Features

Bonding the Generations

Veterans and high-schoolers create living histories together
U.S. Army veteran Donnie Lipsey, far right, shows Loy Norrix High School students, from left, Chatpong Parirurana, Chunnleva Nang and Zariah Molia some of the coins awarded to him for various services while in the Army.

Six teenagers gather around a table at Battle Creek’s VA Medical Center to hear a World War II veteran’s story. The teens are part of Loy Norrix High School’s Living History Project, and the veteran is Francis Max Smith of Portage, who grew up in Scotts and served as a radio operator in the U.S. Navy.

The students’ assignment is to interview Smith about his life and service and use the information to create a biographical notebook, complete with written story and photos to give him on a return trip to the VA.

Smith’s story, it turns out, is filled with guilt and sadness.

Smitty, as he’s called, received the last radio message sent by the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The ship was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1945 after delivering materials for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Only 316 of the 1,196 men aboard survived. “It was the worst naval tragedy of the war,” Smith tells the students.

As the ship traveled from Guam toward the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, Smith sent instructions to the Indianapolis about where to drop anchor when it came into port. But when the ship didn’t arrive as scheduled and those onboard did not respond to radio messages, Smith told his superiors about his concerns. “They assumed she must have been assigned to another port” and did nothing, he says.

Four days later, a lone Navy pilot happened to spot some of the survivors in the ocean, Smith says. When rescue crews finally arrived at the scene on the fifth day, most of the men from the Indianapolis had perished. About 300 had gone down with the ship, but many others were eaten by sharks. The ship’s captain was court-martialed and committed suicide. It wasn’t until 2001 that the captain was posthumously exonerated of putting the ship in danger.

Smith tells the students he could hardly bear the fact that he hadn’t been able to make his superiors pay attention to his warnings. “I’ve carried that guilt with me all of my life,” the 89-year-old veteran says. “But if I’d raised more hell, they’d have put me in jail. I was taught to mind your elders. I was just a kid. I was 21.” Still, he wished he’d done more.

“It wasn’t right that he had to carry all that guilt for all those years,” says his daughter Pat Smith, of Kalamazoo, who has accompanied him to the interview.

The deaths of the men from the Indianapolis weren’t the only burden Smith carried from the war. He also suffered the loss of his younger brother, Rex. “Rex was in the Marines, and he got killed by a young Japanese sniper who had tied himself to a tree,” Smith says. “He shot him right between the eyes.”

Rex was only 18. “We were farm boys,” Smith says. “We slept together for 17 years and then I never saw him again.”

When Smith heard the news of his brother’s death, he was at Naval headquarters in Manhattan. “My mother always corresponded with me, but I got a letter in my Dad’s handwriting. When I read that my brother died, I fainted from the shock. I got an emergency leave to console my parents and for them to console me.”

Smith also lost his best friend, Kenny Snyder, to the war. Snyder was 19 when he died, just four months after Rex. “Their bodies were never brought back to Scotts,” Smith says.

Smith tells the students he is establishing a scholarship fund for Climax-Scotts High School students in honor of the two fallen men, and he’s calling it the Rex & Ken Scholarship.

He asks the students if he can practice a speech he’s preparing to give at Climax-Scotts, then pulls several sheets of paper from his pocket, unfolds them carefully and begins to read. When he reaches the part about the men from the Indianapolis who died, his chin starts to tremble and his eyes fill with tears.

“Today I thank and remember all those young men,” he reads, his voice breaking.

Student Jayana Wilson wipes away tears as Smith notes that the only memorial to his brother and his best friend is “a small bronze plaque in the basement of the Kalamazoo County Courthouse.”

“All of his stories touched me,” she says later. “It was kind of sad when he was talking about how he felt the guilt.”

Sveri May’s brainchild

The six teenagers with Smith, including his great-grandson Jon Zylstra, are among 108 Loy Norrix history students who are at the VA this April morning to interview 17 veterans, many of whom served in Vietnam or Korea. Some of the veterans live at the facility, while others have come here this day just to participate in the interviews. All of the students, who are mostly sophomores, are assigned to small groups to interview one veteran. A few older students who did well on the project in previous years are along to help the other students with their interviews.

The annual Living History Project is the brainchild of Loy Norrix special-education teacher Sveri Stromsta May, who started it in 1996 and has been shepherding it ever since. May says the project has profound effects on both students and veterans. It brings history alive for the students and helps them understand the sacrifices the veterans have made for their country. At the same time, the veterans enjoy having young people take an interest in them and are thrilled to receive a binder filled with stories the students write about them, she says. The binder becomes a tangible reminder that their lives have mattered to the world. And for some of the veterans’ families, that binder becomes a keepsake long after their loved one is gone.

“It’s amazing to see them bond,” May says of the students and veterans. “Many of these veterans and their students write to each other. The students (later) bring their babies to show the veterans. Sometimes families of the veterans come to the kid’s graduation.”

Each year May pairs up with another teacher in leading the Living History Project, which gets funding from Kalamazoo Public Schools, the Upjohn Foundation, the AMBUCS, various VFW groups and others.

For five years May’s project partner has been Sean Bergan, a history teacher and football coach with whom she team-teaches. When asked why he got involved, Bergan laughs, rolls his eyes and suggests he didn’t have much choice when faced with May’s enthusiasm. “She said, ‘Hey, by the way, we’re doing this project.’”

The teachers prepare their students for the interviews by providing them with questions they can ask, having them do practice interviews, giving them advice about how to handle difficult subjects, teaching them to do online research and encouraging them to shake the veterans’ hands and look them in the eye.

“We worry about how they’re going to conduct themselves, but they always rise to the occasion,” Bergan says.

Next spring Bergan plans to embark on his sixth year with the project. For May, it will be her 19th year. She was recognized for her efforts in April with a Community Leadership STAR (Sharing Time and Resources) Award from Volunteer Kalamazoo and Mlive.com/Kalamazoo Gazette. The Living History Project also received national recognition in 2001, when the Department of Veterans Affairs included a piece about it in a book called Faces of a Grateful Nation: A Celebration of VA Volunteers.

May gives an example of why the project has earned accolades: “One mom at a parent-teacher conference said, ‘I have to tell you I am so amazed at you.’ I said, ‘What? That I get your kid to do his homework?’ She said, ‘No, that my child sat down with my dad and wanted to know what he did in the military. My son didn’t even want to leave my dad, and this kid would never sit down with me like that, ever. What happened?’”

What happens for many of these students, May says, is that the project sparks their interest in senior citizens, especially older veterans. “A lot of kids today don’t know that age group,” she says. “They’re not used to talking to senior citizens. It’s a growing experience for the kids.”

Student Nicole Andrie says the VA visit is a lot better than the average day at school. “I like to see the smiles on the veterans’ faces because I know some of them don’t get many visitors,” Andrie says. “You can tell the veterans like to share how much effort they put in and how much they care about their country.”

Bravado and pacifism

Kids being kids, there is a lot of energy and chatter earlier in the morning when the students gather in the Loy Norrix cafeteria before boarding buses to travel to the VA Medical Center. There is also a bit of bravado.

“I want someone in the infantry, like, taking off heads,” says Jay’quaries “Jay’Q” Turner, who plans to join the Marines. “I wanna ask, ‘How does it feel to kill a person?’” But then he reconsiders. “No, I ain’t gonna ask that ‘cause that’s vicious,” he says.

Ariyanna Walker, who will interview an Army veteran who served from 1996 to 2010, says she is excited to learn about history and isn’t nervous about doing the interview. “I’m a very outgoing person,” she says.

Walker explains that a Marine recruiter helped the students prepare for their interviews. “He told us we could ask if they had ever killed anyone, but he said, ‘Be sensitive and don’t put it on them if they’re clamping up and don’t want to talk about it.’”

At the VA hospital, the students interviewing Smith learn that he was grateful he never had to kill someone. “I never wanted to kill anybody,” Smith says. “I am a humanitarian first and a military man second.” He’s also been a pacifist ever since he served. “If you saw what I saw, you’d be a pacifist too,” he tells the students. “I just wanted to get home to my girls (the cows) and forget that terrible war.”

The veteran whom Turner interviews did not see combat. “He had a boring job, welding and stuff like that, building things,” Turner says. Yet this veteran was not immune to the losses of war. “He had friends in combat, and half of them died,” Turner says. “He started to work by his self so he didn’t have to lose any more friends.”

It seems that hearing the veteran’s story might make Turner apprehensive about the prospect of signing up for the Marines, but he says, “No, I’m not afraid of death. It’s in my bloodlines. My grandfather and my cousins all served.”

Of the hundreds of students who have participated in the Living History Project since its inception, about 15 have gone on to serve in the military, May says. One student from the first year of the project, Andy Wilkins, was inspired to serve in the Navy, she says, and returned to Loy Norrix about three years ago to talk to Living History Project participants about his time in the Middle East.

Return to the VA

Flash forward: It’s now May 30, and the students are making their return trip to the Battle Creek VA Medical Center. At the end of the trip, they’ll tour the Fort Custer Training Center, a Michigan National Guard training center that also trains Guard troops from Illinois, Ohio and Indiana as well as Army, Marine and Navy reserves and even soldiers from the Canadian army.

The students’ first stop, though, is Fort Custer National Cemetery. Observing a ceremony for veterans who were buried in the past month, the usually talkative teens became quiet and respectful. But when they are asked to remove flags that had been placed on veterans’ graves for Memorial Day, they bustle into action.

In other parts of the cemetery, a few of the students place flags on the graves of family members. Nicole Andrie looks sad and serious as she places a flag on the grave of her great-uncle Bernard Dontje, who received a Purple Heart after being wounded in World War II. “He was very outgoing and funny,” Andrie says of Dontje, who died in 2011. “He just loved anybody. He loved kids. And when I was growing up, he was so much fun. I miss him a lot.”

At the hospital, the students meet up with their veterans for lunch. Some wheel their veterans from one building to another, opening doors for them and taking care not to walk too quickly. They take food to the veterans and share their written reports with them. Each student has written a separate report, and the reports from the members of each small group are compiled into a binder for their veteran, along with news reports on the Living History Project.

Smith’s binder includes photos of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a Japanese sniper, Navy recruiting posters and Navy badges. His great-grandson’s report includes a map of the Indianapolis’ route before it went down.

Student Tiara Blair sits next to Smith at a lunch table as he pages through his notebook. “It’s fantastic,” Smith tells her. “It’s almost like a miracle to me. ... I’m going to take this book with me over to Climax and show it to those students who got the scholarships.”

Smith is wearing his sailor’s uniform and a cap with the words U.S.S. Indianapolis embroidered on it, just as he was on the day he was interviewed. When Smith’s group gathers at the table for lunch, student Brady James walks over and gives him a hug. Smith returns the affection, then steps back, squares off his shoulders and gives James a salute.

Smith then turns and, with tears in his eyes, salutes the student to Brady’s left. And the next student. And the next. Until he has turned 180 degrees and paid tribute to all six students who have worked so hard to do his story justice.

Category: 

CHECK OUT:

'I was just a kid'

“I’ve carried that guilt with me all of my life. But if I’d raised more hell, they’d have put me in jail. I was taught to mind your elders. I was just a kid. I was 21.”
--Francis Max Smith, World War II veteran