Human element of history

Alumni: Baltimore Polytechnic students interview for a history project 40 men who served in World War II.

March 22, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The veterans brought their dog tags and their service medals and their stories. The students brought their tape recorders and their cameras and their questions.

And, for a morning, the history of World War II became not just a few chapters in a high school textbook, but the life-changing event it was for the men who served in it.

Forty veterans returned yesterday to their alma mater, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, to be interviewed by a group of 11th-grade historians-in-training working on an oral history project.

Several students asked questions about D-Day and Pearl Harbor, while others wondered about life on board a naval ship or how it felt to be drafted. Others snapped pictures of the veterans' mementos, including a fighter pilot's helmet and faded sepia photos.

Eventually, for some, the conversation turned to the harsher facts of war and the questions they raise: how to justify the violence and what it's like to kill.

Herman G. Tillman Jr., 78, a retired Air Force colonel and highly decorated veteran of three wars, shared his thoughts with Donte Bunch, Jennifer Lacy and Phyllis Offer, all 16.

"They chose to attack us," said Tillman of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. "And as far as the A-bomb, I believed in that, too. If we hadn't done that, the war would have gone on for a long time."

He went on. "No, I don't appreciate having to kill people," Tillman said, his reply bringing him to tears. "I live with it every day." Jim Hirsch, who graduated from Poly in 1945 and spent seven years in the Navy, showed Adam Neal, 15, and Keith Jackson, 16, his dog tags, some Italian lire, his class ring and the bow tie he wore at his high school graduation.

Then the 73-year-old retiree pulled out his old slide rule and the teen-agers looked puzzled. Hirsch explained that in his day, Poly students would often have this "status symbol" poking out of their front shirt pockets.

"What is that again?" Jackson asked.

"This is what we used to use instead of calculators," Hirsch replied.

A member of Poly's Junior ROTC program, Neal asked Hirsch to describe a typical day on board a naval ship and how he felt when he returned home from the war.

Jackson then posed a more philosophical question.

"There's a famous saying, `There are no winners in war, only survivors,'" he said. "Do you agree?"

"Absolutely," replied Hirsch. "There are no winners in war."

The oral history project, called "Poly: Homefront to the Frontlines," was conceived by second-year teacher Dennis Jutras. Books and lectures can sometimes be "antiseptic," Jutras said, leaving students without an understanding of history's human element.

"There's an incredible amount of history in this room, and that's the whole point," he said as the students conducted their interviews in Banneker Hall.

"The Great Depression is not antiseptic," Jutras said. "World War II is not antiseptic. We have to really connect the people" studying the events to the people who lived them.

Hirsch's experiences impressed Jackson.

"Hearing the personal stories, seeing the smiles on his face as he recalls some of the events," he said, "you just can't get that from a book. It's really a good experience."

Adam Block, 16, had a list of 31 questions for Warren G. Sody, a 1942 graduate of Poly who saw action during the D-Day invasion at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He served in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles.

"I'm nothing but a foot soldier," he explained, "except we went in by parachute."

Sody, 77, recounted the day Pearl Harbor was invaded.

"I was in the 11th grade, and it was a Sunday afternoon," said Sody. "It came across the radio. It was quite a shock."

Sody wore a replica of his paratrooper uniform. He explained that the black armband on his left arm commemorated the soldiers killed in combat, including his brother.

He told Block what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression. Although he had no telephone, television or car, he said, he didn't know there was a depression because "everybody in the neighborhood was in the same boat."

One student interviewing Tillman, a 1940 graduate, wanted to know what he learned during his years at Poly.

"I think I learned all about integrity, which continued on in my military career," Tillman said. "I learned about teamwork, because I was on sports teams. I learned about thinking about other people, not just thinking about yourself."

When the interviews ended, Jennifer Lacy and her fellow students turned off their cassette recorders and packed up their notebooks. They will start documenting the shared histories and describe what the project meant to them.

"Textbooks are kind of boring, and when you talk to someone - real life - who actually lived the experiences, you're just amazed," Lacy said.

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