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VHP Collections We Love: Julius Becton, Joseph Parrino, Elizabeth Allen and Joseph Rodriguez

This is the fifth 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. Here are additional posts in the series: Part I, Part IIPart III, and Part IV.

Julius Becton at the time of his interview. Julius Becton Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/75519.

I found Julius Becton’s collection when trying to locate a story that might be appropriate for a new digital feature for VHP. To me, there was no question why his story stands out. A distinguished military career that spanned 40 years, Becton experienced numerous shifts in the organization of the U.S. Army –volunteering during segregated military service in World War II, minimal integration during Korea, despite Truman’s Executive Order 9981, his involvement in Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and his retirement in 1983 as a Lieutenant General followed by a continued career in civil service. Though his collection consists of only an oral history, Becton’s story of navigating the “career Army” world during an intense period of change within the U.S. Military and the United States told with candor –and a bit of humor– means his interview is one I often return to. Becton always chose to advocate for himself, and those he commanded, all while navigating through the adversity he routinely faced with as an African-American Army Officer. He closes his interview with the twelve points he chooses to live by; my favorite being “integrity is non-negotiable.”

–Justina Moloney, Archivist, VHP

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Sketch by Joseph Parrino. “Cleaning weapons before inspection our weapon was the M-1 carbine.” Camp Gordon, GA [1953]. Joseph Parrino Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/626.

There is something so compelling about this drawing by Joseph V. Parrino, in its mix of Cubist abstraction, spatial flow, and representational depiction of what must have felt like a mundane activity for this Corporal serving stateside during the Korean War: cleaning a weapon that, most likely, sat otherwise untouched. I can only imagine this backstory, though, as the collection of Mr. Parrino comprises solely visual items: drawings and photos from his time at Camp Gordon (GA), Fort Bragg (NC), and Fort Dix (NJ). Without letters or an oral history interview, we don’t have ready access to Mr Parrino’s thoughts or feelings, his “voice” as it were. But, the drawings and photos nonetheless offer poignant experiential perspective on his service and the settings within which he provided it.

Back to the image that grabbed me as I perused VHP’s Experiencing War: The Art of War online exhibition. What struck me instantly was the presence of jazz, both as an aesthetic frame but also as a subtext. Parrino’s drawing shows three figures cleaning M-1 carbine rifles prior to an inspection—but they could also be a cool jazz trio, leaning into a change onstage. The drawing brings to mind a Mingus album cover from the mid-50s, or bop-influenced graphic from a concert poster. It has movement and weight, sharp angles running against curvilinear calm.

In general, the “Art of War” chapter of the Experiencing War series demonstrates for me the person-centered ethos undergirding VHP’s ongoing work. Creative expression, whether through visual means or otherwise, enables people to tell beyond words while allowing us, as viewers or listeners, to practice understanding–to interpret or guess or feel alongside the person who made the piece. That VHP collections contain these creative expressions alongside the rich personal narratives of service across the spectrum allows me multifaceted access to individual, first person perspectives—feeding my curiosity while also reminding me of the humans behind the stories.

–John Fenn, Head, Research and Programs, AFC

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Elizabeth Allen at the time of her oral history interview [2007]. Elizabeth Allen Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/55266.

Captain Elizabeth A. Allen was an amazing woman veteran, who also earned a Master’s degree in Psychiatric Nursing. She loved to take care of people.  In her interview, she began by saying she wanted to go into the Air Force, and not the Army, but whoever came first, she would follow.  Though her experiences were frightening, she kept the faith, and kept going to pursue her dream.  She took care of injured veterans, families and children during the Vietnam War in Saigon. She also spoke about the effects of dioxin, a chemical contained in Agent Orange, and she continued to push to get the care that veterans rightly needed. Her experiences were simply amazing, and scary to say the least.  She has a respect for all people; while in Vietnam, no matter a patient’s condition, she treated him or her equally and with respect.  They valued her integrity and character and never forgot her, which made her very distinguishable. That is a rarity in people.

I was just so intrigued by her poise, dignity, and straight-forwardness as she pursued her career.  In the interview, she succinctly corrected some of the men who were interviewing her, pushing back against stereotypes about woman.  She also spoke about President Clinton opening doors for veterans who need to be recognized.  Oftentimes, veterans who are fighting for their rights don’t say the right thing, and they end up being denied because of not asking correctly for what they desire and need to take care of themselves and their families.  She spoke of meeting Senator Kerry, who thought she was a politician, because of her poise, confidence, and knowledge. She also shared that she felt that she was not accepted at the Veterans Administration, due to stereotypes, but hopes that will change in time. It was truly an honor to listen to this collection. I am so glad that she is a part of the Veterans History Project. She is someone to watch in the near future, highly intelligent, smart and very widely respected.

–Donna Borden, Program Assistant, VHP

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Joseph Rodriguez at the time of his oral history interview. Joseph Rodriguez interview, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89773.

Joseph C. Rodriguez’s collection caught my attention for obvious reasons. For actions during the Korean War, Rodriguez was awarded the Medal of Honor – our nation’s highest military award, and an extremely rare honor. What stays with me from listening to his oral history interview was that he did not see the Medal of Honor as a feather in his cap or an accolade to display, but rather as a profound and humbling responsibility. He understood that by virtue of being a recipient of this award, he would be in the public eye for the rest of his life, and he would forever be viewed as a role model.

Rodriguez was drafted into the Army shortly before his 22nd birthday in October 1950. After completing training as an infantryman, Rodriguez volunteered to go to Korea in early 1951, where he served with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.  Rodriguez was awarded with the Medal of Honor for his actions on May 21st, 1951 near a small village named Munye-Ri. He singlehandedly charged and eliminated a North Korean hilltop defensive position that had defied three previous assaults. His Medal of Honor citation reads: “Fully aware of the odds against him, Sgt. Rodriguez leaped to his feet, dashed 60 yards up the fire-swept slope, and, after lobbing grenades into the first foxhole with deadly accuracy, ran around the left flank, silenced an automatic weapon with two grenades and continued his whirlwind assault to the top of the peak, wiping out two more foxholes and then, reaching the right flank, he tossed grenades into the remaining emplacement, destroying the gun and annihilating its crew. Sgt. Rodriguez’ intrepid actions exacted a toll of 15 enemy dead and, as a result of his incredible display of valor, the defense of the opposition was broken, and the enemy routed, and the strategic strongpoint secured.”

Rodriguez received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., but admitted he “didn’t know one medal from another” at the time and did not understand the award’s full significance. In his interview, Rodriguez discusses how being a Medal of Honor recipient changed his and his family’s lives, as they were always in the spotlight and people always looked to him to set an example. But being a recipient also allowed him to experience “many beautiful things,” and Rodriguez came to understand that “it represents the actions of many that are never observed, never seen, who accomplished what I did or even greater.” (oral history interview, 20:39)

Rodriguez served thirty years in the Army, and ended up retiring as a Colonel. After retiring, he was frequently asked to speak to civic groups and schoolchildren, to whom he always emphasized the importance of love for oneself and respect for one another. As a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Mexico, Rodriguez also imparted a strong sense of patriotism. “A lot of us do not appreciate where we live. A lot of us have never experienced anything to compare it with. Well, I have. And many Americans don’t realize how lucky, how fortunate we are to be living in our country.”

–Nathan Cross, Archivist, VHP

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