The Miami Herold         7/23/98

Saving Private Memories;

By: FRED TASKER Herald Staff Writer

Section: Living
Page: Front Page and Cover Story 1F

Just over half a century after they risked their lives for their country in the D-Day invasion at Normandy, just as a major new film offers a Hollywood account of that battle, America's Army rangers, paratroopers and glider pilots have a new way to keep their true-life stories alive. It's a high-tech one: a Web site.

Click on and you can read how paratrooper Joe Bressler, now 76 and living in Pompano Beach, broke his ankle parachuting onto a hedgerow and had to throw a grenade over it from flat on his back to silence the German soldier who had been firing at him all the way down. Or how Army ranger Herb Epstein, now 75 and living in Delray Beach, watched close-up as a landing craft carrying at least 100 U.S. troops took a direct hit from a German artillery shell and erupted in a 150-foot-tall wall of flames.

Their stories become all the more compelling with the opening Friday of Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, a movie that unfolds in the days immediately after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. The Web site, in fact, is concentrating now on D-Day stories because of the movie's premiere.

The creator of the Web site, called The Drop Zone Virtual Museum Oral History Project, is no military vet at all. He's Patrick O'Donnell, a 28-year-old computer expert and information consultant to the giant consulting and accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Washington, D.C.

``I really can't say clearly why I'm doing this,'' he says. ``I've just been interested in World War II for as long as I can remember.''

Preserving oral history

O'Donnell spends his evenings and weekends tape-recording the veterans' oral histories. With the help of friends he shortens them (``I don't change any of the words''), double-checks unit names, dates and locations, and hones them into coherent stories for the Web site, which debuted in 1996.

``A majority of the stories are about enlisted men,'' O'Donnell says. ``But we look at all levels. I have a few battalion and regimental commanders. I even interviewed a couple of Germans and a Japanese soldier.''

With plenty of books already out there about the grand strategies and politics of war, O'Donnell wants to tell the story from the ``60-yard view'' -- the perspective of the soldiers who faced each other across the no-man's-land between opposing forces.

``We're trying to weave a quilt of oral histories representing the airborne experience for all of World War II.''

The two old soldiers appreciate the value of the new Web site.

``Anything that gets the word out of what we did is a good deal,'' says Epstein, who became an architect in New York City after the war before retiring to Delray Beach in 1990.

``It's great,'' says Bressler, who became a New York City cop and federal sky marshal before retiring to Pompano Beach. ``Anybody who was in World War II has got to be at least 75 now. There's not too many of us left. It's disappointing at times. We talk to young people, and they don't know anything about the war. They don't teach it in school.''

100 stories and counting

The Drop Zone now has more than 100 veterans' stories posted, and is growing every week. The tales ring true: Laconically phrased, dismissive of personal danger, brutally candid, uncensored, filled with hellish accounts and the salty language of war.

Many of the stories in the site's Virtual Scrapbook section include photographs taken by soldiers who ignored orders not to carry cameras because of what their film might reveal if it fell into enemy hands.

The photos show soldiers dashing through enemy fire, the puffs of smoke when friendly shells land on enemy positions, the enemy's mangled and dismembered bodies, landscapes blasted flat by artillery. A particularly dramatic photo, taken by a U.S. paratrooper as he floated to earth, is an aerial view of the bombed-out Japanese officers' quarters at Fortress Corregidor. Other pages include Virtual Reunion, a discussion page in which veterans can trade war stories by e-mail, and a Search Page that lets the vets try to find the names of old Army buddies.

Harrowing stories

Other soldiers' stories are equally dramatic: Lt. Richard Durkee describes the suicidal attack on a German position bristling with machine guns at Rochelinval, France, that killed all but seven members of his 50-man unit in 20 minutes. Melvin Lester, one of the U.S. Army's first black paratroopers, tells of his return to the States, when a railway porter wanted to pull a curtain to separate his table from white passengers (``If you pull that curtain,'' Lester told the porter, ``I'm going to whup your a--'').

O'Donnell plans no TV show or movie from the materials. He pays the $50-a-month cost of keeping the site on the Web out of his own pocket. He refuses paid advertising (``I don't want to cheapen the site''). If he ever gets too old or sick to keep the site going, he vows he'll turn it over to someone younger or to a university to make it a permanent archive of the soldiers' stories.

``I really believe in this,'' he says.

CUTLINESWEB WIZARD : Patrick O'Donnell, creator of the Drop Zone Project.

OUT OF COMMISSION :This photo of a captured German assault gun outside a church in Normandy was provided by Joe Pangerl, who now lives in South Florida.

TOASTING VICTORY : Members of the 101st Airborne in Normandy celebrate with a recently liberated Frenchwoman.

ON HIS WAY HOME : A wounded trooper prepares to return to England.

HISTORY REDUX : Tom Hanks stars in the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan .

HEART TO HEARTS : Herb Epstein, a paratrooper in World War II, now lives in Delray Beach.

AT EASE : Soldiers relax in New Guinea after a jump in late 1943.