Chris Rosenblum | Veterans’ memories deserve to be preserved

March 1, 2014 

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Col. Gerald Russell commanded a Marine infantry battalion and served a senior adviser to a Korean Marine Regiment. Russell died last week, but he left behind invaluable lessons learned in his experiences by sharing his war stories.

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Every day, stories vanish.

The little flags within the Centre Daily Times’ obituaries provide a sad reminder. Each indicate a veteran has died, and with him or her, memories possibly go to a grave.

Tales that could add to our collective knowledge of military history and humanity might disappear — if they haven’t been recorded or otherwise passed on.

A recent loss reminded me of this urgent need.

On Thursday, a packed memorial service at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church paid tribute to Col. Gerald Russell three days after he died at 97.

Russell cut an impressive figure: a decorated Marine officer with 28 years of service, a Penn State professor and philanthropist in the last half of his life who met with U.S. presidents and spoke before Congress.

Wherever he went, he drew respect — for his wisdom, his leadership, his generosity and, foremost for many, his service to his country.

He fought on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, two of World War II’s iconic battles. On Iwo Jima, at just 29, he took over for his wounded battalion commander, having been already hit himself.

After Japan’s surrender, he bore witness to Nagasaki’s devastation from an atomic bomb, among the first Americans to see the ruined city.

During his second war, in Korea, he commanded another Marine battalion. A decade later, he led U.S. ground level defense forces at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba while the Cuban missile crisis threatened to turn the Cold War hot.

Now, he’s heading for his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, for a military burial with full honors later this year.

To all our benefit, Russell kindly shared his military recollections with reporters and authors whenever asked. I was among those privileged to know him and hear some of his accounts.

Because he spoke about his service, future generations may know something more about what happened in Guadalcanal’s fetid jungles, on Iwo Jima’s volcanic sands and across South Korea’s windswept valleys and mountains.

If he had stayed silent, all of that would be lost today.

Over my career, I have had the pleasure of interviewing many dozens of veterans. In kitchens, dens and living rooms, I’ve sat spellbound, amazed and honored to listen to stories full of courage, perseverance, humor and tragedy.

Each has enriched my understanding of the conflicts and of the military in general, and deepened my appreciation for the ordinary Americans thrown into extraordinary circumstances. It’s always been my hope that my articles will affect readers the same way.

Some of the tales have recalled famous points in time — Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh — or dramatic actions.

But others preserved quieter, singular moments, like Albert Henry, of Aaronsburg, experienced during World War II.

A lieutenant senior grade on the cruiser USS Cleveland, Henry was taking a break and puffing on his pipe when, to his surprise, a legend walked up to him.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Pacific Theater supreme allied commander, had made the light cruiser his flagship during operations to capture Japanese oil refineries in Borneo.

Pulling out his trademark corncob pipe and joining Henry for a smoke on deck, the hatless general proceeded to ask about the ship’s radar in the nervous lieutenant’s charge.

“OK, you be the teacher, and I’ll be the pupil,” Henry recalled MacArthur’s order.

Occasionally, when I’ve approached about discussing their wartime service, veterans have demurred, telling me they did nothing heroic.

They may have other, legitimate reasons for not wishing to revisit the past. For some, it’s best kept there.

But they shouldn’t refrain out of a mistaken belief that their contributions to our history aren’t worth noting for posterity.

All merit saving.

That’s why efforts like Penn State senior lecturer Maria Cabrera-Baukus’ collaboration with students are so critical.

Cabrera-Baukus and her television studio production class in the College of Communications are seeking wartime veterans to be interviewed this spring for the national Veterans History Project.

Congress started the project in 2000 to collect accounts from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Since 2003, Cabrera-Baukus and her students have videotaped more than 100 oral history interviews, which have been archived at the Library of Congress, the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg and in the Special Collections Library at Penn State’s Pattee Library.

This year, she’s looking to add to her total. Any wartime veteran is eligible. Those interested should contact her by mid-March at mcb7@psu.edu or by mail at 103 Innovation Blvd., Suite 205, University Park, PA 16802.

They can also call 865-3068 and leave a message.

Participating veterans may bring service memorabilia, such as letters, articles, medals, photos and uniforms, to interviews to be included in the finished videos. Veterans receive DVDs of their sessions.

It’s a valuable endeavor, and Cabrera-Baukus should be commended.

I’ll add my own call to hers. If you’re a local veteran and can take part, please do so. Consider your memories a gift, because that’s what they are for historians and students of history.

If you can’t make it, at least sit down with your children or grandchildren so that they know, so that your service lives on with them.

Some day, a hard-earned flag will mark your obituary, indicating you belonged to a select few.

Don’t let it signify even more of a loss.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620 and crosenblum@centredaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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