Historic anniversaries chance to report veterans’ stories

Jun. 07, 2014 @ 03:50 PM

My memory may be playing tricks, but I think I recall a story-planning conversation from my days as city editor of The Raleigh Times.

It was spring 1974, and we were thinking about D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

It’s the 30th anniversary approaching, we mused. Veterans who took part would be thinning, we figured, because they were rapidly growing older.

Yeh, right. Most combatants in June 1944 probably were in their 20s – as we were as we discussed the story. And in our 20s, I guess, folks in their 50s seemed pretty old.

But this year, the conversation about D-Day coverage did have real urgency. The ranks of World War II veterans really are shrinking fast. Last week marked the 70th anniversary and no one needed to mention that by the 80th hardly anyone will be left to bear eyewitness.

That’s why we were glad to feature on our front page Friday Jack Hughes, 94, a long-time doctor in Durham.

In spring 1944, Hughes was a lieutenant junior grade in the U. S. Navy, and two hours after the first wave hit the Normandy beaches, he was on a landing ship just offshore that by nightfall was taking in casualties.

Anniversaries are important, to remember the sacrifices of those who took part and to understand hinges of history that helped determine how we live today. 

We try to remember them faithfully at The Herald-Sun, although a year doesn’t pass that one doesn’t slip by and we hear from a sad or angry veteran wondering why we had no mention of Pearl Harbor Day, V-E Day or another milestone. As the events become more distant in time, it is sadly easier to forget. Moreover, the memories are personal for fewer and fewer readers.

One especially gratifying part of my job as editor is that we have a reporter for whom remembering these landmark events – and honoring veterans – is not just a job, it’s a passion.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, who wrote the story on Jack Hughes, grew up in a military family.

“Newspapers, as the first draft of history, have an important role in gathering information from the individuals who collectively tell America’s story,” she wrote when I asked her to share some thoughts about her work. “Reporting veterans’ stories isn’t flag-waving for patriotism’s sake. It is as vital to talk about the post traumatic stress disorder, the crippling loss of life and the grief as much as it is winning battles. American history should not just be told by the generals, whose broader analysis is needed, but also the boots on the ground.”

Interviewing veterans who were there can add understanding beyond what we read in books, she said –making it all the more important to capture their stories while we can.

Those who served in the draft era bring a wide range of perspectives.

“Because our military is so large, not everyone’s voice is heard in history,” Vaughan wrote. “Wars of the 20th century were fought with thousands who served in the military at the invitation of Uncle Sam. Having a military of draftees meant a diverse collection of men came together with a common national purpose for a relatively short amount of time, then returned to civilian life. However, their civilian lives were forever changed by their years in a war, for better or worse.”

More 70th anniversaries of World War II events are ahead, leading up to that of Allied victory.  We’ll look forward to sharing recollections and memories that help us understand what that time – both terrible and exhilarating – was like.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. He can be reached at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.