History. “The time to preserve it is now, or we can lose it.” The words are from Saint Joseph’s College history professor Dr. Michelle Laughran, and the underlying premise of Windham in World War II – an oral history, a project carried out and presented jointly by the college and the Windham Historical Society.
Eight students from Dr. Laughran’s Historical Methods class conducted recorded interviews with four World War II veterans, all from Windham: Robert (Bob) Miele, Ralph MacDonald, Carroll McDonald and Fred Collins. Working with tape recorders and a set of prepared questions that often lead into different areas and additional stories, two students sat with each veteran in sessions ranging from 20 minutes to two hours.
Senior Kattie McQuilkin helped coordinate the project and analyzed the content of the four interviews. She presented her findings to an audience of more than 30 at the Windham Historical Society’s Old Town House museum last Monday, Patriots’ Day.
Asked about any revelations she encountered during the course of her work, McQuilkin observed that her “textbook” study of history dealt with “battles, campaigns and presidents,” but that the direct communication with local veterans revealed “real people you could relate to, not just the elite.”
Robert Miele recalled two unforgettable events. As an aircraft radar operator in southern England, he remembers tracking German planes emerging from across the England Channel.
“As long as you could hear those engines you knew you were safe,” because that meant they continued on. The V-2 rockets were a different story; they were hard, if not impossible, to track on radar. One crashed and exploded, “with what? Five hundred pound bombs,” right near our camp.
Miele, who arrived in Europe aboard the Queen Mary with 10,000 fellow troops, said he was later deployed to France where, in 1945 following the defeat of Hitler, his superiors alerted his group to prepare for deployment to the Pacific conflict. Just as they were ready to leave, Japan surrendered. The best possible news! After the war, how did Miele wind up working, then running, Patsy’s store in South Windham? Long before that, the reason his family came to Windham? “Because of a dog and a bag and cough drops, but that’s a story for another time.” He did not elaborate.
Ralph MacDonald remembers skipping his high school yearbook photo to play pool. He tried for a late re-take, but the photographer had used up all his film. MacDonald joined the Air Force, where he trained to fly B-51 bombers. Preferring to discuss his earlier life, MacDonald reminisced about his early education in Windham at the one-room Ireland School in east Windham.
“It had nine grades, sub-primary through eighth grade with just one teacher (Clara Nash). “She was a good teacher,” he recalled. “She always celebrated holidays and made them special. You know, I got the best education from her, better than kids got after that time.”
He told a story he related to fellow WW II veteran, Dr. Edward Tottle of Windham, an author and teacher: During the transition years between the phonics method of teaching reading and the so-called “look and say” approach, Miss Nash, who apparently preferred the latter, kept a rarely used phonics chart on the wall. The superintendent, apparently a phonics traditionalist, would visit the school occasionally “and that’s the only time she ever used it,” MacDonald related with a chuckle.
Carroll McDonald maintained a cheerful disposition during the program, interrupting and trading jibes with society vice-president Dave Tanguay during opening remarks and introductions. McDonald, along with Miele and Windham’s Clyde Seavey, began their war service during their senior year at Windham High School. Early mornings, before going to school, each stood atop one of the town’s watch towers scanning the skies and listening for the sound of enemy aircraft that might have braved an attack on the homeland, an occurrence that, thankfully, never materialized.
McDonald joined the U.S. Army Air Corp in 1944 and trained in North Carolina to fly B-51 bombers. McDonald recalls practicing skeet shooting, a rehearsal for learning to drop bombs ahead of a target. “I shot ‘til I was black and blue.” The war ended a mere six weeks before McDonald finished training.
Fred Collins, unable to participate in the program due to illness, was the only veteran interviewed for the oral history project to see combat. He fought in the hard won battle against the Japanese on Iwo Jima in 1945. For his service, Collins was awarded a Pacific war medal. He later volunteered in the war in Korea. Collins told his interviewer that a soldier should “fight to live, not to die,” a reference to the Japanese penchant to claim honor by dying. Americans, he indicated, fought willingly and courageously so that they, and freedom, could live.
Collins is a frequent contributor to The Windham Eagle letters to the editor often retelling stories about growing up and explaining his patriotism.
Professor Laughran said transcripts of the oral history project will be submitted to the Windham Historical Society and to the Library of Congress. Phase II, she added, will begin next fall when a new group of students will interview local individuals and families who kept the homefront fires burning during World War II. Perhaps then we will learn the story behind the mystery of “the dog and the bag of cough drops.”
"If you're lucky you'll get to the sand...they couldn't go in because of all
the rocks and coral. They were killed going in...the men with all their
equipment sunk into the water trying to get to the beach."
The landing at Iwo Jima