The 23rd annual living history program for Bret Harte High School history teacher Jennifer Truman’s United States history students brought students face to face with veterans who served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan; from combat engineers to pilots, submariners to snipers and everything in between.
As the first generation of Bret Harte juniors who were just twinkles in their parents’ eyes on Sept. 11, 2001, the insight into the world at war and the life of a veteran was a journey like no other.
“It’s really good to hear their stories,” Cassandra Yoder said. “It helps me to understand, as books don’t create a very good visual.”
“How many times do you have the opportunity to talk with veterans in a setting like this?” Tristen Newton said. “It’s amazing to hear all their stories.”
Ryan Mercado and Kylie Mills were astounded with the details of combat engineering.
“They would build runways for planes while in combat,” Mercado said.
“Some built bridges while being shot at,” Mills said. She was surprised by the fact that many times the bridges were blown up before being completed and the combat engineers would have to begin again.
Some veterans, like World War II veteran Melvin Ogg, chose to make light of his service and his purple heart by telling funny stories of his service in the Pacific islands and his injury on the island of Bougainville.
“He (Ogg) is a really funny guy,” Nicole Dana said.
The realization of just how many areas American military was a presence during World War II was a bit of a shock to Marissa Tosch.
“I was surprised at how many places he went (during his tour),” Tosch said.
Though he took a lighthearted approach, Tiana Bennett was impressed with “how detailed his stories were. It was way better than learning from a book.”
While the oral history event was intended for juniors, some seniors returned to visit.
“I came back this year because I really enjoy hearing their stories,” senior David McCraney said. Contemplating a career in the military, McCraney listened intently to as many of the veterans as he could.
As the years go by, the veterans become more willing to tell stories that they had kept to themselves for decades, some of which they can only laugh at.
One such veteran was Chief Petty Officer Michael Axiak, who served aboard the U.S.S. Bluegill – SS-242 – during Vietnam. Axiak was caught taking photos in Cambodia. As the story went, they were tasked with taking photos at night of ships coming into the harbor and what they were off loading. Apparently, one evening they noted a collection of fishing vessels following their exact same path. Unbeknownst to them, they had inadvertently caught all the fishing boats’ nets and were towing them behind the submarine. “We were pretty much caught at that point,” he said, but the crew made a fast getaway.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Ric Ryan told of the time his crew had to empty the commander’s latrine while in Vietnam. Using gas instead of diesel to burn off the excrement, they accidently blew it to smithereens. Next they were ordered to rebuild said latrine, which they did, yet somehow his men managed to paint the new latrine pink.
Then there was the time Larry Bain just couldn’t stop irritating his superior officer and was sent ashore in Vietnam to guard some storage containers with a weapon and no ammunition.
Making light of their service is often a coping device, one not lost on this group of students, as many reiterated the aforementioned comments, all seemingly deeply grateful for the experience.
The event is organized yearly by BHHS teacher Jennifer Truman in an effort to bring history alive for her students and create a greater understanding of the people who serve the country.