The following is a guest blog post by Owen Rogers, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).
Although I’ll proudly wear the title of “record nerd,” I don’t focus on fidelity; rather tethered memories of shows, bands and the building anticipation of a long drive into the city. This past unseasonably cold weekend saw opportunity to flip through my EPs, and as I thumbed record release covers and rejected presses, I stopped to consider my copy of Side By Side’s “You’re Only Young Once.” Memories drifted to the youth and warmth of the summer 2004 Youth of Today reunion concert, where the record went flying out of vocalist Ray Cappo’s hands and into mine. More than a decade later, I look at those silver 2nd press labels and drift back to a time I’ll always remember.
A ballet of narrators’ memories, oral histories rely on research, rapport and contextual observation. In my time as a graduate student at Central Connecticut State University’s Veterans History Project, I was given frequent opportunities to record World War II veterans’ stories archived at both the Library of Congress and the University’s Elihu Burritt Library. When Burton Schuman greeted me at the door with a handshake and an offer of a home tour, he shared his framed Bronze Star Medal and a photograph of him as a young GI whose smile belied the worn leather of his boots and rifle sling. It was the mezuzah on his door frame, however, that prompted my most personal question. Burton “Burt” Schuman was one of the half million Jewish Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, and a veteran of the European Theater of Operations.
He ushered me to his basement art studio, where countless images of ducks and marsh life wreathed the walls. He explained that his artistic talents began in college and developed during the Second World War. With only one year of coursework under his belt, Schuman became the head cartographer in the G-3 section of the 100th Infantry, the U.S. Army’s “Century” division. His responsibilities were vast, as he plotted the movement and positions of 100th Infantry Division forces, developing maps drawn from front line reports and his own scouting of friendly positions. In our modern era of mobile GPS maps and pin drops, it’s hard to imagine an entire division relying on “maps mounted on four by eight plywood… on stands … on a two and a half ton truck.”
For two years, Schuman made that “deuce and a half” [truck] his home. Although his wartime experiences included encounters with personalities such as General George Patton and Marlene Dietrich, as well as a harrowing 13-hour flight towards friendly lines after his jeep was shot from under him, it was mention of the mezuzah that sparked his most emotional response. Jewish American GIs faced firsthand the horrors of Nazi edicts and extermination. During his VHP interview, he recalls:
I had full contempt for them, without doubt. I saw many of the German prisoners… they would march through our command post. I saw a lot of dead Germans on the side of the road, too. It didn’t make me too unhappy, really. I mean that’s going down to the basic thought that I had.
I often think of “Burt” in the decades after World War II. Alone in his canoe, painting from life in marshy surroundings, what thoughts weighed on his mind? Through the insights afforded by VHP, we’re made more aware of the history held behind his eyes, and owe similar unsaid questions to the veterans among our friends, families and communities. Have you taken the time to ask such questions yet? If so, thank you. If not, go here to find out how.