VBC in the News: WWII Oral History Project Preserves Voices that Should Never Be Forgotten

Project compiles the tales of Pittsburghers who took part in the Normandy invasion and other epic battles of World War II

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

By Torsten Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Troops wade ashore in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

“Today, the invasion site has assumed the aspects of memorial beauty. A military cemetery sits atop a hill, its flags fluttering in the breeze. Here lie men of the First and 29th Infantry divisions, precious tokens of the D-Day cost.

“In their memory, a nation dedicated to complete victory pauses today to say: ‘Our thanks to you. We’ll never forget.’ ”

The Pittsburgh Press wrote those words on June 6, 1945 — the first anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

Today is the 68th anniversary and America has not forgotten, but the veterans of Normandy — and all the other epic World War II campaigns — are fast dwindling.

Now a new oral history project seeks to preserve their stories before it’s too late.

Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that records the experiences of vets from all wars, has teamed up with Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall to videotape veteran interviews at the hall and permanently archive the stories there.

The idea grew out of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a storytelling venture run by Todd DePastino of Mt. Lebanon, a history professor at Waynesburg University and author of a 2008 book on Bill Mauldin, the famed World War II cartoonist who created the “Willie and Joe” characters.

After hosting breakfasts and hearing war stories throughout the region, he joined forces with Kevin Farkas, director of The Social Voice Project, another nonprofit oral history initiative who started recording veterans in 2011.

“I do the audio, he does the writing,” said Mr. Farkas, a Navy veteran from Beaver County. “We want to capture their stories. They need to be preserved. We understand their sacrifice. These are our stories. These are Pittsburghers.”

The multimedia team — Mr. DePastino calls it “transmedia” — also includes a photographer, Andy Marchese, and Chris Rolinson of StartPoint Media, who is also a Point Park University photojournalism professor.

They plan to interview and record vets from all wars, but for now the effort is focused on World War II because the men who fought in it are dying out.

About 270,000 of them died last year and another 248,000 are projected to die this year, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Of the 16 million who served, fewer than 1.5 million are left.

Two among them are local D-Day vets Warren Goss, 87, and Frank Gervasi, 92, whom the Voices project interviewed and videotaped at Soldiers & Sailors on May 9.

Mr. Goss, a self-described Shaler country boy, and Mr. Gervasi, a former mill worker from Vandergrift, showed up with their medals and photo albums and posed with guns, boots and helmets.

And they told their stories, in bits and pieces. Typical of World War II vets, they had rarely discussed the war over the years with anyone, and when they did talk they tended to leave out the bad stuff.

But both saw plenty of that.

Mr. Goss, who now lives in Ohio Township, was drafted in 1943 and landed on Utah Beach as a rifleman with the 531st Special Brigade, an engineer battalion that had to clear the beaches.

His job?

“Shoot Germans,” he said. “I was a good shot, too.”

Before June 6, Mr. Goss had spent almost all of his time in England training at Slapton Sands for the invasion. And it was there that he saw one of the least-known incidents of the war.

In April, the Allies were practicing for D-Day when German E-boats attacked, killing 946 Americans and wounding 200 others. More men died in that exercise than were later killed on Utah Beach, but the episode remained a secret.

“We weren’t even allowed to talk about it amongst ourselves,” said Mr. Goss, who choked up at the memory.

D-Day to him was “just another exercise” — until things started to go wrong.

“Everything you trained for doesn’t really work when you get there,” he said. “The training was good, but things happen that you don’t expect to happen. You didn’t expect so many boats to get sunk. You didn’t expect to see so many guys lying in the water. You didn’t expect to see a Higgins boat disappear. You didn’t expect the water to be so rough.”

On the beach, he noticed Germans were shooting at obstacles, not at him. He realized they were firing at mines tied to the obstacles in order to detonate them.

“I knew I had to get away from them,” he said. “[Everything] just happens so fast. They taught us to do things instinctively. You just don’t question it. I just thank God I was at Utah Beach. The guys on Omaha had it much worse. I was very fortunate. Utah Beach was bad enough for me.”

Mr. Goss and his unit moved inland, where their job was to take out German bunkers. A German officer ran out of one bunker and shot a man next to Mr. Goss with a Luger. The Americans then ventilated the German.

“He was so full of holes,” he recalled. “They never quit shooting him until his nerves quit. That’s the first German I saw shot.”

Mr. Goss, like many combat vets, remembered the light-hearted stories as vividly as the horror — such as the time he needed to relieve himself.

“I was squatting down there doing my business and a sniper took a shot at me,” he remembered. “I ran around that pillbox holding up my pants.”

He later had to go back and retrieve his helmet and rifle.

“I really got harassment after that,” he laughed.

After securing enemy bunkers at Normandy, Mr. Goss fought across France and later saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and the Ruhr Valley.

Mr. Gervasi served with the First Infantry in North Africa and fought at Kasserine Pass, where U.S. forces first met the German Army and were badly mauled by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. He later fought in the Sicily campaign and then landed at Omaha beach.

Approaching the shore that day through the rough water, with artillery roaring overhead, he wasn’t afraid to die.

“I think most of the men weren’t worried about dying,” he said. “They were worried about getting wounded and being crippled for the rest of their lives. Another thing is, they worried more about their people back home than themselves. I know that’s the way I felt.”

Many of the boats got nowhere near the beach, disgorging men into the water.

He went ashore with 225 men. At the end of the day, 58 were left, although a few others later filtered in.

The men fought their way to the infamous hedgerows, where the invasion bogged down. “The worst thing in the world was the hedgerows,” Mr. Gervasi said.

During the St. Lo breakthrough in July, he was wounded in a mortar barrage. He rejoined his division in September and battled his way into Germany.

It was there that nearly constant combat caught up to him. A fellow soldier forgot to unload his rifle and accidentally fired a shot over Mr. Gervasi’s head. He’d been in combat for 300 days and broke down from battle fatigue.

“I got the shakes,” he said. “I couldn’t stop. Up front too long. Three hundred days is a long time.”

He was taken out of the line and sent to officers’ candidate school. The war was over for him.

He returned to the U.S. in one piece and said he never suffered further from what today would be called post-traumatic stress.

Back home, he got on with his life and made something of it, as did Mr. Goss and hundreds of thousands of other servicemen who took part in the largest invasion in history.

Now their stories — and many others from a fading generation — will be preserved forever, both online at veteranvoicesofpittsburgh.com and at Soldiers & Sailors.

“Every veteran has a story,” said Mr. DePastino, who is working on a book about Pittsburgh’s World War II veterans with Mr. Farkas and Mr. Marchese. “These interviews remind us that history is built one story at a time.”

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.
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