World War II veterans saving and sharing their stories
By Chris Bergeron/Daily News staff
MetroWest Daily News
NATICK —Elderly veterans recalled the horrors and heroism they witnessed on D-Day, in bombing raids over Europe and at Iwo Jima yesterday at the Museum of World War II, previewing stories being preserved in a documentary film.
Emmanuel “Manny” Abrams, who navigated a B-24 Liberator bomber, remembered fellow airmen of the 8th Air Force lost on air raids over Nazi Germany.
Morley Piper described seeing “great flames of fire and clouds of black smoke” as a landing craft carried his platoon to Omaha Beach at Normandy.
Choking back emotion, Sammy Bernstein read a poem he wrote to his parents during a break while burying fellow Marines on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.
They are among 30 veterans who have been sharing wartime memories on film for “Saving the Reality,” a documentary being made in partnership with the Museum of World War II in Natick, which was founded by Kenneth W. Rendell.
Rendell decided to make a documentary in which veterans shared their World War II experiences for future generations after writing a similarly-titled book that used images of museum artifacts to explain the origins and course of the war.
“The only way a person can experience more personally this cataclysmic period is to look into the face and hear the voice of an ordinary person who rose to the challenge of extraordinary times and saved the world,” said Rendell.
Directed by Tim Gray and narrated by actor Dan Ackroyd, the 90-minute film is scheduled to be finished in November, said Jon D’Allessandro, a Hingham businessman and friend of the museum.
Though details haven’t been finalized, plans are under way for “Saving the Reality” to be premiered at the House of Blues in Boston, which Ackroyd co-founded in 1992.
One of the foremost dealers of historical letters, documents and manuscripts, Rendell, a South Boston native who lives in Wellesley, opened the 10,000-square-foot museum in Natick in 2004 and has filled it with 7,000 military and historical artifacts of World War II he has collected over the last four decades.
As part of efforts to promote the documentary, D’Allessandro said private “Saving the Reality” tours of the museum will be given every two weeks for the next several months. D’Allessandro or some of the veterans in the documentary will often lead the “Saving the Reality” tour.
The next tour is scheduled for Thursday, July 21. For details, visit the museum’s website at museumofworldwarii.com.
The veterans who told their stories, including a first-time museum visitor who isn’t in the documentary, recalled their wartime experiences with a poignant mix of nostalgia, humor and palpable sorrow.
A retired businessman and consultant from Natick, Abrams said he hoped the documentary would honor those who lost their lives by reminding younger viewers that a sense of duty is critical to preserving democracy.
Offering an unscheduled reminiscence, Bob Fortnam, of Pembroke, N.H., told about 20 visitors how he was shot down by German fighter planes on Oct. 8, 1943, while co-piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress on only its second bombing mission. Now 88, he described the confusion on board after the pilot and tail gunner were shot and, after parachuting to safety, the grim conditions of spending 19 months in Stalag Luft 3, the German POW camp featured in “The Great Escape” film.
Expanding on the story “Saving the Reality” recounts, Piper brought alive the carnage he experienced, wading ashore at Normandy as a 19-year-old lieutenant, leading soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division.
“There are so many tragic memories on that fateful day so many years ago. …Our troops were blown to bits. We knew then we were going to have a dreadful time. Suddenly the ramp (of the landing ship) went down. Some men made it. Some didn’t. …Survival was all we could do. We were just trying to stay alive,” he said.
Afterwards Piper said he never spoke of his wartime experiences until seeing the movie “Saving Private Ryan” and then giving presentations at the museum.
Several times the slim 86-year-old Essex resident paused as if to keep from being overwhelmed by painful memories. He told the audience constant exposure to combat and loss of comrades caused him and other Americans to feel great “fear, anger and then sadness.”
“I thought all my life why I made it and why my friends didn’t,” said Piper. “My contribution was very small. I was in the company of brave men.”
Leading visitors to an area of the museum devoted to the Pacific Theater, Bernstein pointed to a map of Iwo Jima where he spent “36 days in hell.”
Still rugged at 87, the Randolph resident said 7,000 Marines died capturing the tiny island so its airfields could be used to provide fighter support for 1945 bombing raids over Japan.
Speaking in a booming voice, Bernstein compared the invasion of the volcanic island occupied by 22,000 Japanese soldiers to the Charge of the Light Brigade for its bravery in the face of danger.
“We are alive today because of those boys. Iwo gave us those airfields,” he said.
Bernstein’s voice broke several times as he read a poem he wrote to his parents on March 7, 1945, after helping a chaplin bury two Americans.
He read in part, “The boys they died for the Four Great Rights / We alive, for all time, must keep them bright.”
Written by Private First Class Samuel Bernstein, U.S. Marine Corps, 5th Marine Division at the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima on March 7, 1945
Oh, I just saw a sight to see,
A sight that will always live in me,
And they were, row on row,
The graves of boys who gave their all.
Here comes a cross and there a star,
Try to see it ’cause there they are,
A Catholic, Protestant, and a Jew,
All American boys we once knew.
And though you read, “So many thousands dead,”
You know not what you really read
‘Cause only those who see their graves
Will ever know and be amazed.
So to the ones who must receive
A notice that they’ve been bereaved,
The boys they died for Four Great Rights,
We alive, for all time, must keep them bright.
And when it’s over, God make it soon,
Let’s not forget ere we’re doomed,
That war is hell and pray we must
To keep the peace they gave to us.
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