How do you explain war?
How do you capture the banshee wail of an incoming shell, the staccato spit
of machine guns, the mind-churning rush of adrenaline that blocks all thoughts but
survival and duty?
If you're Steven Spielberg, you pull out all the stops and film a
D-Day panorama of grit and guts in "Saving Private Ryan," which opens today.
But even the master of Hollywood spectacle knows that explaining war
comes down to the stories of the individual soldiers -- their hopes, deeds and deaths.
Which is why, perhaps, Spielberg's film targets the cost of a search for one private.
And that's also why a Web site that does little more than post the
words of the men who fought in World War II can so powerfully evoke the triumphs and
tradgedies of war.
The Drop Zone (found at www.thedropzone.org) does on the small
(computer) screen what Spielberg tries to do on the big screen. The oral history site was
launched by Patrick O'Donnell of Fairfax Station, Va., a 28-year-old senior business
consultant with a passion for World War II history.
For the past six years, he has been interviewing and preserving the
stories of World War II veterans. Two years ago, with the help of a cadre of volunteers,
he created The Drop Zone, both an archive of memories and meeting point for veterans.
With personal stories and photographs, plus charts and maps, the
site explores combat at ground zero. There's also a "virtual reunion" function
where veterans can connect.
Postings include those of Charles Doyle, 74, of Kingston, who served
as a radio operator in the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He saw action in North
Africa, France and in the Battle of the Bulge. Of his 508-man unit, only 10 officers and
45 enlisted men returned from the war. On The Drop Zone, he describes dropping into the
town of Le Muy in southern France some months after D-Day:
"There was quite a bit of fog, but we had a full moon so we did
have some visibility. We didn't know if we were over land or water . . . some guys even
started to unstrap chest packs to get out of their chutes so they could survive if we hit
water. Suddenly we saw through the fog and saw land. We landed right on the button, even
though our pathfinder team landed about five miles from our intended DZ (drop zone). I
landed on a side of the hill like a tons of bricks. I always landed like that but
fortunately never broke anything."
Another click and you find the tale of scout Joe Cicchinelli who in
September 1944, took out a German machine gun nest in La Turbie, France. As his unit
stormed the shack, emptying their clips, "We saw three Germans on the ground -- two
were dead, the other was barely alive. Bud Hook said to me, 'This one is still alive' and
out of mercy I put my rifle to my hip and pulled the trigger."
Posted are pictures of three youthful Germans -- photos Cicchinelli
retrieved from their bodies.
"What sets us apart from an archive, is that everything is
pretty personal," O'Donnell said. "We're trying to weave a quilt -- each patch
on that quilt is an oral history. If you look at the entire quilt, you get a picture of
the entire experience."
Posting will soon include the recollections of Robert Murphy, 73, of
South Dennis, who served in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne
Division. Murphy, an 18-year-old pathfinder during the D-Day invasion, is particularly
anxious that the details of various battles be preserved.
He's written his own 50-page account of the battle at LaFiere Bridge
near Ste. Mere Eglise June 8-9, 1944, a decisive and bloody engagement during the Normandy
invasion. Segments will be posted on The Drop Zone.
Murphy's story is replete with descriptions of his bazooka-wielding
comrades who took out two German tanks to hold the bridge and his fiery-haired first
lieutenant, John "Red Dog" Dolan.
"It's great for people to get the information from personal
stories," said Murphy. "We went through an experience that very few people go
Via the site, veterans are contacting O'Donnell with more tales; he
and his volunteers fact-check details before posting.
"There are some people that have accurate memories and there
other people that don't. You have to weed through them," noted Doyle, who wrote a
1988 book "Stand in the Door" about his wartime experiences.
Despite its tales of courage under fire, the site does not celebrate
war. Some day, O'Donnell hopes to post memories of German and Japanese soldiers, as well
as French resistence fighters and Filipino scouts.
"This is not for romantics or people who are war mongers. This
is an accurate portrayal of what happened," O'Donnell said.