When I wrote this column in 2004 for the Charlotte Sun daily newspaper I was trying to make the point: Don’t do what I did and fail to interview your father about his military service and what he did in life after his time in the military. Unfortunately, I didn’t wake up to the fact until he was gone that my dad played a significant part in the aviation history of this country and had been involved with a number of aviation pioneers during his life on various projects.
Patricia Cloward of Englewood called me earlier this week after reading my Monday column about the 461 letters from a World War II sailor to his wife that I ended up with.
“I really liked that column,” she said, “it was so interesting.”
It all began a few days earlier when James Brogan of Rotonda called and asked if I had any use for a bunch of old letters his uncle wrote while serving in the Navy during WW II. He told me he was gonna chuck ’em if I didn’t want them.
I went over and retrieved a box full of letters along with odds and ends of other stuff. Then I put them in chronological order and began reading them one-by-one.
It didn’t take long to realize that I could turn these letters into a column and maybe a lot more. So I wrote the initial column on Brogan’s uncle’s letters.
The point in Cloward’s call to me Tuesday morning was first to let me know she liked the column and secondly to say that more people should be interested in what their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did when they were in the service decades ago. She said she made the mistake of not asking her father what he did while serving aboard ship during the Second World War.
“I don’t think the young people today are nearly as concerned about their own family’s military history as they should be,” Cloward observed. “Consequently we’re losing a lot of valuable historical information when these old men die off.”
Her point is well taken. Don’t make the mistake both Cloward and I made by not asking your dad or your granddad what they did in the war. It’s so simple today with tape recorders and video cameras. Sit your relative down in front of a video camera mounted on a tripod and start off with a series of questions about his military service.
A perfect place to begin is with a copy of his discharge paper in hand. On the flip side of your relative’s discharge it should tell you how old he was when he went in the service, where he joined up, what his unit was, when he was discharged, his commendations and a bunch of other stuff including his service number. Begin by reading all of that information into the tape recorder or in front of a video camera.
After that, get him to tell you how he felt about going to war and what his buddies who served with him felt about being in the service. Then suggest that your relative tell you a story. Let him put his military adventures in his own words.
It’s important to have your storyteller keep what he is telling you in some kind of chronological order so you have a timeline to follow. You can go back later and ask him about some of the crazy things that happened to him during his military service or, on a more serious note, the closest calls he had while in the service.
Old pictures are an important part of his story. Get copies of pictures of your father or grandfather when they were in the service. Particularly pictures showing him at the front or wherever to accompany their tale. Photographs add a lot to the whole package.
Be sure and record your interview on new tape. Note the date of the interview, where it was taken and how old the person was at the time they served at the beginning of the interview.
As I said, you would think a guy who interviews people about their war experiences for a living might have asked his own father what he did when he was in the service. Not me. I was 26 when my dad died 38 years ago and I wasn’t interested. Almost four decades later I want to kick myself because my father was a pioneer in aerial photography.
What I can tell you is: He served as an aerial photographer in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War I and was initially stationed at Kelly Field, Texas. There was almost nobody that was anybody in aviation from 1915 until 1955 he didn’t know.
My dad used to talk to Orville Wright about airplanes from time to time at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. Shortly before Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic in May of 1927 he called my father to find out about a General Electric Earth-inductor Compass he had just put on his mapping plane. Lindbergh installed the same type compass in “The Spirit of St. Louis” before he flew the Atlantic. He was a friend of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle long before he flew a squadron of B-25 bombers off the Carrier Hornet in 1942 to bomb Tokyo. In the 1920s, he did all the aerial photography for building Boulder Dam out West. He photographed the Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1925.
My dad also did aerial mapping for the 26 dams in the Southeastern United States built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s known as the TVA. He helped perfect aerial color film during WW II for the military. And the first airplane ever built exclusively for aerial photography in the late 1920s or early ’30s was made by Fairchild Corp. for him. I’ve been told that plane is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Despite these little snippets of info about my father’s career in aviation and photography and many more interesting tiny pieces I heard growing up, I have nothing to tell you of a definitive nature. I also have a bunch of pictures around the house of old World War I vintage airplanes someone took. Most of the pictures are undated and there is no indication who the people are in the pictures.
Except for my dad, who is in a number of them, I can’t tell you much about them because I never bothered to ask. I’m very sorry now for being so flat-headed half a lifetime ago.
The moral of this story: Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Sit down with your father, grandfather, uncle, brother or whomever and talk to them about their days in the military with a tape recorder or video camera running before it’s too late. And don’t forget to get them to identify any pictures they may have that help tell their story.
You’ll be glad you did someday when they’re no longer around. And so will your children and grandchildren.
This story was first published in the Englewood Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, July 26, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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