Stories and storytelling lie at the heart of human experience. They make us who we are, preserve our memories, shape our perceptions and some even believe they heal us. Currently in the midst of a vibrant and exciting revival, storytelling is being applied in performances, mainstream writings—and through oral history projects, such as was recently offered to Champlin Park High School’s (CPHS) Honors Block students.
Champlin Park High School Honors Block students meet World War II veterans
Champlin Park High School Honors Block course, which pairs required history and English courses, studied World War II history recently, and as part of their studies, they took a field trip to Champlin Shores retirement home to speak with World War II (WWII) veterans.
Paul Darda, CPHS social studies teacher, said the trip provided students with an opportunity to speak to some U.S. veterans of WWII after studying the conflict. “Unfortunately, future students will not have this opportunity,” said Darda. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1,056 veterans of the war are dying each day, and that’s why students also videotaped the interviews—to save these stories for future students.
Another purpose was for students to hear eyewitness descriptions of history and contrast it with what they have read in their history books.
Since the class has more than 60 students, the tour was split into five groups. CPHS 10th grader Caleb Hamilton met with Otto Nelson, who at 89 years old is one of five WWII veterans now residing at Champlin Shores. Hamilton’s step-dad Laurence Johnson tagged along.
“I’ve watched many WWII shows on the History Channel; however, this was a little different. Instead of listening to the stories of war heroes from past generations on TV, I was lucky enough to be in the audience of the real thing-face-to-face with an actual veteran of the war in the Pacific,” said Johnson.
Story patterns and characters intertwine with the hard-to-perceive forces that shape our lives. And, the most important stories may be those we share with family and friends, but all help preserve memory, explain our present, and imagine our future.
Otto Nelson: World War II Veteran, and Paratrooper
Otto Nelson sat at the head of the table with his daughter and gave an oral account of his World War II experiences, beginning with the Great Depression to his military enlistment and to the end of the war in the Pacific in 1945.
“I was particularly impressed with his sense of humor, considering what he had been through, and the terrible things he had witnessed. Some of his stories really brought home to everyone the realities of war, yet he always seemed to end each war story on a high note,” said Johnson.
Paratrooping and Negros Island
Nelson was drafted into the military and shipped from Northern Minnesota to California for basic training. It was there he was offered the chance to become a paratrooper. Being a Parachute Infantry Regiment (PRI) offered better pay, and more prestige, so many of the General Inductees (GIs) signed up, that is, until they saw a movie on what to expect. “You better cross your name off that list,” Nelson recalls another GI telling him. “Not me.” Otto left his name on the list, joined the PIR, and landed in Negros Island in the Philippines.
The island, like most of the other islands in the Pacific, was volcanic and desert-like, and therefore, water was at a premium. When water finally arrived, soldiers were told to sip it slowly, or they would get sick. “Not me,” said Nelson. “I must have drunk a gallon right there and then!”
Losing his buddies to war
A lot of his stories involved his lost friends—his buddies; it’s something that veterans mention in many stories. The brutality of war seems to foster the sense of belonging and companionship between soldiers.
After days of constant battle, Nelson said they would be filthy from sweat and the dirt from living outside. Some of his fellow soldiers decided to bathe in a nearby river. Nelson knew this was a bad idea because there were still many “Japs” inhabiting the area. “Take a guard along, at least,” is what he told them. They didn’t listen, and not long after, Nelson heard gun shots. He and a few other soldiers found all the GIs were shot dead.
Many psychoanalysts argue that just as stories have the power to enrich our lives, shape the way we perceive and interact with the world, and reveal the wonders of the human spirit, they can play an important role helping people develop the skills to cope with and survive myriad life situations (Burns). Nelson didn’t glamorize the war stories. “With such a young audience present, you would imagine he might tone down the stories a little,” said Johnson. “Well he didn’t. He told it how it was, and made a point of letting everyone know of war and its terror.” Nelson wanted the students to know war is hell.
Nelson recounted a day when he went to the beach to see some of his wounded men. One of the men looked up at Nelson, his leg blown off, and asked: “Am I going to be okay?” Nelson noticed the man’s leg wasn’t bleeding, which is unusual for this type of injury, so he rolled the guy over to check his backside. The man had no skin from the base of his back to the top of his head. The medic arrived to take the injured man to get help, but he died only a few yards away as they walked down the beach.
The Greatest Generation: Share your stories
“WWII veterans are often referred to as the Greatest Generation—and for good reason. We owe so much to the men and women who sacrificed so much in order for us to enjoy our ‘freedom,'” said Johnson. “It would be a travesty for us not to appreciate and remember what they sacrificed.”
Please share your stories, particularly about WWII, in the comments section—whether it is your own story or someone else’s.
NOTE: A special thank you to Otto Nelson and his daughter for sharing their stories, and for spending time with Laurence Johnson after the meeting with the students.