The Things Our Fathers Saw
Teachers are normally miracle workers, but sometimes they’ll perform a miracle within a miracle. Matthew Rozell is a teacher who performed just that in a teaching method that ultimately led to his new book The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA; Volume I: Voices of the Pacific Theater.
Let me describe what happened and then I’ll tell you about this extraordinary book by Matthew Rozell.
Starting in the late 1980s, Matt, a history teacher in Hudson Falls High School (Hudson Falls, NY), had his students interview and videotape the recollections of grandparents and others who had served in WW II—men and women. They were among the Greatest Generation, who were now aging, dying, and taking their stories to the grave. Matt’s miracle within a miracle was to have his students hear, see and feel the living history of the war, as embodied in and transmitted by these veterans. As he writes in The Things Our Fathers Saw, “I had hit upon something every teacher searches for—a tool to motivate and encourage students to want to learn more, for the sake of just learning it.” Matt himself also videotaped interviews with these veterans. His classes’ work coincided with the emergence of the Internet and world wide web and so The World War Two Living History Project (WW2LHP) website was born.
The project has been widely recognized in the media—newspapers, TV, radio, Internet— and justifiably praised here and abroad. And here’s a perfect example of its power. Matt was videotaping a student’s grandparent, Sgt. Carrol Walsh, who had been a tank commander in the European Theater. As the interview ended, Carrol Walsh’s daughter just happened to ask if he’d told Matt about “the train.” Carrol Walsh said he had not and so related how, on April 13, 1945, his tank unit came across and liberated a train full of concentration camp victims being transported from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Carrol Walsh’s interview and the photos taken that April day were uploaded to the WW2LHP website and gradually the train’s survivors began to see it. Eventually hundreds of them saw it, some living as far away as Australia, who subsequently contacted their liberators. Matt then worked to get most of the nearly 300 survivors reunited with their liberators.
So much other good came of that website, too much to relate here, but you can read Matt’s full story online. To me, the greatest good was expressed in what one of Matt’s students said of this project: “It’s life altering and because we’ve heard these stories, it’s our job to make sure it won’t happen again.”
Now, on to his book, The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA; Volume I: Voices of the Pacific Theater. Matt’s classes have also interviewed veterans of the Pacific Theater. Matt selected the stories of twenty-nine men and three women living in and around Glens Falls, NY, which had been designated as “Hometown, USA” in a series of articles published by Look Magazine in 1944—hence its inclusion in the title. Some of the 32 were natives, born within a 30-mile radius of Glens Falls. Others came to settle in the area after the war’s end.
Matt edited these interviews and interwove explanatory text and historical background all in one book. It is a chronological progression taking us from Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, through to the Japanese full surrender September 2, 1945, and then beyond into the veterans’ homecoming at war’s end. The war in the Pacific Theater covered an incredible area, considering how huge the Pacific Ocean is and that the Japanese Empire occupied almost as much territory as the United States does today. That so much of the scope of the Pacific Theater’s war is reflected in the lives of these people is astonishing, both in terms of their personal experiences and in terms of the different number of geographic areas in which they served.
For example, we begin the war at Pearl Harbor with the memories of Gerald “Barney” Ross, who was serving in the US Navy aboard the USS Blue, moored at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. Ross and others were waiting for a motor launch to take him to church services, when a Japanese plane flew over their heads. Ross recalled, “She went down and dropped a torpedo. Then I saw the Utah turn over”—the USS Utah, a 522 foot Florida Class Battleship that went down taking 64 men with her.
It should be noted that not all of the accounts in the book were from interviews done by students or by Matt alone. Also, some accounts were taken from diaries and one from a 1946 article in The Post-Star. This in no way subtracts from the enormity of the ongoing contribution of the World War Two Living History Project; rather it beautifully complements it and strengthens Matt’s book. For example, the book quotes Joseph Minder’s diary. Kept throughout the war, it chillingly related the conquest of the Philippines Islands by Japanese forces in 1942. Minder brings you there, puts you in that moment at the heroic defense of Corregidor Island, and then takes you with him during the subsequent imprisonment of him and thousands of others in a Japanese POW camp. Minder’s accounts of life in the camp for the next three years are not for the faint-hearted.
Going back to his project, I was delighted to learn that veterans would also visit students in the classroom. James “Jimmy” Butterfield of Glens Falls came along with his wife Mary and his good friend James Lawler. Both Butterfield and Lawler had served in the Marines and were on Okinawa, where Jimmy was wounded. Mary’s memories give us the stateside view of someone waiting for her loved one to return. In the classroom, the three spoke and Jimmy patiently, and with tremendous honesty and humor, told the students of how he lost his sight at age 19 during the battle for that Japanese Island, only 150 miles off the coast of Japan. As you read what Jimmy told the class and how Mary and James Lawler reacted, you find yourself alternately laughing and crying.
In addition to the memories of Mary Butterfield, I was particularly grateful to see the inclusion of the memories of Katherine Abbott and Dorothy Schechter, who served in the war. Women then were not allowed in combat positions and so became nurses, WACs, WAVEs, or worked in other supporting services. Dorothy Schechter was an example of the last, serving as a civilian in charge of accounting on various Army Air Force bases. In 1942, she was the only woman authorized to be at a South Carolina air base that was being used to stage General Jimmy Doolittle’s famous raid on Tokyo. Doolittle and a team of crack B-25 bomber crews were practicing taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, something no bombers had ever done. Later, Doolittle’s fleet of B-25 bombers would take off from the USS Hornet in the South Pacific and bomb Tokyo, the first time Americans had struck the Japanese Empire’s homeland. Schechter’s narrative also relates her subsequent very personal and poignant experiences with Japanese-Americans held in California interment camps, one of the many facets of this complex war.
Katherine Abbott trained to be a nurse at Memorial Hospital in Albany, NY, and then joined the US Army to be a flight nurse in the Air Evacuation Squadron. She served on a plane with “only one nurse and one medical technician” that island-hopped all over the South Pacific to serve the wounded in such places as Hawaii, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Leyte, and Okinawa. Other times they would ferry patients to larger places that had hospital facilities. On board, 28 patients had only Mary and the medical technician—no doctor—to keep them medicated, sedated, and cared for. Think of flying in an unarmed aircraft, with no pressurized cabin or oxygen. Although she was only in a combat area once, when serving Okinawa, Katherine’s service and heroism certainly qualify as “going above and beyond.”
Those are just snippets of the many stories gathered in The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA; Volume I: Voices of the Pacific Theater—268 pages of enjoyable, educational reading. This is a powerful work and I recommend it wholeheartedly for both adult and young adult readers. You can purchase Volume I in paperback in local bookstores; or online in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon.com. Go to Matt’s website for more information on the that, as well as on his upcoming speaking engagements.
Congratulations to Matthew Rozell, teacher, author and humanitarian!