POWs Share Their Stories
Prisoners of war Joseph Sterner and Louis Grivetti pass on history and talk about their experiences in WWII
They are the ultimate show-and-tell.
Corporal Joseph A. Sterner III of Dunmor and Staff Sergeant Louis Grivetti of Latonia, both veterans of World War II and former POWs, have taken their military experiences from the battlefield to the classroom. Both men feel it is incumbent upon them to pass on the history and preserve the legacy of Americans in war.
It is a concept that will go nationwide this fall when The History Channel introduces its Take a Vet to School Day program.
“We have an ongoing commitment to chronicling the contributions of our nation’s soldiers and veterans,” says Nancy Dubuc, executive vice president and general manager of The History Channel. “Whether they fought on the beaches of Normandy or on the streets of Fallujah, or served stateside, every vet has a story to tell.”
Bringing History to Life
Sterner, an anti-aircraft machine gunner taken prisoner after the fall of Corregidor in 1942, has shared his war stories with students in elementary, middle, and high schools in Kentucky. He has talked to church groups, Boy Scouts, and new hires at a job-training center—anywhere that people will listen, he says.
But he also likes them to talk. Sterner wants his audience members to ask plenty of questions.
“I could talk for 70 hours and never repeat myself. If they ask questions and you answer them, they’ll remember. If you just talk, they’ll forget everything as soon as you walk out the door.”
The one question he is always asked is why many veterans are reluctant to talk about their war experiences.
“This is because of the horrors many veterans see or the embarrassment they feel for not serving on the front lines, where just one out of 10 soldiers finds himself.
“I’ve seen the worst, but I can talk about it without too much difficulty and let the kids know what really happened.”
What happened to Sterner? Forty months in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he was starved and routinely beaten, forced into hard labor, and, at one point, left for dead.
“I was put in Zero Ward to wait for my last moments,” he recalls. “I weighed less than 90 pounds—I’m 5 feet 11 or so—but at least I could check to see if I had all of my bones.”
In spite of the abominations he experienced, Sterner tries to keep things light and tends to tease his audience. He loves to tell students that when he first went into the military, even though he served in the cavalry he never got to meet John Wayne.
“You have to keep things from getting depressing. When you’re talking about an arm here or a leg there, it’s not very enjoyable.”
He jokes that there were some good things he learned as a POW. “I found out what a diet is, and I haven’t been on one since. I also found out what hard physical labor is, and I don’t do that either.”
Born June 9, 1923, Sterner relishes seeing the students’ surprise when he tells them he was born during Warren G. Harding’s administration (1921-1923).
“I have to remind them that he was not the president just before Abraham Lincoln. I was about 4 years old when (Charles) Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and I entered first grade about six weeks before the stock market crashed in 1929.”
Banter aside, Sterner notes that there are harsh realities, such as man’s inhumanity to man, that students need to understand.
“World War II then; Iraq now. This is nothing new: the people on the bottom get the worst treatment.”
The Stuff of Fiction
That is a fact that Grivetti, a soldier in the 106th Infantry Division, understands better than most. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Grivetti was a POW at the German labor camp Stalag 4B—better known as Slaughterhouse-Five as popularized by fellow POW Kurt Vonnegut in his 1969 novel.
Grivetti recounts his experience following his division’s capture in December 1944, less than two months after his 19th birthday.
“We were marched for several days without food and only snow for water. Eventually, we were loaded onto small boxcars called 40 and 8’s. These boxcars were meant to carry eight horses or 40 people, but instead 60 prisoners were packed in each car. We had to take turns sitting or piled on top of each other to keep warm. The prisoners were confined for 10 days with only our helmets to be used as toilets.”
Grivetti witnessed great horror and brutality during his five-plus months as a POW, including the execution of a fellow POW whose crime was stealing a jar of string beans, and the annihilation of Dresden, Germany, which was bombed into a mass of burning rubble.
Although Grivetti has presented programs in English classes where students were reading Slaughterhouse-Five, he was initially very reluctant to talk about his experiences.
“At that time, you didn’t talk about it. What kind of answer do you give a person who asks, ‘Why did you surrender? Why didn’t you fight?’ That hurts. For my 21 years in the Army, very few knew I was a POW. I was a drill sergeant at Ft. Knox teaching escape and evasion and I never mentioned I was a POW.
“But Slaughterhouse-Five was my story,” he says.
Sharing Firsthand Accounts
Helping veterans continue the work of sharing their history is the Veterans History Project (VHP), created by the U.S. Congress in 2000, which relies on volunteers to collect and preserve stories of wartime service. Its primary focus is firsthand accounts of U.S. veterans from World War I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, and Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. U.S. citizen civilians actively involved in supporting war efforts—war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers, and others—may also share their accounts.
Stories may be shared through personal narratives, correspondence (postcards or personal diaries), and visual materials, including scrapbooks and photographs. There are currently more than 2,400 collections that have been digitized and stored at the Library of Congress.
Deanna Beineke, a retired teacher and genealogy hobbyist from Ft. Thomas, got involved with the project in 2002 because she wanted to interview her father, the late Jack Burleson, who had served in Patton’s Third Army, Sixth Armored Division.
To date, Beineke has interviewed 55 veterans for the VHP, and has produced a video exhibition for the Behringer-Crawford Museum and a cable series.
“I have interviewed Seabees, Merchant Marines, Air Force servicemen, medics, nurses—you name a theater and I’ve got someone who was there,” she says.
Beineke had taught video production at Conner High School in Boone County, so was familiar with the technical requirements of filming the interviewees for the VHP. That led to her producing a program, Heroes and Patriots, for the Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky, which airs on Community Program Channel 21. The shows are also available at the Campbell County Public Library.
“Getting involved with the Veterans History Project was like a ‘Road to Damascus’ experience,” she says. “I felt a hand on my shoulder and voice in my head saying, ‘You have to do this.’”
Dr. Rebecca Bailey, whose specialty is oral history, is a new member of the history and geography department of Northern Kentucky University. Hired to begin a public history program, the assistant professor assumed responsibility for the NKU-VHP this year.
“NKU has been involved in gathering veterans’ history for the last several years,” she says, noting that volunteers have completed more than 30 interviews.
In addition to being sent to the Library of Congress, copies of the interviews will be archived in the NKU Special Collections and Archives in Highland Heights.
According to Bailey, NKU’s Veterans History Project plans are threefold: to continue to facilitate the collection and interviews of veterans, either by students in the history department and/or community volunteers, through the university’s history department; to help groups in the community who work with veterans and want to launch their own interviewing project; and to continue letting people know the project exists.
“We also want to help spread the word about the breadth of the project,” says Bailey. “A lot of people have two assumptions, that it only deals with World War II veterans and that it only deals with the military experience.
“Neither is accurate. The focus from the beginning, nationwide, has been primarily on World War II veterans because of the acceleration of our loss of that generation, but it also pertains to Korea, Vietnam, and the more recent conflicts. The project also includes women, the home front, and the families of veterans.”
Bailey says that the interviews are not only an exciting learning experience for the interviewers, but they are also an important process that offers recognition and validation of what people experienced.
“For the first time, many veterans are realizing how important they, as individuals, were to the course of history.”
MORE ABOUT THE VETERANS HISTORY PROJECT
Veterans History Project
Web site: www.loc.gov/vets
The Web site outlines how you can participate and send your collection to the Library of Congress. You can also search the veterans collection already available for the various wars or conflicts or branch of service.
Mail inquiries or materials to:
Veterans History Project
American Folklife Center
Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20540-4615
You should go on the Web to read or download the forms and information for how to submit materials prior to sending them.
TAKE A VET TO SCHOOL DAY
For more information on The History Channel’s Take A Vet to School Day, which links veterans of all ages with young people in our schools and communities through programming, classroom guides, a veteran’s forum, and special exhibits, click here: veteran.