War records: Veterans tell their stories for posterity
By Jimmy Tomlin
Apr. 5--HIGH POINT -- For nearly 90 minutes one recent morning, Bernie Sheffield relived his experiences during World War II.
With a small video camera trained on him -- and an interviewer gently prodding him with informed questions -- the 83-year-old High Point man revisited Fort Bragg, where he was inducted into the Army as an 18-year-old draftee.
He rode the troop train back to Camp Wheeler in Macon, Ga., where he'd completed his basic training under a scorching August sun.
He reboarded the USS Wakefield -- the ship that carried him and about 8,000 other replacement soldiers to Europe for what would be the final months of the war -- and remembered his attempts to fight off seasickness.
He relived his first taste of combat.
"It was scary," Sheffield said softly, "because you didn't know what was coming. You become an old man fast in the infantry."
Then, in that same soft, unassuming voice, Sheffield recounted the events of April 15, 1945 -- the day enemy machine-gun fire riddled his arm, leg and buttocks, and nearly killed him.
"I crawled (about 25-30 feet) for cover and then flopped over on my back," he said. "Then I rolled on my left side to relieve the pain in my hip area. I put my arm up and felt the hot blood running down my back. Then I passed out."
The injuries earned Bernie Maurice Sheffield -- a self-described "ol' country boy" from Guilford County -- a prestigious Purple Heart.
* * * *
Dave Milidonis hears stories such as Bernie Sheffield's nearly every day. They may not all be as dramatic, but to Milidonis, they're still worthy of being preserved.
"Of this nation's 20 million veterans, better than half are peacetime veterans," says Milidonis, himself a 20-year Army veteran. "They never saw a bullet fired in anger, and yet their history is no less important than a combat veteran's history. My job is simply to preserve the veteran's story, regardless of service and regardless of time."
Milidonis, who conducted Sheffield's interview, is founder of the National Veterans History Archival Institute, a Cary-based nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and presenting the history of U.S. military veterans. He and a corps of volunteers travel the state, recording that history one story at a time.
"We're losing World War II veterans at a rate of 1,600 a day -- 50 to 60 a day in North Carolina -- and unless we collect their oral histories, their stories are going to the grave," Milidonis explains. "The history those men served in World War II is priceless."
He is quick to point out, however, that he wants to interview veterans from any era, not just from World War II.
Students of all ages, including many university students, "have proven they do not have a grasp of the contributions that veterans have made to this country's history," Milidonis says, citing several national studies.
The Cary organization makes a DVD of each interview and sends it to the Library of Congress, to be archived as part of the national Veterans History Project. Each veteran also receives his or her own personal copy of the DVD.
"Many veterans have called us once they've shown the DVD to their son or daughter, and the kids have said, "Oh my god, Dad, I never knew you did this!'" Milidonis says. "They had never asked him about his service."
The organization also makes the DVDs available to school groups -- from elementary schools up to the university level -- simply for the asking.
"We also bring veterans in for elementary students to interview for educational purposes," Milidonis says. "We get high-school students involved in conducting the interviews, and we've even had Boy Scouts do it for their Eagle project to receive their Eagle Awards."
Milidonis says the belief that many veterans -- especially wartime vets -- do not want to talk about their experiences is a myth.
"I have never had a veteran turn down an opportunity to be interviewed," he says.
"It doesn't matter whether it's a World War II veteran up to Iraq and Afghanistan -- that's just a myth that hangs out there in society. A lot of families tell the children, "Don't ask him about that, because he doesn't want to have those memories.' The veteran himself doesn't think they would be interested, unless they ask him, but they've been told not to ask him. And then it's at the grave that somebody finally steps forward and says, "Gee, I wish I would've asked.'"
Now, Milidonis is asking. All that remains is for veterans to hear him asking, and to respond.
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Bernie Sheffield's wife, Helen, had been urging him for several years to record an oral history of his wartime service, but he kept procrastinating.
But it wasn't until Sheffield met with Neil Whitaker, a funeral director for Sechrest Funeral Service, that he learned about Milidonis and his organization. The funeral home helps promote the project and has offered the use of its High Point and Archdale facilities for the interviews to be conducted.
"This is so important -- it's because of the footprints these veterans left that we have the freedom we enjoy today," Whitaker says.
"We're just trying to get the word out to veterans, and hopefully they'll want to come in and be a part of this. All they have to do is call us, and we'll set up the appointment."
That's what Sheffield did, and he's glad he followed through.
"This project will leave a history of what actually took place, and the trials and tribulations of combat in that period of time," he says. "I would encourage other veterans to share their stories, too."
To see more of the High Point Enterprise, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.hpe.com. Copyright (c) 2009, High Point Enterprise, N.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
The NC State Encore Program Presents
Veterans Remembering the Cold War
For many veterans, the Cold War was a “Hot War,” only nobody knows
it! This course will cover
the early Cold War years, from 1946-1963 and will engage the
students in the veterans oral history interview process.
Students will have the opportunity to meet and interview
veterans who flew with the Strategic Air Command (SAC); submariners
who shipped on both attack nuclear subs and “boomers;” US Army and
US Navy veterans who were involved with the early nuclear bomb
testing in the Pacific atolls; members of the Tactical Airt Command
(TAC) who piloted the Berlin Airlift.
From these and many other accounts, students will gain an up
close and personal perspective about military service during those
early, formative years of what became known as the Cold War and
insight into the events leading up to the Korean War.
Dave Milidonis, USMA, West Point, NY; MA, Pepperdine Univ., Malibu, CA; former US Army Infantry Officer (20 years); founder, National Veterans History Archival Institute, a volunteer organization dedicated to the collection and presentation of oral histories of US veterans from both war and peace time; founder, Management Designs, a leadership development firm.
Six Sessions: 1:15 - 2: 45 p.m.
Dates: Wednesdays, May 6, 13, 20, 27, June 3, 10
Location: Room 11/12 McKimmon Center NCSU
Maximum Enrollment: 56
This activity costs $45.00.
NC State University - 1101 Gorman Street - Campus
Box 7401 - Raleigh, NC 27695
Encore is a unit of MCE&CE is a unit of McKimmon Center for Extension & Continuing Education
© 2008 - North Carolina State University - Policy Disclaimer