There is only so much textbooks and historians can teach us about World War II. Many times, stories are told from the perspectives of those indirectly involved—world leaders, politicians, journalists and others on the homefront. Without the firsthand accounts of those who served on the front lines, we would never hear the stories about how events unfolded.
I believe first-person accounts are the most accurate way to understand historical events, and I think it’s critical to record them for future generations. Some members of my generation don’t understand the importance of recording firsthand stories, but I hope to educate those who are not as knowledgeable about what happened in past military conflicts.
As a kid, I was interested in WWII aircraft. By studying those planes, I began to delve into other aspects of WWII history. A big door opened for me when I joined Boy Scouts of America.
The Boy Scouts, although not connected to the military, has a sense of duty and is bound by a code. I advanced through Boy Scouts and it came time for me to select an Eagle Scout Service Project. I chose to interview military veterans from WWII to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I recorded the interviews and contributed the videos to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in Washington.
My project was inspired by the veterans in my family—my dad, Mark Morelli, an Army helicopter pilot; my grandfather, Donald Morelli, an Army major general; my great-great-uncle, George Kane, a WWII POW; and my grandfather, Buck Good, a Navy veteran injured in a 1956 blimp crash. The last two were both Eagle Scouts like me.
George Kane: Army Air Corps Veteran and POW
Not everyone can say they survived the Bataan Death March. Fortunately, my great-great-uncle George Kane was one of the lucky few who managed to overcome the hardships of Japanese imprisonment and lived long enough to be rescued. I only have a few memories of him. He was in his mid-90s when he passed away in 2005. I never had a chance to ask him about his wartime experiences myself, but I am fortunate enough to have heard his story through my grandfather, as well as the letters and articles Uncle Kane left behind.
George was an Eagle Scout from Atlanta. In his later years, as he reflected on his experience in the Army Air Corps, he credited his survival to the skills he learned in Boy Scouts. For example, he was physically fit. Left in the jungle to fend for himself, he knew which plants and animals were safe to eat and which were not. He also had knowledge of first aid that proved invaluable for his own health and survival, as well as his fellow airmen.
I’ve had the opportunity to review several letters that Uncle Kane wrote to his wife, my Aunt Everette. On November 26, 1941, he wrote from Manila, Philippines, where he had been deployed. At that time, before the war broke out, my Uncle Kane was mostly interested in what he might bring home for his new wife.
“Lots of things I sure do want to buy. Hope I can arrange to send some to you from time to time. One modern department store in Manila is air conditioned and has doors that open automatically like Lane Drugstore.”
Eleven days after he wrote this letter, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and my uncle was swept into WWII. In early 1942, when his unit was forced to surrender to the Japanese in the Philippines and he became a prisoner of war, until his 1945 liberation, Aunt Everette didn’t know whether her husband was dead or alive. All of her letters went unanswered.
When George Kane was finally freed and came home to his family, it was difficult for him to reintegrate, though he went on to establish a successful business and enjoyed outdoor hobbies. He rarely shared his war experiences, even with his closest family members. I understand many of the challenges he endured were horrific, unpleasant memories and I find it remarkable he retained his good nature, friendly attitude and passion for life. He appreciated the simple things, and that is what I remember about him. I’m proud to have him as a role model. My endeavor to learn more about WWII brought me into contact with a shipbuilder turned sailor.
Bob Brown: Shipbuilder and Navy Veteran
I first met Bob Brown at a local restaurant in my hometown of St. Simons Island, Georgia. I had heard great things about him from my grandfather and was eager to meet him because I knew his input would be a valuable addition to my project. As the veteran walked confidently through the door of the restaurant where we met for lunch, I stood to shake his hand. Mr. Brown, 94, is very sharp and I was struck by his generosity in sharing his story with me. After a good meal and lots of laughs, we went to his home, where we set up the video portion of the interview. He showed me around his study, and I had the chance to admire the many photographs of his career working as a shipbuilder in the dry docks along the coast of Georgia.
After working his way up to supervising 125 men in a shipbuilding enterprise, Mr. Brown decided to use his skills in the Navy. He enlisted in 1944 in a specialized naval repair unit. The unit’s mission was to repair the battle damage that U.S. ships sustained in the South Pacific. Mr. Brown opted out of officer training and headed straight to boot camp, leaving his new wife behind.
In basic training, Mr. Brown worked alongside welders, mechanics and other tradesmen experienced in building bridges and tunnels in U.S. cities. Raised on the Georgia coast, Mr. Brown told me he taught several people how to swim during boot camp and he was tasked with the repair and construction of ship hulls because of his swimming abilities.
His unit shipped out from the Philadelphia Naval Yard and stayed aboard ship for much of the rest of their military service. Mr. Brown was one of 1,100 service men aboard a converted liberty ship. After a brief stop in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the ship traveled through the Panama Canal and headed into the Pacific.
In the middle of the ocean, a Navy vessel met them to convey orders to head to Manus Island, New Guinea, and set up a new repair base. Soon thereafter, one of the boilers on the ship had a mechanical problem that slowed them for the rest of the trip. Mr. Brown told me he befriended a bright sailor who had never had the benefit of education. He taught the sailor how to read and do simple mathematics during the long journey.
As it turned out, the failed boiler on their ship was a blessing. They were 24 hours behind schedule on their mission to anchor alongside the ammunition ship USS Mount Hood, which exploded on November 10, 1944, killing everyone aboard and damaging many nearby vessels and buildings.
Mr. Brown’s unit was eventually tasked with moving base operations from New Guinea to the Philippines. He described having to load mailbags onto ships moving to the new base.
“There were several acres of mailbags stacked up in a muddy field. It took us about a week to move them,” he said.
His ship moved through many combat zones in a convoy of more than 300 vessels and made it to the Philippines.
“An hour after we anchored our convoy, a squadron of Japanese bombers came over us,” he said. “Their target was Clark Field nearby. I can still see the bellies of those bombers flying over us. It was a close call.”
Mr. Brown said his WWII service taught him an important lesson. “I learned that you can do whatever you set out to. That’s been important for me in running my later business.”
He had ample opportunity to learn this, including the time his group had to replate the corroded hulls of 28 ships over the course of 47 days. The base had only seven floating dry docks. Mr. Brown said he was amazed when they accomplished their goal.
“It was a wonderful feeling to think about going home,” Mr. Brown said, remembering being in Subic Bay, Philippines, and receiving the news the war was over. He said it took about two years to feel normal again, and that even though his family and friends were glad to see him home and safe, “we didn’t talk about World War II when we got back.”
They may not have talked about it, but memories are often hard to erase and come back at random times.
“Any time I go to the supermarket I have a mental picture of a Filipino mother I saw with four or five children digging through the garbage outside our naval base to find them something to eat,” he said. “It makes you realize what it took to create the United States we have. What a wonderful privilege it is to live here.”
After the war, Mr. Brown returned to Georgia Tech and completed his degree in engineering and continued his career in the shipbuilding, construction and manufacturing industries.
My intent in recording these oral histories was to learn about their experiences firsthand. These veterans have a lot to teach young adults, but the most important thing may be the value of community and living in a way that benefits the whole of society.
Max Morelli, of Massachusetts, is in the 10th grade. He interviewed 10 military veterans—from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan—for his Eagle Scout Project. The interviews are now part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.