Powerful stories have a way of surfacing in the Janice Couture Community Room, and on Veterans Day 2015 that was indeed the case.
“I sailed out of the New York Harbor and I remember leaving and seeing the Statue of Liberty going by me and I thought, ‘I hope I see you again dear, you look so great,’” said Bob Coon, a World War II veteran who served as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. “Actually that was the first time–I was a little country boy–that I’d seen the Statue of Liberty.”
Coon, and four other WWII veterans, spoke at CCV-Winooski for a Veterans Day event attended by students, staff, faculty, and members of the public. From Operation Market Garden and the liberation of the Netherlands, to the freeing of concentration camp prisoners and personal stories of fighting on the front lines, the stories told by the five offered personal insights and details that are often hard to come by in history books.
For over an hour the crowd of approximately a hundred hung on their every word. Calais resident Clyde Cassidy told his story of deploying to Italy and taking part in the Battle of Rapido River, recognized as one of the worst defeats suffered by the U.S. Army in the war. Cassidy, who was captured in the battle, was eventually transported to Germany for a year and then forced to march through Northern Europe for 70 days. Attendees listened in stunned silence as he recounted his memories of being a prisoner of war, but laughed along with him when he reached the end of his story.
“I was captured just nine days before my 19th birthday and I was into my twentieth year when I was liberated,” Cassidy said. “That meant I had to wait another nine months for a goodbye beer.”
The laughter came to an end as Shelburne resident Bob Picher took the microphone and spoke about his experience liberating Buchenwald concentration camp with the 87th infantry division. Picher told of meeting inmates whose ribs were visible and being told not to feed them because they would die. This wasn’t nearly the most horrifying thing Picher witnessed, though.
“I saw bones piled up and clothing and shoes and gold from their teeth,” he said, “even lamp shades made from human skin. It was horrible. You talk about inhumanity to man, well, that’s what it was, that was in Buchenwald concentration camp.”
CCV Coordinator of Academic Services John Devino took the lead in organizing the event, which was put on the Winooski center’s Veterans and Military Students Appreciation Committee. Devino said that each year his committee works to plan an event that both honors veterans and creates a rich learning experience for students and community members.
“For this year we were looking for a theme and I realized that this is the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII,” Devino said. “I just thought that if could find some of these veterans to come in and speak it would be appropriate since we may not be able to hear these stories for too much longer.”
Devino, a Vietnam veteran, also said the committee wanted to ensure that this year’s event would draw in people from all walks of life, which it did. But, he said, the hope was that CCV’s student veteran and active duty military population would come out, too.
“We thought it was really important for these people, our student veterans and our military students, to hear these stories from these men who are most likely from their grandparents’ generation,” Devino said. “It’s important for them to see firsthand that there is life after the military and to hear that it’s good to share their experiences and stories.”
Throughout the event Devino would prompt each of the guest speakers to talk about specific aspects of their wartime lives. He said this was necessary in order to keep the event to a reasonable length of time, which was understandably difficult given the depth and breadth of military stories available. While most of the stories were fixed in the WWII era, Devino asked Paul Hayes to discuss a little more of his career and where he was in the 1950s.
“In 1950 I was with the National Guard and we went up there [to Korea],” Hayes said. “I was up there on the DMZ with my field glasses and I was looking at him and he was looking at me.”
Hayes, who served in WWII with the U.S. Army, was also deployed with the National Guard to Vietnam in the 1960s.
Army Air Corps Officer Jack Goss told the audience about his time flying a B-25 during the war. Looking up at a picture of his plane being displayed behind him, Goss said he flew 40 missions in the plane before being shot down. Goss subsequently spent the next three years as a prisoner of war. Devino followed this story by asking Goss to talk about about his time stationed in Alaska flying F-89s with the Air Force after WWII.
Goss started by telling the crowd about the tunnels they had running all over the base to get from place to place, noting that they liked the situation a lot. After stopping Devino pushed for a little more details about what exactly Goss was doing in Alaska at the time.
“Oh yes, I forgot about the Russians,” Goss said with a laugh. “The reason I forget about them is because they’re there all the time. We’re in Alaska because the Russians are coming over every day, and we put up our own airplanes to chase them back every day. We’re doing that today, I’m sure of that, and we were doing that day by day with the airplanes I had.”
Brennan Gauthier, a military historian and archeologist with the Agency of Transportation heard about the event online and said he thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some of the state’s WWII veterans and hear their stories. He said he’d actually met some of the men before.
“It’s really great that CCV put this together,” Gauthier said. “Especially since it has brought some of the younger veterans in to hear the stories, it’s important.”
And while the event allowed attendees a brief glimpse into what it was like for American soldiers deployed to the European theater, for those of us who weren’t there, these experiences are hard to understand and difficult to even envision.
“We had some tremendous battles along the way,” the soft-spoken Coon said. “It’s something that’s kind of hard to imagine until you get into it.”