Rockdale Career Academy students got a chance at a real life history lesson last week as six local World War II veterans shared their experiences and wisdom in the first WWII forum at RCA on Nov. 14 and 15.
The students, who were studying WWII in Joanna Anglin's English classes and Chris Anglin's US History classes, heard from veterans Ambassador Theodore Britton, an African American Marine who served in Guadalcanal and currently honorary counsel general to the Republic of Albania; former Rockdale commissioner Bud Soesbee, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and other battles in the European theater; Tuskeegee Airman Val Archer; Arlie Aukerman, a B-24 nose gunner who flew 25 missions over Europe including bombing Berlin; Ralph Dunlap, a Marine recon in the Pacific who landed on 50 enemy-held beaches for pre-invasion intelligence; Jack Simpson, an Army infantryman who fought across Europe including Anzio Beach in Italy and later retired from the FBI.
The men described a wide variety of experiences.
Simpson described the conditions of fighting in Europe. "The life of a combat infantryman is fitful. You slept fitfully. You were always wet. The conditions were cold. We kept extra socks close to our bodies." When the pair on their feet were frozen, the soldiers would swap them out with the ones next to their body.
Britton was at Guadalcanal, but at that time, the Marines were segregated and black Marines were not allowed to fight or fire weapons. He described blatant discrimination that came from the commandant on down, which did not change until near the end of the war.
"'With liberty and justice for all' - it wasn't so in those days. We say it but it didn't mean much in those days."
Being in the Marines, however, taught him the importance of respect and presenting himself with respect. "This is how far we've come from World War II. We feel we are all Americans. And we're prepared to defend the rights of all Americans."
During question and answer session with Britton, Archer, and Soesbee, a student asked if being put down because of their difference motivated or discouraged them.
Archer said, "I found many times I was humiliated, always deliberately and it was never coincidental. Very direct, in my face. And there was nothing I could do about it... I saw women degraded as well. Women didn't have equal rights for a very long time, long after blacks began to have some."
Aukerman said despite having to work long, dangerous missions, his experience was not as tough as the other veterans.
"You were scared. You were scared all the time. When you're that age, you're invincible. That's the only way they could have a war.
He lost a brother in the war and had another brother who struggled after the war. "He never was the same mentally. It was a bad deal."
Dunlap's unit was one of the first on Iwo Jima.
"It's nothing but volcanic ash," he said. "It's like coffee grinds. You try to dig a hole for protection, you can't dig. There were so many casualties." The island had already been bombed for 72 days. "I thought an island that small, they should knock it out of the ocean." He learned the Japanese had dug a network of tunnels on the tiny island.
He said he was not involved in the raising of the flag - one of the most frequent questions he's asked - but he did witness it.
More than a half century later, Dunlap reunites every year with veterans who fought in Iwo Jima. He said they don't consider themselves heroes. "The heroes are all left behind."
Britton urged students to read as much as they could about everything, and to travel. "Get out of the US and come back. You'll really appreciate it."
"We're a great country," Britton said. "We did a lot in WWII. Love it. Do what you can. Stick up for it. And always defend it."