KOKOMO, Ind. — With only 3 percent of World War II veterans living, opportunities to hear their stories first-hand are becoming rarer each day.
Students in an Indiana University Kokomo English class had that exceptional opportunity, as three of those veterans shared their stories, shedding a personal light on their studies of the war.
Cey Zwirn and Gene Sweeney, both Navy pilots, and Bud Everhart, who served in the Army Air Corps, held the class spellbound as they discussed why they joined the service, the challenges they faced in training, the families they left behind, and how their lives changed because of their time in the military.
“I have no regrets about being able to serve at that time,” said Sweeney.” These are experiences that stick with you through your whole life.”
All three veterans in are their 90s, but still vividly recall details of their service.
Zwirn remembered the feeling of dive bombing over the Gulf of Mexico, describing is as “like being on a roller coaster about to get to the first drop,” with the first plunge starting at 10,000 feet up. Everhart flew the B-29 Super Fortress, which was one of the newest planes at the time, and likened it to “sitting on my front porch and flying my house.”
Hearing these stories first-hand will help student Niklaus Graff remember what he’s learned about World War II much longer than from reading it in a book.
“We’re meeting people who lived history,” Graff said. “It drives that history home, and makes it feel more alive.”
Cris Vanderkolk appreciated the chance to hear the real-life stories.
“We’re not going to have much of an opportunity to hear from these people anymore,” he said. “This was something I could not pass up.”
As the granddaughter of a World War II veteran, Christa Myers was grateful to talk to other veterans. She never met her grandfather, so was glad to hear what his service might have been like.
“It puts such a face to the stories we’re reading,” she said. “We can read about it in a book, but it means so much more to hear them from the gentlemen who experienced them. These opportunities are going away, so it’s important that we hear them while we still can.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still living in 2017, and 372 of them die each day.
Graff was especially interested in hearing about their experiences serving on the home front during the war. Each of the men contributed to the war effort at bases in the United States, and recalled friends who saw action in Europe or the Pacific.
“We didn’t envy any of those guys, I’ll tell you that,” Everhart said.
One of Sweeney’s high school classmates was shot down over Europe, and another landed at Normandy. What he remembers most is that service members felt the complete support of the American people. The women went to work in the factories, symbolized by Rosie the Riveter, while everyday people dealt with food rationing and joined the USO, which helped boost morale for those serving.
Having the veterans visit the class gives students a first-person look at events they’ve discussed in class, according to Kristen Snoddy, senior lecturer in English, who teaches On the Front Lines: World War II in Literature and Film. It also lets students thank them for their service, and connects them to their grandparents’ generation.
“Teaching this class for the second time, I’ve observed that the grandchildren of the World War II generation have both a sincere interest in and a respect for their service and sacrifice,” she said.
Snoddy hopes the veterans felt their appreciation.
“I have to think that by inviting them to share their experiences, we did their hearts some good, and honestly, if even if that had been the only purpose served, it would have been a success.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.