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VHP Collections We Love: John Boylan, Kenneth Tinsley, and Anthony Lopez

This is the third in a series exploring favorite Veterans History Project collections, chosen by the staff of the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the Veterans History Project (VHP) to be included in our new online exhibit celebrating 20 years of VHP. Each post in the series will offer “love letters” written by AFC and VHP staff about their favorite collection. View the post introducing the series here, and the second post here

The 2001 interview with World War II veteran and New Jerseyite John “Jack” V. Boylan is one that stands out for me. I am particularly drawn to the stories and memories of those who served during World War II, as I wish I had asked my grandfather more about his experiences and – not to mention – recorded them! Born and raised in New York City, my grandfather served in the 264th Regiment of the 66th Infantry Division, which deployed to England in late November, 1944, to find any remaining pockets of German soldiers in Northern France. He really did not talk much about his experiences – at least, to me – until a certain documentary film aired on the History Channel in 1998. With the family gathered around the television, we learned about how, on the evening of Christmas Eve, 1944, hundreds of the Division’s soldiers, among others, perished in the sinking of the SS Leopoldville, torpedoed by a German U-boat, just a couple of miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France. The ship was crossing the English Channel to bring reinforcements for the Battle of the Bulge.

Screenshot of oral history of a  man with glasses.

John Boylan at the time of his oral history interview. John Boylan Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/4053.

Jack Boylan served in the Army’s 357th Harbor Craft Company, stationed in Cherbourg, where he operated tug boats to pick up barges with supplies from ships in the Channel. In his interview, he describes seeing the fire and smoke of the Leopoldville, and hearing the screams of those on board and in the water. Boylan was part of the rescue effort, piloting a tugboat onto which survivors, who were heavy with backpacks and gear, were pulled from the dark, icy water, despite many others freezing to death. “We got a little teed off, because from what we could see, the crew bailed first,” he added. Boylan made three trips to rescue survivors, but the third trip was mainly to recover bodies. With roughly twenty other boats joining in, Boylan notes that rescue efforts were still lacking. As it was Christmas Eve, dinner celebrations on land were underway, leaving troops unprepared and the motors of larger ships cold.

As the story goes, my grandfather was also at a holiday dinner. He was with Irish relatives in London and, from my understanding, missed the orders for shipping out to France. The Leopoldville’s sinking was classified by the U.S. Government for fifty-two years, and surviving soldiers, as well as those in the know, such as my grandfather, were ordered not to speak about it (and threatened with serious repercussions if they did). That night was Boylan’s strongest memory of World War II. I am happy that he spoke about his experiences, and that his important contributions are preserved in the Library. I suspect it was a strong memory for my grandfather, too.

–Michelle Stefano, Folklife Specialist in Research and Programs, AFC

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Taking time for the VHP 20th Anniversary celebration to reflect on collections that have been meaningful to me: I picked one that focuses on science and the ingenuity, that of Army Sergeant Kenneth Tinsley, who served during the Vietnam Era.

Screenshot of a man smirking in suit in front of American flag.

Kenneth Tinsley at the time of his oral history interview. Kenneth Tinsley Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/71911.

Drafted from Long Island, New York, Tinsley entered the Army with a background in laboratory science. Stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, upon completing basic training, he worked in the hospital pathology lab, supervising and training medics to be proficient in all areas of chemistry, microbiology, urinalysis, hematology, and blood bank operations, before they were sent to field hospitals overseas.

After the military, he graduated from an early (1970s) physician’s assistant (PA) program at Howard University in Washington, DC. While working in the lab at VA Hospitals in Connecticut and in New York, he was in charge of sickle cell screening and education; conducted endocrinology research; and perfected a triglyceride cholesterol method on the auto-analyzer machine. In his spare time, he worked with the Boy Scouts of America as a troop leader and Wood Badger, and was also a ham radio operator.

Tinsley talks about leadership, setting goals, and planning throughout the conversation with his VA hospital coworker and friend, as well as being able to give back to those who serve in the military.

–Yvonne Brown, Processing Technician, VHP

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The oral history interview of Anthony D. Lopez was one of the first that I listened to from start to finish after starting my new job with the Veterans History Project. His understated and humble manner of describing his own heroics during World War II was immediately endearing, and remarkable in light of all that he accomplished. Lopez was awarded the Bronze Star for rescuing a wounded soldier under heavy fire from out of a steep ravine on Corregidor, being wounded himself in the process. He constantly emphasizes the importance of teamwork, however, and the bonds that he and his comrades built in combat: “it was one big brotherhood, and we all stuck together.” (47:08)

Black and white photo of man in uniform and cap.

Anthony D. Lopez in uniform, Ft. Benning, GA [4/1943]. Anthony Lopez Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/21131.

Lopez was eager to help out with the war effort, and joined the Army immediately after graduating high school in 1943.  He chose the Army because it was “the fastest way to go” as they had an induction center near his home.  Assigned to the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, Lopez experienced months of brutal combat in the Pacific Theater.  The 503rd conducted an airborne assault on the island of Noemfoor, where they fought for three weeks to establish control over a valuable airstrip.  Lopez and his regiment also endured intense fighting on four different Philippine islands: Leyte, Mindoro, Corregidor, and Negros Island.

Anthony Lopez’s experiences are also an important reminder that the diversity of American society is one of our strengths. During the fighting in the Philippines, Lopez empathized with the plight of malnourished locals who had suffered greatly under Japanese occupation. He put his Spanish language skills to work as the 503rd cooperated with Filipino guerrillas to great effect. On Negros Island, Lopez was even able to organize the locals into a security force to defend their farms.

–Nathan Cross, Archivist, VHP

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