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War Stories
by J.D. Wilson

It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out the problem, only a historian.

Just over a decade ago, U of M history professor Charles Crawford recognized that the United States and Mid-South region were losing a large number of World War II veterans.

"Basically they are in their 80s and 90s," Dr. Crawford says of the men and women that served in the war.

The overall life expectancy of a United States citizen is 78 years. With World War II ending in 1945 and the eligible military draft age set at 18, the latest a person could be born and still serve in the war was 1927, meaning the youngest of the war's veterans are 80 years old this year. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 685,000 veterans will pass away in 2007, including some 13,500 in Tennessee alone.

Crawford decided to take action. Set on saving the experiences of Mid-South veterans, he focused an oral history course on the subject that would eventually evolve into the Veterans Oral History Project, giving the U of M a more organized approach at collecting interviews with those who fought in the war.

"The point is that we are losing these people at the rate of thousands, and I don't know how many of the 16 million [that served in the war] are left, but it's few," says Crawford, who is director of the U of M's Oral History Research Office.

He likens the situation to what was happening in the United States in 1927. During that year, the country lost many Civil War veterans, and many personal stories were lost.

Crawford hopes this project will help paint a better picture of the World War II experience.

"Most of the history is written from official records, like military orders, newspaper accounts, letters written home," says Crawford. "What is lacking to a large degree is the human aspect. What it was like for the people who went through it, and sometimes that's the only way you really get the truth."

And the truth, according to Crawford, comes best from those who did the fighting.

"There are quite a lot of histories written about World War II," says Crawford. "They are written as a rule either by historians or from retired military men, usually military officers of some rank. They have their own way of writing about it, and it's not necessarily the way the people who were doing the fighting and the dying experienced it."

  Leonard Savitskie

Leonard Savitskie was wounded by an enemy sniper in World War II and survived several months as a prisoner of war.

One such story came from Army veteran Leonard Savitskie, who was interviewed by U of M doctoral student Carl Brown. Savitskie joined the Army in 1943 after a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps. After completing his training, Savitskie was shipped to England and then sent to the front lines.

"When we crossed the English Channel, I could see bodies and bombed vehicles in the water," says Savitskie. "We then crossed over into Holland, then to Belgium and then went into the fighting."

Savitskie's unit was responsible for searching and destroying enemy tanks. "Our job was to find tanks, shoot them down and back out quickly," says Savitskie. "It went along pretty good until the Germans started an offensive."

While out on a mission near Bastogne, Belgium, his group came under fire from German forces. During the fight, Savitskie was shot in the arm by a sniper. His unit managed to escape and headed for an Allied medical station, but en route the group learned that the hospital had been captured by German forces. The unit faced two choices: continue without medical attention or ditch their weapons and travel to the hospital anyway. Savitskie's unit chose the latter.

Taken into custody, the wounded received medical treatment. A German doctor told Savitskie that his arm would have to be amputated. However, captured Allied physicians were allowed to help the injured, and an American doctor stepped in and said that he could save the arm. After being stabilized, Savitskie was moved to the third floor of a first aid station near Koblenz in western Germany. His group was supposed to be moved to a prison camp, but fortunately the camp was full.

Savitskie and his men were moved several times to different hospitals due to stray bombs from Allied air raids. When the Koblenz first aid station was hit, Savitskie believed his life was over.

"I heard a 'whoosh,' and I thought I had died," says Savitskie. "I had no feeling at all. My mind was working, but I couldn't feel my nose, my feet, my teeth Ñ nothing. I thought I must be in heaven because I'm dead, but I regained consciousness and could smell burnt stone from the explosion."

His group was finally freed while staying at a prison camp in Luckenwalde after Russian forces overtook the camp. The Russian prisoners rejoined their forces and headed to Berlin while Savitskie and his group traveled by foot until they crossed the Elbe River and were repatriated with American forces.

Savitskie's story is one of millions of war experiences, but after listening to his first-hand account, one gets a better sense of the human element during the war. While at the Luckenwalde camp, Savitskie and other prisoners were fed potatoes with sawdust. The sawdust was added as filler so the food supply would last longer. Also, after surviving the first air raid, Savitskie went into shock and began to shake uncontrollably in his bed. A German lady working at the first aid station told him that everything was going to be okay, but when she found out he was an American, she spat on him. These seemingly minor details provide the realism to the war that only these veterans can share. Each story is unique, providing another layer to the human experience of this war.

Two seamen  
Seaman Thomas Daniels (right) seen with shipmate Donald "Diz" Disney. Daniels served as a submariner during World War II.  

Another of these archived interviews came from Thomas Daniels, a Navy submariner from Fayetteville, N.C. In early 1945, his submarine was hit by a massive typhoon. The ship was located several miles out from the Tokyo Harbor. Daniels kept watch in the engine room along with one other submariner. Suddenly, the submarine was ordered to dive. Before the men could complete the dive, a wave engulfed the submarine.

"They got the word to dive, and everything had to be closed," says Daniels. "When you're diving, you only have 30 seconds before going under water, so you push the throttle down to shut the engines off and close the hatch at the same time. If you close the hatch too quick you're going to pull a pretty heavy vacuum in the engine room."

The hatch on top of the conning tower was closed before Daniels received the order to shut down the engine. With four engines running at full speed, the air was closed off, creating a substantial vacuum.
"It was debilitating to a number of people for a short period of time," says Daniels. "Once that happened we knew we had water in our room and when we saw the water we knew we had to close that sucker."

Three to four feet of water stood in the engine room, and the power was out. They still had air, so they could blow their tanks and open hatches by hand.

"We went to see what the damage was," says Daniels. "The guys in the conning tower had water up to their necks. We didn't have anywhere to put the water, so it took a while to figure out what we were going to do. The radar equipment was drenched in salt water. The engines were gone. One electric motor was soaked but one wasn't."

However, Daniels did not see any panic among the men. They did their jobs. Quickly, they had to shut off various compartments. Most importantly, they had to seal off the battery compartment.

"That would have been a disaster if salt water would have reached those batteries," says Daniels. "It creates a gas off the batteries, but we were able to keep it okay."

The submarine had enough food for 60 days, but the damage from the typhoon kept the ship out for over 80 days. Daniels says that everyone knew what to do because of the instincts gained from their training, and those instincts kept them alive long enough to eventually be rescued.

"These interviews are the basic accounts of what it was really like," says Crawford. "You don't get it from just one interview, but with enough of them together you can really get a picture of the ways these veterans were alike and what different experiences people had. It's just the story of real people."

At present, the Veterans Oral History Project has conducted almost 300 interviews with World War II veterans such as Savitskie and Daniels. The goal is 1,000 by next year. Crawford has on staff about six interviewers. Each interviewer has taken Crawford's oral history course at the University.

"Each student learned the process of doing background research, learning about the war, learning and practicing how to do interviewing and then they would do a live interview (for class credit)," says Crawford. "Every interviewer I have is a trained historian. Most of them have a couple of degrees in history. Some of them have completed a doctorate. They know history, and that's one of the first parts about this. You have to know the time and the subject you're dealing with."

Crawford adds that the project started slowly, but with $120,000 of financial support donated from the Memphis Chapter of the Military Order of the World Wars and the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, the project has made great strides forward.

Dr. Janann Sherman, chair of the History Department, says that the support from these two groups has allowed the project to flourish.

"Those who served in this great war or who are interested in it are indebted to the Military Order of the World Wars and the Assisi Foundation whose initiative and generous support has made this project possible," says Sherman. "All students studying the experiences of Mid-South residents who served during World
War II will find this collection of primary sources of immense value for their study."

All interviews are available to the public and are archived in three places: the McWherter Library at the U of M, the Memphis Public Library and the Library of Congress. Interviews are sent to the Library of Congress to help support a national program that is very similar to the U of M's project. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing the Veterans History Project. This program accepts all forms of personal history from veterans, including oral history interviews, memoirs, letters, diaries and photographs from all veterans of all wars. Crawford says the U of M hopes to move on to collecting oral histories from other wars as well but at present will solely focus on World War II.

Besides the Veterans Oral History Project, the U of M's Oral History Research Office, created in 1967, has chronicled more than 3,000 memoirs covering a variety of topics throughout Memphis and the Mid-South.

To learn more about the Veterans Oral History Project, visit or contact the Oral History Research Office at (901) 678-2524.

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