Video: World War II stories come to life

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    >>> finally tonight, it might be the greatest slow-motion tragedy of our times. the greatest generation is fading from the scene. world war ii veterans are dying at the rate of 740 a day, along with everybody else who contributed to the war effort and then worked so hard to build a better country here at home. some members of that generation are getting their memories down on paper so we'll all have them. an increasing number of retirement communities are doing it in book form. including a place called kendall hanover in hanover , new hampshire. 56 residents put their stories into a book. they tell the story of world war ii at home and away , and some of them share it with us.

    >> d-day, june 6, 1944 .

    >> reporter: long ago, he was a young man, brave, scared, proud to be a part of a fighting force on a foreign shore trying to save the world . clint gardner was an army first lieutenant on omaha beach . he's now 89.

    >> suddenly i heard a sharp explosion just in front of me. my head snapped back as if hit by a sledgehammer. and the curtain of warm blood poured over my forehead, closing my eyes.

    >> reporter: his helmet survives from that day, so did he, though his skull was nearly split apart. his deeper wounds came later in the war, when he witnessed the liberation of the concentration camp .

    >> we were instantly surrounded by this swarm of skeletons draped in yellowing flesh. we saw hundreds of bodies piled outside the crematorium. i had been changed by this experience.

    >> hope was changing, too. as a young newly wed, mary jenkins found herself on an air force base in kansas.

    >> it was 1944 when i, as a new englander and brand-new bride, found myself in the heart of kansas. our one goal was to win this war and it was a period that was quite remarkable to live through because -- and it was uplifting, this feeling of unity.

    >> reporter: everyone experienced the war differently, and yet the most unique story in the book may be that of kesa notah. her family spent world war ii in an internment camp .

    >> i went to a bus depot as ordered. army soldiers herded us into buses. they took us to the santa anita race track and told us to get off. there were guard towers and bared wire around the site. we were given one horse stall with horse manure on the walls. it smelled. when i heard the story from my father, i said, did you ever give up hope and he looked at me as if that was the strangest question. no, we never gave up hope, he said. never.

    >> reporter: robert christy came home from the war a decorated combat veteran, an experience he translated to powerful verse.

    >> i am not a hunter, i am a killer. i hunted people, women, kids, old people, enemy soldiers, who knows? they never could lay it on me, 2,000 yards away, right? i did it not because i enjoyed doing it, but it was what i did.

    >> he became a physician when he came home and never fully got over his scars from over there.

    >> i'm emotional right now just talking about it.

    >> reporter: from one place, 56 stories, 56 different memories of the same war.

    >> certain kinds of stories you kind of know in your gut aren't just individual stories. there is something more to them that makes them important beyond an individual or even an individual family.

    >> if these things are not put cowan on paper very shortly, they're not going to get down on paper. all of us are in our 80s and 90s and time is getting short.

    >> reporter: our thanks to the authors, the 56 seniors in hanover , new hampshire, and all the rest who have left their stories of an era that changed the world. that is

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updated 2/6/2012 4:24:40 PM ET 2012-02-06T21:24:40

More than 70 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many residents of a retirement community in picturesque Hanover, N.H., still remember exactly where they were. They’ll sit down with you, and if you have a minute to spare, they’ll even show you their black and white pictures.

Some were in college; some heard about Pearl Harbor from co-workers. And while the memories are still crisp, they know that their generation, and their generation’s stories, is slowly disappearing.

“If these things are not put down on paper very shortly they are not going to get down on paper,” said Hanover native Mary Jenkins, who lived on an army base in Kansas with her husband during WWII. “All of us are in our 80s and 90s.”

After being inspired by other retirement communities that published memoirs, the residents of Kendal at Hanover compiled a total of 56 stories from fellow residents. The only requirement, Jenkins said, was that they needed to live at Kendal at Hanover.

But with that one requirement, came remarkable diversity. The book “World War II Remembered,” displays a cross-section of American perspectives, and NBC News was able to capture four of them: a soldier who survived D-Day; a former military wife on an Air Force base; a Japanese-American man who had been sent to an internment camp; and a soldier still recovering from the emotional toll of war.

"World War II Remembered" is currently available on Amazon and through the publisher's website.

CLINT GARDNER

Clint Gardner, 89, was a First Lt. for four years during World War II. His story ties together three of his wartime experiences into one coherent narrative he titled, “Three Unlikely Wounds.”

He was there on D-Day, June 6, 1944. “The beach was strewn with hundreds of bodies,” Gardner wrote. “I soon realized that our Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach was turning into a disaster. Nothing was going as planned. You couldn’t have made a movie out of this; nobody would believe it.”

He continued, “Suddenly I heard a sharp explosion just in front of me. My head snapped back as if hit by a sledgehammer, and a curtain of warm blood poured over my forehead, closing my eyes.” Gardner was hit by fragments of a mortar shell. His helmet, almost split in two, covered the messy remains of the top of his skull. “I came very close to death,” he recalled. “If I had my head just a half an inch higher, my skull would have been fractured, and almost certainly I would have died shortly.”

A few months later, Gardner was stationed in Malmedy, Belgium, when a “terrific explosion flattened the house to the ground.” The bomb overhead had killed many of his friends, but Gardner miraculously survived.

But his deepest scars come from the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

When he first got to the site, he was startled by the scene in front of him. “Clustering around the gate, like young animals testing their ability to leave their place of birth, were hundreds of humanlike apparitions,” he wrote. “Scraps of dirty clothing failed to conceal the condition of their bodies.”

Those images still haunt him today.

“So far as I can tell, I have suffered no shell shock from my two unlikely wounds on Omaha Beach and at Malmedy,” Gardner wrote, “But now I suspect that I may never recover from the equally unlikely wound that Buchenwald has given me. Nor do I really want to recover from it.”

MARY JENKINS

Mary Mecklin Jenkins was in college during the Pearl Harbor attack. Two months later, she married her husband, John, and found herself in the flats of Kansas. “I was a little New England girl who had never best west of Ohio,” Jenkins said.

Life on the base was a transition for Jenkins, an onrush of residents made the base overcrowded, and Jenkins and her husband considered themselves lucky to find a small apartment. “Well, to be honest, a room,” she wrote. “It had once been a sleeping porch, a long narrow room with windows along one side … We liked our windows, but the near-constant Kansas wind rattled and shook them so we rarely had a quiet night.”

The airmen of the base flew one of the first sets of B-29 planes, and Jenkins said that the true seriousness of her new life became apparent when she saw the first crashed B-29 at the end of the runway of the base. “The 29’s had been rushed out of manufacture, out of the assembly line because they were needed for long range bombing,” she recalled. “The airmen did not like the 29’s. They didn’t trust it. It crashed often.”

The young couple later moved to Louisiana and had their first child. She distinctly remembers being with her daughter, Patty, when she heard on the radio the announcement of President Roosevelt’s death: “In a flash the world changed … People were crying on the streets,” she said.

For Jenkins, the perspective at home was a revolutionary time of change and growth. War matured her generation early. “It had to give us a realization of the world as a whole,” she said. “It taught us geography – places in the world where we would never had heard of suddenly because familiar words, familiar places.”

KESAYA NODA

A resident at Kendal at Hanover, Lafayette Noda turns 96 this month. His daughter, Kesaya Noda, helped him to document his story through the war. Sitting in very low stool next to him, she documented his unique experience being held in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

Born in California, Lafayette Noda was working in a lab at UCLA when word spread of the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. While there was long-running racism against Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, he said, “Things changed fast after that. The identification of the Japanese intensified.”

After President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of all West Coast Japanese, he was sent off to the Santa Anita racetrack. “I was put with a group of bachelors who were treated as one unit. We were given one horse stall … with horse manure on the walls. It smelled.”

His daughter, pained by her parents’ shared internment experiences, said: “If I were my father, I would’ve given up. If I were my mother, I would’ve given up. My parents came through that without bitterness.”

After the war, Lafayette Noda earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Stanford University and retired as a longtime professor at Dartmouth Medical School, becoming the first Asian-American department chair for the school.

“I would hope that people would feel my father’s hope and remember that image,” Kesaya Noda said.

ROBERT CHRISTIE, M.D.

Robert Christie’s contribution to the book was that of several poems. One is titled “Hunter.” 

A decorated veteran with a Bronze Star and three Battle Stars, Christie became a doctor after the war. But the experiences he had in wartime still haunt him to this day.

About 10 years ago, Christie was walking his dog when he had this sudden thought: “You’re not a doctor; you’re a killer.” Even though Christie didn’t have a background in literature, he felt the need to immediately put his feelings into a poem.

He wrote:

I am not a hunter.
I am a killer.
Once you have killed
you are a killer,
not a hunter.

He continued:

Then they gave me the 76mm cannon
and three machine guns
attached to ‘Fate’s Finger’:
Medium tank, an M4A3
I hunted people with it.
Some I never saw.
Shot them with HEs,
high explosive shells, in houses in bleak wrecked towns
two thousand yards away.

Looking back on it now, Christie identifies it as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And while he hasn’t had a formal diagnosis, he says that 60 years after he left the service he still feels the effects of PTSD.

Christie said that he never enjoyed war – but he was doing his duty. In the end, he said the experience matured him. “My experience from the time I went into the service until the time I got out, changed me from a boy to a man.” He went on to say, “When I got out of the service, I really felt I was ready to take on the world. And in my own style, I did.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

While we weren’t able to interview all 56 participants involved in this project,, we salute them in sharing their stories in “World War II Remembered.” My colleague Tom Brokaw calls them the “Greatest Generation,” and they are disappearing. World War II veterans are dying at an estimated rate of 740 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It was an honor to share their stories.  

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