggs. As for location, I’ve done interviews in backyard patios and living rooms—they’re usually more at ease in familiar surroundings. I interviewed one fellow while he soaked in his hot tub. Funny thing being -- the guy was a boiler tender who built up steam on the battleship
Nevada so it was able to get underway amidst all those falling bombs on December 7. Get the connection? – boiler room, hot tub? And one in an aviation museum, where I interviewed a Mustang pilot. We’re both sitting under the wing of a Me-109 – eight of which he’d shot down in combat. I’ve always been a sucker when it comes to irony – the more irony there is, the more alluring the story and the more I’m attracted to it. I don’t know why, but warfare seems to be a breeding ground for the ironic. Like the retired sailors who answered a classified ad in a Navy publication that sought contact with crew members of a certain submarine. This was like 35 years after the war ended. Turned out to be a former Japanese soldier aboard a troop transport that was sunk by the same sub – and now a wealthy businessman. The guy wasn’t looking for revenge – he just wanted to prove that former enemies could be friends once they got to know one another. He even got the captain of the sub to show up. Three different social gatherings in all – and everything paid for by the host whom they gave a good dunking to in the South China Sea years before. There was a full regiment of Jap troops aboard that transport, of whom 515 drowned. That’s a heap of forgiveness, I’d say.”
I would assume you try to establish a certain level of trust with your subjects. You can’t just start off…
“Oh…you’re absolutely right. I learned a valuable lesson early on – how to avoid being shouted at. I begin by telling them at the outset that at some point during the interview, odds are they’ll be shouting at me. I mean, really shouting. This always gets their undivided attention, followed by solemn assurances from them that nothing of the sort will ever happen. At this point I explain that when I apply due diligence and begin checking up on certain historical details and events, chances are I’ll discover that they don’t jive with what I’ve been told in the interview. Dates, places, sequential time-lines, after-action reports -- whatever. I even predict what they’re going to shout: “WHO THE HELL WAS THERE – YOU OR ME!” That makes them really sit up straight. I then present written documentary evidence proving that errors were made – here, here and here. The point of all this, I add, is to ensure accuracy. Otherwise, we’ll both be viewed as a couple slipshod nincompoops. There’s always somebody out there in the reading audience who’s going to pick up on a mistake. I’ve found this approach to be a good icebreaker. Fading memories simply can’t be trusted – but there’s no shame in that. I tell them we just have to be prepared to deal with it when and if it happens. And so now I’m on his side and suddenly trustworthy. He can relax a little, knowing I’ll take the time and trouble to get it right. I like to think that being a hard-nosed fact-checker is my own small way of honoring these men. Make certain it’s accurate – I owe them that much in return for their time and patience. And on that rare occasion when an issue can’t be resolved, just drop it. After all, we’re not here to do battle – only to talk about it. Oh – and always offer to let the subject make any editorial changes to the finished copy before publishing it. That’s helped to close the deal more than once – though I have to add, I’ve been surprised how often they prefer to see it for the first time as a published article. I think it’s a bit like sneaking a peak at your Christmas presents under the tree – why jump the gun and spoil the fun. The anticipation of seeing the story for the first time along with all the other readers seems to be a powerful attraction.”
How do you get your subjects to reveal their innermost thoughts and emotions as they relate to certain remembered events? What I’m getting at here – how deep do you dig? Or maybe dare to dig is a better phrase.
“There’s lots of verbal camouflage, that’s for sure. What I’ve yet to hear is anyone actually use the word fear. As in -- afraid. And yet overcoming fear is what drives armed conflict. The vets I’ve encountered have deleted the word fear from their vocabulary. So they pick and choose other words, like anxiety. Or scared. Nervous is another. Apprehensive. They dance all around. I have a theory – though others might call it hogwash. I’m convinced none of them are ashamed of being afraid – they know fear is a commonality. What they dread is where their fear might take them. Which will it be….fight or flight? There’s numerous wartime accounts of tough-talking, razzle-dazzle platoon sergeants and squad leaders – plus junior officers as well -- who went bonkers in their first battlefield encounter. Meantime, the near-sighted guy with glasses who barely passed his induction physical goes on to earn a Silver Star. I’ll never forget one POW sergeant. I asked him if being captured had affected his feeling of self-worth. He sat stiff as a statue for maybe two minutes. I could feel myself starting to squirm and so I went on to another question. On the next visit a week later, I no sooner sat down when he suddenly blurted out: ‘I feel that I failed. Failed the responsibility that I’d worked so hard to be entrusted with.’ And his face was all contorted -- awful. I instantly turned my gaze away. Why? Call it my own response to fear. Fear that I’d see tears running down his face, to our mutual embarrassment. So I cut and ran. Yeah – my eyes ran away to somewhere safer.”
You probably have certain favorites among the various interviews you’ve done. What makes them special--- or should I say, more memorable than the others?
“Well…there’s a couple that stand out…in part because of the response they gendered. One involved a gunner’s mate – the last man off the
Hornet. He was a retired college professor – taught an electronics course. Though I think he missed his real calling – he should have been a drama coach. His ability to describe unfolding events was so graphic that I felt like I was standing right alongside him on the carrier’s flight deck, dodging bomb shrapnel and tripping over mutilated bodies. My other favorite was a Marine corporal. By pure chance, I stumbled across his obituary the other day – he passed in August of 2010, age 86. He was a dog handler, 3rd War Dog Platoon, and served on Guadalcanal, Guam and Iwo Jima. In addition to the number of times the dog saved his life and the lives of other Marines, the post-war adventures these two had together is something to marvel at. I thought at the time it would make a terrific movie – still do.”
How do you locate WW11 oral history candidates? Outside of nursing homes, they’re rather scarce these days.
“Mostly I stumble across them. I say stumble – actually I do keep an eye half-cocked. News stories around December 7 and the 4th of July and D-Day can provide good leads. I personally knew two
Medal of Honor guys – one from WW11 and a marine from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The marine I met accidentally in a parking lot in Florida – spotted his MOH license plate. The other was a friend of a friend. It was great fun listening to their stories – not about the war, but post-war. They enjoyed a number of fantastic MOH privileges and seldom hesitated using them. MOH holders outrank and outflank everybody. Bumping colonels and even generals off military transport planes to get their seats seemed to be a favorite sport – though they admittedly liked to exaggerate as to the number. I’ve never interviewed a Coast Guardsman, though I worked at one time with a CG vet who happened across a couple German spies coming ashore on Long Island as he was walking his beach patrol at night. One that I really regret missing out on was a German immigrant named Krueger. Three years as a Panzer tank driver in Russia – three years in hell. What little I learned about him came from his daughter Renate, a friend of my wife’s. I tried every tactic --- even took him trout fishing which he dearly loved to do. But he just wouldn’t warm to me. And I waited too long back in eighty-seven with a Houston survivor, who barely made it to shore from the sinking cruiser and spent the rest of the war struggling to stay alive in Jap prison camps. Died in the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in his sleep. I was a guest at the 52 Boats SubVets Memorial dedication in San Diego a while back. The place was crawling with smoke** boat vets, widows of vets, sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of vets. I was there with a buddy, just turned 90. He served aboard a fleet sub and is one of four surviving original crew members. Poor guy -- he tripped and fell hard enough to end up in the hospital and missed most of the dedication ceremony. I told him I was going to write a story about his headlong encounter with an enemy sidewalk and living to tell about it. He came back at me with: ‘Some darn fool in the crowd shouted – DIVE! DIVE! DIVE! So that’s what I did – I took a nosedive.’ A bit of mischievous humor here, but anchored to an ingrained reflex that every submariner had drilled into his head -- instant obedience to a given command. In other words, the difference between living and dying in a fleet submarine could sometimes be measured in a handful of seconds. That’s exactly how Commander Gilmore died – he sacrificed his own life to save the lives of his crew. And he had to make up his mind to do it in a matter of a few seconds.”
Have you ever interviewed a war lover, so-called?
“Nope, never. Though I know there’s a few out there. It’s a DNA or genes kind of thing. Descended from Viking warriors. (laughs) Gotta be.”
Is there wisdom to be gained by reading these accounts – a better understanding of ourselves, perhaps? I’m being a bit philosophical here.
“I’d only be making a wild guess, and you don’t want that. It all boils down to subjectivity. What appears to one reader as a brave and inspired act may well be perceived by another as plain reckless or even stupid. Sometimes it’s what they call a non-impulsive action – the mind goes totally blank, and they just do it. With one exception – front line medics. They’re the only soldiers on the battlefield charged with saving lives….and that means consciously exposing themselves to mortal danger again and again as they tend to the wounded. Their kind of repeated bravery is certainly worthy of study and reflection – and admiration. Beyond that – what you’re left with is luck. I’ve come to think of luck as a yardstick that’s measured in feet and inches and fractions – what’s commonly referred to in battle as close calls. Bullets and bombs and torpedoes… artillery and mortar fire….they all kill. But they can also save lives. A friend of mine carries a beat-up bullet on his key ring that a field surgeon dug out of his father’s hip. I speak here of the proverbial million dollar wound – the GI’s fast track ticket off the battlefield. Suddenly he’s removed from further danger by pure luck, and with his honor intact. The other three guys in his father’s reconnaissance patrol weren’t so lucky and left the battle site in body bags. But let’s take an even deeper look at luck – let’s up the ante. Say you’ve been wounded three times, returning voluntarily after each recovery to your platoon. That sort of thing happened more often than you’d imagine. Whew! – you’re one lucky guy. Then let’s say that on the very day Germany surrenders, you step on a schuh mine or get shot by a sniper – whatever -- and you’re dead. How’s that for irony! Your fabulous run of luck abandons you at the last minute – big time. Right? Wrong. Measured another way, you’re luck actually ran out when you weren’t killed the first time, thus avoiding the pain and suffering of two more wounds. See what I’m getting at? As events unfold, we tend to examine them retrospectively. That’s why I’m so taken by the repeated irony I spoke of previously. Makes me think of the fellow who was struck by lightning three different times, and survived each strike with only minor injuries. Was he lucky or unlucky? An equal dose of both, I’d say. Some years later he lost an arm and half a leg when the aluminum ladder he was moving made contact with an overhead power cable. My guess is he’s now at the point where he won’t even go near an electric razor.”
What do you think the war dead would have to say, if they could speak?
“Sheez – let’s not travel that road. Two gallons of bourbon later…”
I take it back --- that was dumb. Let me erase that…
“Mmmm…that’s OK, leave it be. I just remembered something. I can’t answer your question, but there’s some sailors who just might. They know all there is to know about a violent death. Google up ‘The Mess Cook.’ Write that down – the mess cook. And don’t forget your anti-fear pills – you’ll need them. Bring the full prescription and swallow them all. There’s more than enough water to wash them down where you’re going.”
* Korean war vet (USAF); European history college professor (retired).
**diesel powered fleet subs, as distinct from today’s nuclear driven.
2011 Tony Welch
Written by Tony Welch. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Tony Welch at:
About the author:
Tony Welch has recorded oral histories of WWII veterans in seven states.
His interest in preserving first-person battlefield accounts began a half-century ago, when as a U.S. Navy journalist he began
"picking the brains" of senior enlisted men. Says Welch: "If they had four or more hash marks on their sleeve and campaign ribbons on their chest,
they were fair game."
Published online: 06/05/2011.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.