Bill Tom will celebrate the Fourth of July at a family reunion in
his hometown of Isleton, complete with the requisite barbecue and ice-cold lemonade.
But the World War II veteran has spent the past several years at a
reunion of another kind - on the Internet preserving stories of wartime horror and heroism
that he has not even shared with his own children.
It's part of a virtual museum dedicated entirely to chronicling
firsthand accounts of the experiences of World War II paratrooper and glider veterans such
as Tom, a longtime San Francisco resident and retired pharmacist.
was created in 1996 by 28-year-old Patrick O'Donnell, who has conducted more than 400
interviews and compiled thousands of photographs, maps and other memorabilia from the
World War II-era battles.
The elite missions of the 100,000 or so paratroopers and gliders
have captured his imagination for as long as he can remember, said O'Donnell, of Fairfax,
Va., who had relatives among their ranks.
But, said the historian, it's really about preserving memories from
the "60-yard" perspective, in which the experiences of those who parachuted into
dangerous terrain make a far more profound impression than a textbook can.
On the site, Tom - and other veterans from the Bay Area and across
the country - share their experiences.
Santa Rosa resident Don Abbott, who served in the 503rd Parachute
Regimental Combat Team, writes about the harrowing battle on the Island of Noemfoor in
Knocked backward by the force of gunfire, Abbott saw a hole in his
chest with a small chunk of metal inside.
As blood seeped through his fatigues, he "flicked the metal
with a fingertip and the whole bullet popped out from between two ribs," he said.
Two other bullet fragments are plastered into his chin, and a third
piece of metal is permanently lodged in his neck.
Tom said he never suffered a gunshot wound, but stared into the face
of death too many times to count.
The Delta resident recalled one night in March 1944 as he slept in
the barracks soon after arriving at Camp Forrest.
"Suddenly all this yelling and screaming woke me up and when I
turned my head, there were two guys coming at me with bayonets," he said. "It
His life was spared with only seconds to spare after a sergeant
intervened and disarmed the American soldiers, who had mistakenly believed that Tom - who
is of Chinese descent - was a Japanese spy.