Nightly News

Nightly News   |  February 06, 2012

World War II stories come to life

Members of a retirement community documented their recollections of WWII in a new book. NBC’s Brian Williams reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> 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