|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 www.thedropzone.org 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
``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
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.
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
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
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.