History recorded

Avonworth student Lauren Harpst records the firsthand account of World War II as recalled by a resident of the Masonic Village in Sewickley. Many of the records were submitted to the National Archives’ Veterans History Project. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

History comes from any number of sources -- good teachers, good books, the History Channel. And sometimes it comes directly from those who lived it. Students in Jeff Boggess’s U.S. History classes at Avonworth High School recently completed a project that made them the historians as they interviewed individuals who experienced World War II, both as civilians and as military personnel.

Now in its fourth year, the project parallels class study that includes discussion and debate of the more controversial aspects of the war, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb and Japanese internment.

“Our essential question during that portion of study revolves around a discussion concerning the morality of war,” Boggess said.

Through her part-time job at the Masonic Village in Sewickley, one of the students, Jessica Wintermantel, coordinated access to several residents who shared their memories with her, along with classmates Tom Charles, Lauren Harpst and Danielle McCain.

Students met with residents in the lounge areas of the dining hall, where the division of years was bridged by discussion of events that took place over 60 years ago.

Jessica admitted that prior to her interview of
Yang-Hsien Ke, who was just 10 years old when Japan invaded China, she had “…no idea of how bad it is when a country is invaded. We had our terrorist attack, but I just did not know how terrible it can be.”

Ke explained how the Chinese tried to welcome the invaders, but the Japanese shot them and pushed their bodies into the Yangtze River, which came to be called the Red River because it was filled with blood. Ke, his younger brother and an aunt survived by hiding out in the mountains. “Until now, I knew very little about World War II, except for the Holocaust,” Jessica said.

Boggess said that students typically spend a month covering the war, with the interview just one aspect their study. “We’ve had excellent results from previous years,” he said. “Grandparents sometimes tell stories that they never even told to their children. One gentleman who has two Purple Hearts, and was in battles all over the Pacific, sent sand from Iwo Jima in a small container that I keep on my desk. Things like that make such a strong impact when students are studying the war.”

The interviews provide not only first-hand stories, but also personal emotions that textbooks cannot replicate. Tom Charles said that he learned so much through interviewing Russell Ashby. “He was sta-
tioned in the Philippines, Australia and Japan. He described what he did, but he was so humble about it.”

Lauren Harpst learned that even though decades have passed, strong feelings remain. She interviewed Ed Ryan who was a gunner in the Air Force and flew a B-17 in bombing runs over Germany.

“During the interview, he cried when he recalled other soldiers dying,”

Boggess said that even though the class learns basic interview techniques, some of the students “…are apprehensive about the prospect of sitting down and conducting an interview. After, however, not a single student regrets the experience.”

The project has become a family bonding experience, as well. Jeannie Wattras, mother of graduate Rick Wattras, said that her father told her son things about the war that she had never heard prior to the project.

“There were seven children in our family. My dad told the boys about the war, but not the girls. He had been dropped behind enemy lines prior to the invasion of Normandy, but he didn’t think that girls should hear about those things.”

Students also interviewed those who were on the homefront during the war years. Danielle McCain spoke with Janet Burland, whose husband, father and brother-in-law were in the service. Burland spoke of how difficult it was to be separated from those she loved, especially when she was pregnant, and often the only communication was through letters.

Students will submit between eight and 10 interviews to the Veterans History Project, a subdivision of the National Archives. Those interviews had to be tape recorded so that people going to the Archives can hear the person talking. Anyone interested can access the interviews at www.loc.gov/vets/ where instructions for submitting an interview to be archived also may be found.

Lauren said that “If we did not record their stories, they may never have been known to other people.”

Jessica shared her thoughts on the value of the project. “I thought it was fantastic the way they explained their experiences in such detail. It showed a side of the war that we never learn in school. It made the war more realistic.”

Tom cut straight to the point. “It became personal, emotional.”

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