CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER

 

A COMBAT ZONE FOR POSTERITY

American Veterans remember WWII on internet site

Section: Cover Story: P
age 1

By:  Brian Albrecht   

Published   Friday 11/11/98


"As the men moved through our holes in the wire, one of our scouts got cut in half
by a machine gun. I was told to fire a grenade at the machine gun nest, bur like everything else in the U.S. Army, it was a big dud. "So at that point Lt. Dawson got up and charged it with his submachine gun and kept blasting. When we got up close, they put their hands up.  I remember that one German had his arm dangling by only a piece of flesh. That was out first contact with the enemy."

-Ellis Reed, former U.S. Ranger, recalling the
D-Day invasion of Normandy


Such is one of the many voices of war echoing through cyberspace from a Web
site dedicated to preserving the memories of American serviceman -- not just
for today, Veterans Day, but for future generations.

There are voices with tales of hardship, heroism and horror -- from those who
remember firsthand, and those who were rarely, if ever, remembered.

When Patrick O'Donnell, 28, a Westlake native now living in Fairfax, Va.,
started this site WWW.thedropzone.org two and a half years ago, he wanted to create a "virtual museum" of oral histories and photos about the

American paratroopers, rangers and glider troops of World War II. O'Donnell, who had relatives who served as paratroopers during the war, spent four years collecting interviews and photos from more than 400 veterans before going online.

The Site, which gets about 50,000 hits monthly, offers more than 100 stories
and 500 photos, and also features a "virtual reunion" option used by veterans
to locate and to correspond with former war buddies.

O'Donnell emphasized that, unlike the dry battle recitals found in some books,
"this is war as it really was, not some historian putting their spin on it."

"These are the raw, unfiltered personal accounts, from the veterans' own
words," he added. "We don't change a thing and a lot it can be pretty
tragic."

It can be pretty brutal, too, as in Chester Nycum's story about discovering a
scout who had been killed the day before: "We moved up the hill into the
evacuated Japanese positions. There, we found his body. It had been carved
as though he were a side of beef....We had no doubt that they were eating our
dead. We vowed right then never to take another prisoner!"

Oh it can be pretty ugly, as in the recollection of Melvin Lester, a black
paratrooper, of the time when a curtain was drawn to separate him from white
people eating the same railroad dining car.

Lester said he pushed the curtain back, and when the porter again tried to
draw it closed, "I said....'I would advise you not to do it, because if you
pull that curtain, I'm going to whup your ass! I'm risking my life jumping
out of airplanes for this country, and I would just as soon die here than to
die out there [fighting] or anywhere else.' They didn't pull the curtain."

Lester, 87, who came to Cleveland after the war, can still chuckle about the
incident. Other experiences, however, still hurt.

Lester was a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, an all-black
paratroop unit that fought pervasive prejudice while training for combat
overseas. But the closest "The Triple Nickels" ever got to the enemy was
battling forest fires in the Pacific Northwest that resulted from Japanese
aerial bombs laughed by balloons.

"Frustrating? How would you feel, after being trained for combat, putting
down your rifle for a hoe?" Lester said.  Today, few people remember or even know the 555th, Lester said.

There is some compensation in knowing that the unit later became the first one
integrated into the Army after the war. "It was the way times were, and we
helped to bring about a change," Lester said. "I don't think I'd do it again,
but the experience was worth a million dollars.

"What I miss the most is that you couldn't find a group of soldiers any closer
than paratroopers. They're more like brothers," Lester said.

With the popularity of "Saving Private Ryan" and the Web Site, O'Donnell said,
people may be discovering something he learned in the process of bringing
these veterans online.

"I think it changed me in the sense of how you look at life," he said. "When
you've talked to somebody who had actually been at Omaha Beach, things like
being late to a meeting or the stress of your job just pale in comparison."

But O'Donnell said the most striking thing about the veterans he interviewed,
and perhaps the most fitting tribute of all on Veterans Day, was that, "In
most cases, these were just average people who did absolutely amazing things."

 

 

 

1998 The Cleveland Plain Dealer