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Preserving ­Veterans’ ­Memories

Stories that need to be told

During World War II, Capt. Wilber E. Bradt served in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and the Philippines.

This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day, our national day of remembrance of those who gave their lives fighting for the United States across the world.
    All over the country, patriotism abounds as festivities and events both large and small mark the day. Locally, the weekend marks the commissioning of a new crop of officers from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The weekend is also the beginning of summer fun. Families spend the long weekend trying out barbeques, pools and the outdoors season.
    But what are we actually remembering on Memorial Day? We can study history: the political, ideological and sociological causes of wars; how dynasties fall and despots rise; battle strategies and tactics; heroic rescues and genocidal massacres; the technology of weapons. But how can we know how it feels to fight a war, to experience the enforced intimacy and daily routine of barracks life juxtaposed with the homicidal frenzy of battle?
    Only surviving veterans can tell us that. Many don’t want to talk about their experiences, even to family. Some find it too painful to remember. Some put the story completely out of their minds. Others are haunted by memories that affect the rest of their lives. Many of us, even those with military family members, simply don’t ask.
    America started with a war and almost every generation since then has known a major conflict. By studying these stories, we may eventually learn enough to prevent future wars. But first they must be told.
    Hale Bradt is doing just that in one form. Students at Southern High School in Anne Arundel County are preserving veterans’ memories in another form.

Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey
    Writing his father’s story has taken Hale Bradt a trilogy, which he calls Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey through World War II.
    Capt. Wilber E. Bradt served in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II with the men and trucks and howitzers of his field artillery regiment.

Hale Brandt served in the Navy during the Korean War. He has used his father’s wartime letters home to write a trilogy called Wilber’s War, An American Family’s Journey through World War II.

    “After his Maine National Guard unit was called up, he trained for two years all over the county, and we’d see him over the summer. Then he was gone for three whole years,” recalls daughter Valerie Hymes, an Annapolis writer.
    Over those five years, Wilbur wrote some 700 literate and detailed battlefield letters home to family and friends.
    “At the end, his unit had prepared for the invasion of Japan, and he expected to die,” Hymes adds.

I am thankful to have lived to see the end of the war. In fact I’m rather pleasantly surprised to be here considering the times I considered the odds against it. There is no question in my mind but that your prayers and the prayers of your friends [were] a great help and protection to me in the past years.
–August 16, 1945 at the end of the war, to Norma, Valerie and Hale

    Wilburn returned home to his wife and two teenage children.
    “We were so happy. It seemed like the whole country was celebrating,” says daughter Val, then 13. “Then six weeks later he was gone.”

Washington police and Coroner A. MacGruder MacDonald are awaiting the completion of an Army investigation of the circumstances surrounding the gunshot death of Lt. Col. Wilbur E. Bradt, 45, Pacific war hero and former college professor, who was found in a weapon-filled basement trophy room at his home yesterday morning with a gaping wound in his chest.
–The Washington Star: Sunday, December 2, 1945

    The year was 1945. Son Hale Bradt was 14. Bradt, now a retired professor of physics at Massachusets Institute of Technology, did his own tour of duty with the Navy during the Korean War. Then in the 1980s, he began collecting his father’s letters.
    “I have long been a history buff with a special interest in the Pacific campaigns of World War II, probably because my father participated in them,” Bradt said. “My discovery of his articulate, detailed and descriptive letters from the Pacific gave me a basis for exploring new aspects of that history.”

It was on this move that we went thru a swamp that surpassed all my ideas of swamps. It was deep, slimy, stinking, sticky, sucking mud under about six inches of very nasty water. There were vines and rotten logs to climb over and really every step was over crotch deep. Several times I doubted if I could pull a leg out of the depth to which it had sunk. It would have been a bad place to have the Japs open up on me. However, they didn’t, probably because our rear guard kept them busy where they were.
–October 20, 1943: describing a patrol he had been on the previous month, on Arundel Island, New Georgia, in the Solomons

    “This is a story that has to be told,” Hymes advised.
    Inspired, Bradt interviewed family members, friends and his father’s military comrades and foes, including a Japanese officer who fought directly against him. He visited the battlefields and researched the events.
    “My own science background,” he added, “helped me discern what was most important in those letters and helped me search out the less visible facets of both my parents’ lives.”
    Finally, he created an intimate portrait of a family during wartime: the soldier overseas and the family on the home front. The three books in the trilogy are Book 1, Citizen Soldier; Book 2, Combat and New Life; Book 3, Victory and Homecoming. Together they tell a tale of duty, heroism, love and human frailty and of a son seeking to understand his family’s legacy.
    Readers of Bay Weekly can use the code FFWW for a 25 percent discount on the hardcover Wilber’s War trilogy in a slipcase. A one-volume version of the trilogy appears in December: Wilber’s War is also available as a Kindle eBook, by book or as a set.

Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam
    Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam, a collection of videotaped interviews with Maryland veterans, is the brainchild of Jennifer Davidson, Social Studies teacher at Southern High School in Harwood. She was inspired by her grandfather, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam, and her father, also a veteran of ­Vietnam.
    “I never really asked them any questions about their service,” she said. “As a history teacher I felt that missed opportunity acutely when my grandfather died.”
    She paid her insight forward by integrating her ninth grade Vietnam history unit with the school’s signature theme, “Design: Preservation & Innovation,” assigning students to design and film personal interview questions with Vietnam veterans.

Southern High School staff, teachers, students and supporters stand with some of the ­Maryland Vietnam veterans interviewed during the Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam project.

    This time, Davidson’s timing was good. Barry Lanman, director of UMBC’s Martha Ross Center for Oral History, connected her with the Maryland Humanities Council, then seeking to create an oral history project with high school students and veterans.
    The Southern High School project is part of “Standing Together, a large national effort of National Network for the Humanities,” said Phoebe Stein, director of the Maryland Humanities Council.
    It took over a year and was presented at Southern High School on May 21.
    Months went into preparation and seeking connections. Ninth graders filmed interviews with 34 veterans, including a combat nurse, editing each into five- to seven-minute video segments. Many of the veterans told stories they had never mentioned before, even to families and friends.
    “I’m proud of my military service. In retrospect, it was one of the best parts of my life,” said Stuart Neff, former Marine Corps sergeant, now a financial consultant in Annapolis.
    “This has been an experience unlike anything we could try to replicate in the classroom,” said Kevin Hamlin, principal of Southern. “It’s been great for the students and for the veterans. I heard this morning one of the veterans say that, Since I served in Vietnam, no one has asked me about my story. That’s something we’re not going to find in a textbook.”
    The interview collection will be housed in the Maryland State Archives, a permanent part of our amassed history, for future study and research.