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Voices Fall-Winter 2004:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Telling War Stories in Chemung County” by Heather A. Wade here.
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Volume 30

Telling War Stories in Chemung County by Heather A. Wade

We began our efforts to document the wartime activities of Americans at the Booth Library of the Chemung County Historical Society in Elmira, when we joined the Veterans History Project in November 2001. Interviews with veterans and civilians with firsthand knowledge of World Wars I and II and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars started a year later. A local newspaper helped us publicize the project and recruit volunteers, and Representative Amory Houghton, one of the principal backers of the Veterans History Project in Congress, publicly endorsed our local efforts and called attention to our project throughout his congressional district.

Because we were then the only repository in the region collecting veterans’ interviews, many of the veterans who contacted us were from outside our traditional collecting area. We ultimately decided that geography was irrelevant in this project, since most of the local veterans are transplants who moved here in the 1950s and 1960s to find jobs in Elmira and Horseheads. This in itself taught us something unexpected about our residents, and one of the standard questions that we now ask is how the veterans came to live in Chemung County.

By February 2003, we had a list of more than a hundred veterans waiting to be interviewed and about thirty active volunteers. Some of the volunteers had participated in an oral history training workshop, designed and funded by the American Folklife Center and conducted by Lydia Fish, professor at Buffalo State, that we hosted at our facility in November 2002. Others I had trained individually. The Red Cross Youth Corps in Elmira, the New Visions class at SCT BOCES, and an anthropology class at Corning Community College collaborated with us on the project by enlisting their students to interview veterans for community or class projects. I asked all the interviewers to allow sufficient time to document the veterans’ stories, and with a few exceptions, I required the interviewers to conduct the interviews with one veteran at a time, in a quiet room where they were unlikely to be disturbed.

To date, we have collected more than two hundred and fifty stories. Our volunteer pool changes frequently; by November 2003, we had nine core volunteers who had collected an average of seven interviews each. Through the stories, we are learning about the major campaigns of the wars, but the larger service we are providing is documenting the details that one could never learn from a history book—the practical jokes the enlisted men played on each other, the food that they ate, the rivalries between the military branches, and the individual sacrifices that each one, veteran or civilian, made in wartime.
Harry A. Turner's's sketch
When he went to war in 1917, Harry A. Turner was enrolled in Zim’s Correspondence School of Cartooning, Comic Art, and Caricature, run by Judge artist Eugene Zimmerman, of Horseheads, New York. "Zim" wrote to him, "If you keep up the work you may be able to put it to good use in the trenches. Anything any man at the front writes or draws is gobbled up eagerly by publishers. Many young fellows are laying the foundation for an art career at the front. Your chance is just as good as the next fellow’s." Turner carried his sketchbook with him throughout the war. Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society, Inc., Elmira, New York, Accession #2003.0030.0010.0001; Accession #2003.0030.0011.0007-0008.

Harry Turner's Sketch
If you ask our volunteer cataloger, Lee Kiesling, who hears each interview at least twice, what she finds most memorable about the project, she will tell you about the typhoon that wrecked the Navy’s Third Fleet off the coast of Okinawa on December 16, 1944. This storm was mentioned in two separate interviews, by Robert D. Cutting, a pilot with the Fifth Air Force, and by Nicholas Lamberti, a sailor who served in the South Pacific.

Cutting: The biggest thing that I was involved in, other than the flying, was we were hit by a typhoon. And it swept through at about a hundred twenty to thirty miles per hour. It devastated our camps, our tents. Our whole area was just devastated. And the poor Navy with their ships, the battleships and the cruisers over at Okinawa. I think they had more casualties, more serious injuries to people and more damage to their equipment at that typhoon than any other thing in the war.… Years ago, when the Chinese were going to be invading Japan, it was called the Kamikaze wind. And as you know, the Kamikaze were the death pilots. These were the men that would auger in on a battleship—just dive in, straight into it. But the wind was called at the time, when China was invading, the wind was called Kamikaze. It was a sacred wind that blew the Chinese fleet away. Here we are, ready—believe me—ready to attack Japan, and the Kamikaze wind hit again. Interesting. [Thomas Mailey, interviewer]

Lamberti: I was really afraid that the ship was going to break apart, myself. It was devastating. I mean, if you’re out at sea and a wave comes and you’re on a flight deck and you look down—the center of the ship is on top of this wave, and you’d go to look down and there’s a hundred feet down. There’s nothing there on either end, the bow or the stern. There’d be a hollow … just like a black hole. [Jason Harmon, interviewer]

Our volunteers have had memorable experiences while conducting interviews, and we have learned a great deal from the veterans and civilians who have shared their wartime stories from both the battlefield and the home front. Three-quarters of the interviews that we have completed were with World War II veterans, and about a fifth of these were with servicewomen. We also have several interviews with Korean War veterans and a few with veterans of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars. Unfortunately, we have not located any World War I veterans to interview in our region. Although it’s not in the scope of the national Veterans History Project, locally we are collecting information from cold warriors as well.

Our project will continue indefinitely—presumably as long as there are wars and veterans to remember them. In the next phase of our effort, we want to focus on documenting the World War II home front in our region. We have already interviewed factory workers of that period, as well as relief society volunteers and even those who were children during the war, whose teachers encouraged them to collect scrap metal and taught them to knit to support the troops overseas. We hope to find people with firsthand knowledge of the federal Holding and Reconsignment Point in Horseheads, which also housed former Italian POWs; the German POW camp in Van Etten; the conscientious objectors’ camp in Big Flats; and the manufacture of the top-secret Norden bombsight at the Elmira Remington Rand plant.

Some of the people we have interviewed have been telling their stories for years, others have never discussed the events with another person, but all come prepared to share their experiences. Their motives for participating in the Veterans History Project vary. Don Quinn, whom I interviewed about the life of his brother, William Quinn, who died during World War II, summarized his reasons for taking time to be involved in this project: “Being the very last member of the generation who experienced it, to the degree that I did, I figure have an obligation to bring it all together in a package that might be of interest to some person. Well, maybe that’s happening now.”
...this droning of, like, ten billion bees...
[Excerpts from an interview with Alexander Bohen, interviewed by Marlene Zecca]

Alexander Bohen was born in Brooklyn in 1925. He enlisted in the Army on June 17, 1943, and was discharged a sergeant, on October 19, 1945. During World War II, he served in the Fourth Armored Division, Thirty-Fifth Tank Battalion Recon Platoon, and saw action in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Czechoslovakia. Years after the war, he came to Chemung County for a job at the A&P plant in Horseheads. When we began to collect local veterans’ stories, Bohen was among the first who volunteered.

I met with him three months before his interview to explain the project to him and complete the paperwork required for the interview to become part of the Veterans History Project collection. That day, he told me amazing stories, and I will always regret not having recorded the meeting. Shortly before he enlisted, he remembered, he had been playing “Post Office” with friends, and when a girl gave him an “air mail delivery”—evidently a French kiss—he nearly passed out. He contrasted that with his experiences in the war. He spoke of innocence lost, of watching friends die. “Hollywood never gets that right,” he said, complaining about the popular war movies that show the dying man taking one last drag on a cigarette before closing his eyes.

Bohen: So, we sailed out of Boston, OK? I was so loaded—we were all so loaded with stuff. We had to go up the gangplank to get onto the ship. I couldn’t make it up, so they had sailors on each side of the gangplank. And they would grab you one by one, they pushed you and pulled you and in fact we fell on the deck. [Laughter] You know, there’s a lot of weight there.

Interviewer: How much weight do you think that you carried?

Bohen: Probably carried about sixty, seventy pounds with the rifle and all that junk on you and overcoat and the steel helmet. You know, everybody was skinny. There was no fat guys in those days, especially after basic training. So, anyhow, we got on the ship. We were two weeks heading for England—two weeks to go from Boston to England.... The German subs were going crazy. We were in the North Atlantic in December. That’s a rough ocean. And we went up towards the North Pole, back down, in a convoy of two hundred ships. It was the largest convoy that ever went over the ocean. Two hundred ships, loaded with men. And of course, the Navy was protecting us. In the daytime we could see the Navy ships out there, they were escorting us, so no subs. But in the daytime, they let us go up on deck and the captain would announce, “Anybody on the port side”—that’s the left side—“you watch for icebergs and the men on the right side, watch for the subs.” And I think I said, “I’m not watching anything. I’m going down, there’s some crap games down in the hole,” and I played crap for almost two weeks. [Laughter] And you couldn’t eat. Everybody was sick. Everybody was throwing up all over the place. A lot of guys were from Ohio and Indiana, they never saw anything bigger than a lake or a river, and here they are in the North Atlantic and the ship’s going up over and under. Half of the ship was in sickbay.

Interviewer: You did fairly well, though.

Bohen: I did nothing. Because, living in Brooklyn, at Sheepshead Bay, which is the Atlantic Ocean, I had gone out fishing with my father in the Atlantic so I knew what rough water was. So I never got sick. But I think a lot of it was mental. But anyway, there were guys yelling out, “Shoot me, kill me”—they were so sick, they wanted to die. They were actually green. And two weeks of this nonsense, and finally somebody was like Columbus. Every morning, they were, “Where the hell is the land?” Finally, after two, two and a half weeks of being on the North Atlantic in the middle of December, we saw the tip of Ireland, I guess. Everybody was cheering like we’d discovered Europe or something....

But the English soldiers hated us, because they said we were overpaid and overfed. I was making $50 a month. I don’t know what they were making, but I was making more than them. They didn’t like us. And naturally, they had canteens and they had girls—girls like our USO—and they would dance with the guys. And the English soldiers—the Tommies, they called them—they’d be dancing with a girl, and we’d just ... we were used to cutting in. And I tapped one, and he says, “We don’t cut in over here, Yank.” And the next thing, pushing, pushing, fistfights, chairs flying around the place. And they resented us because we were overpaid, and we probably ate better than them, and we were getting the girls. The girls thought we were terrific, ‘cause we had cigarettes, chocolate bars, gifts, things from home. The girls, you know, they dropped the English soldiers. Not all of them, but when we came, we danced, and we did the jitterbug, and they liked us. They really went crazy for the American soldiers. And the British guys hated us. In fact, after a while, things got so rough at the dances, that the canteens would have signs out: Tommies and Canadians welcome.” And underneath, “Yanks not welcome.” Right in there. “Yanks not welcome.” Here we were, over there, three thousand miles to try to save them from Hitler, and they wouldn’t let us in the canteens. So there was a lot of hard feelings. But a lot of it was our fault. The paratrooper guys, they were always looking for a fight. And the British guys, they fought this old way, and by the time they did that, they were knocked out. They fought like they were gentlemen...

We knew we were gonna relieve this Fourth Infantry, because we were armored, you see, and we could move. This one day ... we heard this droning of, like, ten billion bees, and everybody’s running out of their tents and looking up. And we see the bombers—fortresses, liberators—all coming across the Channel, bombing the front line of the Germans at St. Lo.

Interviewer: Was this our Air Force?

Bohen: Our Air Force. Our Air Force. Hundreds and hundreds. They would drop their bombs, go back to England, load up and go back, this went on—go back—all day long. This was the biggest air raid in the history of the world. And I’m just—we don’t know what’s going on, you know. We knew it was for bombing the German lines ... and the little fighter planes scooting in and out.... But the sky was so filled with planes that the antiaircraft from the German guns, you couldn’t miss. There were just so many bombers. And they were hitting the bombers, a lot of them, not all of them. And then we’d look way up and we’d see the little puff of smoke coming out of the bomber. And then hopefully you’d see little chutes coming out. And a lot of times you didn’t see the chutes.... It’s unbelievable. You’d have to have seen it. You couldn’t believe this was happening. The sky filled with bombers all day long going around. Anyhow, but the lines were so close, when they dropped their bombs, they killed a lot of Americans, because, you know, with the bomb, they just can’t pinpoint bombs. But they did a lot of damage to the German lines, and that’s where my division moved in, Fourth Infantry. We relieved them. We broke through. We broke through the lines. And we had them on the run....

We could speak the language because when we went into France they gave you a little booklet with thousands of American things to talk ... and then the French next to it. And so we’d say, “Ou sont les Boches?” The Boches were the Germans. “Where are the Germans?” And then the Frogs would say, “Je ne sais pas.” The Germans had just left ten minutes ago. “Je ne sais pas. Je ne comprends pas.” ... like if you didn’t have the right accent through your nose, you know, they didn’t know what you were talking about. In fact, I saw a guy, one time, he was a big guy ... and he’s asking the French in this little town, he’s asking them for eggs, and he’s saying, “Avez-vous des oeufs?” You know, “Have you got any eggs?” And all the little people are gathered around, all the Frogs, “Ah, je ne sais pas. Je ne comprends pas.” You know, they don’t know what he’s talking about. So finally, he squats down, and he goes like a chicken [Bohen flaps his arms]. And they all say, “Ah ...” Like, “Why didn’t you tell us in the first place?” [Laughter] Poor guy. He got his egg.


Heather A. Wade is the archivist at the Booth Library of the Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, New York.

We hope to find people with firsthand knowledge of the federal Holding and Reconsignment Point in Horseheads, which also housed former Italian POWs; the German POW camp in Van Etten; the conscientious objectors’ camp in Big Flats; and the manufacture of the top-secret Norden bombsight at the Elmira Remington Rand plant.

"We was the last ship to leave..."
[Excerpts from an interview with Robert J. Breitung, interviewed by Tom Mailey]

Robert J. Breitung enlisted in the Navy as a private, third class in 1948 and served in the Korean War. He was discharged in 1952. In 1997, along with Horseheads resident and veteran H. James Wonderling, he cofounded the Southern Tier Chapter of the New York State Amphibious Forces Association. Breitung keeps a scrapbook detailing his efforts to stay in contact with land ship tank (LST) sailors nationwide.

Breitung: I think the roughest thing we ever saw was in 1950, was the, well, they call them the Chosin Frozen. I don’t know if you ever heard of them, but if you ever talked to a Marine that was in the First Division that was there, you are in for the story of a lifetime.... They made a march up to the Chosin Reservoir, which was well up into North Korea. And it was Mother of God so cold. It was so cold that you froze to death just standing still about five minutes. The wind—temperatures could be thirty, thirty-five below zero, and you would get a wind out of Manchuria that would bring it down to sixty, seventy miles an hour. And Marines always had a motto that they never leave their dead behind. This was the first time in hundreds of years that they had to leave their men behind. You went to bed and didn’t know if you were gonna wake up.

And there was about, from what I gather, about twelve thousand Marines, compared to sixty thousand North Koreans, who had them actually surrounded. And they fell into a trap. And our job was to wait at Hung Nam and they was marching down to Hung Nam and we was gonna pull them out. And they had the Marines bottled in, and every time that in front of them there was a bridge of any sort going over the rivers, the North Koreans would blow [it] up and the Army engineers had to make temporary bridges to get them out. This happened, well let me see, Thanksgiving they ate like kings, and the day after Thanksgiving it started. And by the time I got down to Hung Nam—you never saw anything like this in your life—we took on Marines that were just literally wiped out, half frozen. We took their dead because, what they wanted to take, we took some civilians, and the dead had to be taken out to the hospital ship hull because they were on the deck stacked like cord wood. I’m telling you, it was the most horrible thing you ever could see. And they were starting to decompose, so we had to get rid of them....

We was the last ship to leave the beach. An LST works like when it hits the beach, it is usually at low tide and just a couple hundred yards before it hits the beach—you gotta realize that they got a flat bottom, they got a huge, huge anchor at the stern of the ship—and at a certain time they would drop this anchor and it would dig in and then the ship would go forward and it would hit the beach, and the bow doors would open up and trucks, men and everybody would run out. But at Hung Nam it was just the opposite. We hit the beach basically, sort of like the high tide going into a low tide, and we took the civilians and we took all the Marines and we took everything that we could, and with all this weight and with the tide going out, we couldn’t get off the beach. We were stuck.

And you could literally see the North Koreans coming down. OK? And I think that the biggest thing that helped us was that they didn’t have, like, cannons or mortars, it was basically small arms, you know, you would hear a ping now and then, but the biggest lifesaver of all was in the vicinity was a seagoing tug. And every time, well, what you would do, you put the engine in reverse and start a winch in the back and that would pull you toward the anchor. Well, the bottom was more muddyish than sand and instead of we being pulled to the anchor, we were pulling the anchor towards us and we were hung up on the beach. We got this seagoing tug and between us trying to get off with our power and the seagoing tug pulling, we made it. But we were the last ... we were the last ship off the beach and it was close. And I tell you, at the age of eighteen, nineteen, you can crap your pants.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Fall-Winter 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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