The following is the second of a two-part guest post by Joseph Patton, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow working with the Veterans History Project this summer.
Last week, I shared with you three stories from the Veterans History Project (VHP) collections of World War II Navy veterans who served in the Pacific theater of operations. Of those veterans, two lost their lives before reuniting with their families. The other sustained injuries, but survived nonetheless. Each shows a unique aspect of the human elements of war. And still there are others.
While listening to the oral history of Harrison Chilton, I made an interesting discovery. Chilton was a Mississippi-born pilot serving in Fighting Squadron 1 (VF-1). Throughout his interview, he provided a detailed chronology of his experiences and the men with whom he flew. As I listened, I thought I heard a familiar name, and upon further investigation realized that one of the squadron mates of whom he was speaking was the same man whose diaries were on the desk right next to me. New Jersey native Nathaniel Norman Duberstein was another pilot in VF-1, and his collection is one of my favorites. It contains photographs, poems, and beautiful diaries of his experiences, one of which was actually written in a blank Japanese ledger book he found on the island of Tarawa.
The comparison between these two men is a wonderful example of the facts of history meeting the humanity of individual service. The Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19-20, 1944 is legendary in the annals of naval and air warfare. The U.S. Navy inflicted tremendous damage upon the Japanese with very few losses to their enemy. Chilton recalled the events decades later in his oral history, providing a very detailed account of his experiences. To supplement his recollections, on June 19, 1944, Duberstein wrote in his diary, “The boys have done a good job and stopped most of the Jap ships. God damn, this had better make the front page!” Together these two collections provide a complete recounting of the battle. As Chilton speaks of what happened years later, Duberstein is able to talk about how he felt right there on the day of the action. We remember the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but they recall what they did and how they felt on a particular Tuesday in June, 1944, before it was the stuff of legend.
Perhaps the VHP collection that best demonstrates the idea of the human element of war is that of James Mayhew, an Oklahoman who joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40). Mayhew wrote constantly to his mother and grandmother; his letters, filled with sketches and notes written by his buddies, illustrate the camaraderie and companionship that shipmates often form. Even more striking is the photograph scrapbook within his collection. Upon one page are images of USO shows and beautiful Pacific sunsets, and right next to them are scenes of horror and the aftermath of battle. An image of the shipmates sunbathing on the deck is set next to another photo of men clearing a shore road of scorched Japanese corpses. To Mayhew, the juxtaposition of these contrasting images makes sense and tells his story. With these powerful images, Mayhew’s collection, in particular, captures something of the humanity within the history of warfare.
During my short tenure here at VHP, I’ve read and listened to the collections of many World War II Pacific theater veterans. However, in early July, I got the opportunity to speak with one in person when he visited the Library of Congress. Samuel Culotta was a Maryland native who enlisted in 1942 at the age of 17. Soon after he volunteered to be a medical corpsman, he went ashore with the Marines and was involved in some of the bitterest campaigns of the conflict. Armed with only a handgun and medical bag, he tended to the wounded in the thick of battle often risking his own life to save those of his comrades. Before speaking to all in attendance he stated, “Let me begin by saying this. The Japanese were cruel. The Japanese were cruel and we were too. We learned to be cruel.” As he continued his stories, he spoke of good times and bad. There was laughter and there were tears. Most striking though were the feelings he still had for these events, 70 years later. He spoke of his Navy career, citing dates and places that I knew well from my studies, but this was more than a history lesson. Samuel Culotta’s experiences, and those of all these veterans, show us the role of the individual within great events. These stories all demonstrate the humanity within the history.
To access more collections from those who served from World War I through the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, visit the Veterans History Project’s website, www.loc.gov/vets.