Photos bring history to life

Photos bring history to life

There I was with a perfectly good scanner. It sat idle in a closet until this summer, when I got the chance to use it again for an entirely different purpose.

The News-Gazette is going to publish a book this fall based largely on a special section we printed back in 1994, for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. For that section, we interviewed almost 200 people, most of them veterans of World War II.  When we announced the book a few weeks ago, we started hearing from veterans who had photos they were willing to share. So I got to go visit folks, taking a laptop and this scanner to get copies of their photos from decades ago.

I’ve visited with a Marine in Urbana who has a flag he got from Iwo Jima – the Rising Sun surrounded by the signatures of dozens of Japanese soldiers, all of them presumably dead by the time the flag changed hands. I got to hear how he randomly met someone on a plane years later whose wife was Japanese, who translated the writing for him.

I’ve spent an hour or two with an Army veteran from Champaign with photos of Hitler’s home the day after it was bombed by the British – and horrifying photos of Dachau. But he also has a photo of himself in uniform with his family, a lovely group picture that everyone can identify with.

I got to speak with a man who demonstrated his training under live ammunition by assuming a crawling position on the living room floor of his beautiful Urbana home. He and his wife talked about life in Mississippi at the time of World War II, and then called me back the next day to say they’d found the one photo of him in uniform that survived a fire.

I’ve spent time in a Mahomet dining room, listening to a man who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis after it delivered the components for the first atomic bomb – a mission so secret that no one knew the ship had been sunk, and a truly horrific part of the war. He shared a photo of men on board the ship, and you can’t help but be struck by the irony of the strength evident in the massive guns looming over them.

I heard from a woman whose Navy veteran father died in 2008. Her husband brought a few pictures by for me to scan. One is of the crew sitting on his ship, the submarine USS Besugo, which served in the South Pacific.

I heard from another woman whose father and mother met in England, where she lived and he was stationed. She sent me printed pages from a website that featured her parents. A phone call later, a relative emailed me pictures of them for the book.

I got a call from a woman in her 90s, who has what she calls her “shrine” to her late husband. Despite suffering from the effects of a stroke that makes it difficult to communicate, she made it very clear how much he meant to her and how happy she was to share a photo of the two of them, taken the day he got back from the war.

These are not young men or women, but in the photos they are. There might be a grin or laugh here and there, but it is clear that they are involved in something important.

As I scan the photos, I get to hear their stories. Maybe you wouldn’t enjoy this, but I sure am. Part of the reason is probably that my dad was on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II, and hearing these folks talk reminds me of him. But it’s more than that. Every one of these people lived through something that I’ve read an awful lot about lately – because I’m editing the text for the book, too, which means I’ve read the text of the book. And it’s such a direct link to history for me that I think I’m the luckiest guy around.

Photos, from the top: The USS Indianapolis, courtesy of Art Leenerman; Roy and Mary Kruger, who met in England during the war, courtesy of Janice Beasley and her cousin, Steve Kruger; the crew, in different uniforms, of the USS Besugo, a submarine that served in the Pacific, courtesy of Debbie Flavin, whose father served on the sub.



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