Collective memories: A local nonprofit records area soldiers’ stories of World War II

Jack Bertram was awarded the French Legion of Honour medal. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith Jack Bertram was awarded the French Legion of Honour medal. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

Before the movie began, anyone in the audience who was a World War II veteran was asked to come stand in front of the stage of the Paramount. ParadeRest, a local nonprofit, had organized a screening of the film Patton for veterans and their families on Memorial Day 2014. About 15 men stood together, some dressed in their military caps or jackets adorned with patches, others in suit jackets and bow ties. The men, part of the Greatest Generation, earned a standing ovation.

That event sparked an idea for Dr. Gregory Saathoff, psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and one of the founders of ParadeRest, which helps distribute event tickets to military veterans and their families in the area (the organization’s database has about 800 members). ParadeRest had learned about the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project in which veterans share their memories of World War II. Seeing those men gathered together at the Paramount showed there was a large population of servicemen and women in the area who could contribute to the nation’s collective memory. ParadeRest’s version of the project, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, is called Nickel for Your Story.

“We see a lot of humility among these guys who say, ‘Oh there are more important stories than (mine),’ and we are not just interested in combat stories,” Saathoff says. “For so many of these young men and women it was life-changing to enlist, to be deployed overseas to face the potential for conflict. …That experience of going outside their state or outside their country was really important in crystallizing their view and their understanding of themselves and the greater world.”

Over the summer ParadeRest employees and volunteers performed 53 interviews with veterans in the area. Each interview (a minimum of 30 minutes in length) will be submitted to the Library of Congress for inclusion in its project, which results in a web page for each veteran that includes a video of the interview as well as any photos or memorabilia they submit. Participation in the project is completely voluntary, Saathoff says.

“For me it was amazing to hear a lot of these stories. A lot of these people went to war at the age I am right now, even younger,” says Javier Badillo, project manager with ParadeRest. “That was an amazing experience just to realize, wow these people started off their adulthood fighting for this country.”

Saathoff says the act of World War II veterans sharing their stories is especially poignant because this is the first time some have told their stories. Some family members sat in on the interviews, but other times it was just the veteran, camera operator and interviewer.

“They said, ‘I haven’t burdened my family with this but I feel like I have to get my story out,’” Saathoff says. “‘And if my family wants to fully understand or understand this part of me, then they’ll have the option.’”

Each family receives a copy of the taped interview, and Saathoff says the feedback they’ve received has been extraordinary.

Monk Bingler was awarded the Victory medal for his service in World War II. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Monk Bingler was awarded the Victory medal for his service in World War II. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

“They’ll say, ‘Gosh, we never knew, we had no idea,’” he says.

Lisa Huffman had always wanted to record her father’s experiences in World War II; she had heard a few stories over the years of the young man who was 16 when Pearl Harbor occurred and went overseas at 18 as part of a medical unit attached to a concentration camp liberation team. She and her husband, Randy, have been supporters of ParadeRest for years, and when they learned about the Nickel for Your Story project, they knew it was a perfect avenue for her father to record his story.

Jerry Hornbrook was interviewed on May 27—he was one of the first. The Huffmans had asked ParadeRest to interview their father early in the process, because his health was declining from cancer. Lisa Huffman sat in on the interview with her father and was amazed to learn not only about his war experience but about where he was stationed in the U.S. and what towns he visited. Everything that was a part of his—and their family’s—history.

“He was proud that they wanted to interview him, even though in his mind he played a minor role in the war,” Randy Huffman says. “He just considered himself part of the troops.”

Hornbrook died October 13. Three or four weeks prior, a copy of his interview arrived in the mail. Randy Huffman made copies of the DVD and passed them out to family members at Hornbrook’s funeral, including many grandchildren who had never heard his story.

“I think the reason a lot of families don’t pry is that these are very closely held memories, and some are painful,” Saathoff says. “So it’s not out of a lack of interest but out of reverence for that and not wanting to pry.”

Saathoff’s father, Joseph, was also a World War II veteran. He died in May, without Saathoff ever hearing his story.

“Part of this was driven by the realization that people are not around here forever and once they’re gone, they’re gone,” Saathoff said.

As a token of gratitude for participation in the project, each veteran receives a 1944 nickel, which has a high silver content, because nickel was so valuable during the war. Not to mention both Thomas Jefferson and his Charlottesvile home, Monticello, are on the nickel.

“The message is: You look at the nickel and there is history and what that symbolizes, but look around you and you’ll see there is also history,” Saathoff says. “Let’s realize that we can play an active role in learning more and gaining a greater appreciation for what’s around us. I mean, there’s no place like home.”

Want to tell your story?

ParadeRest wants to record not only World War II veterans’ stories, but those of veterans from all wars: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. If you would like to participate, e-mail tickets@paraderestva.org.

Three veterans who shared their story with ParadeRest for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project tell us what it was like to be young men fighting for their country in World War II and how that experience shaped their lives.

Jack Bertram

Jack Bertram, a B-17 pilot in World War II, kept in touch with his crew throughout the years, through Christmas cards and letters, and also at yearly reunions for the 95th bomb group. He and bombardier Harry Hull, lifelong friends, are the last living members of their crew. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Jack Bertram, a B-17 pilot in World War II, kept in touch with his crew throughout the years, through Christmas cards and letters, and also at yearly reunions for the 95th bomb group. He and bombardier Harry Hull, lifelong friends, are the last living members of their crew. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

Born: Nov. 11, 1920, in Altoona, Pennsylvania

Served: As a B-17 pilot with the 412th squadron of the 95th bombardment group in World War II

Profession: Division manager with the National Cash Register company

It was their 29th mission. It started like any other—with a 3am wake-up call, followed by breakfast and an officers meeting to reveal the target: Munich. A city defended heavily by anti-aircraft artillery, it was likely the bomb groups would also endure fighter attacks as they neared the goal.

Jack Bertram, a B-17 pilot, collects his chest parachute (which he and co-pilot John Micha must store behind their seats) and goes through the takeoff checklist in the morning darkness. After a brief prayer together, he and his other nine crew members take their positions on Knock Out Baby, marked with a square B on the plane’s tail, the bomb group’s marking.

The planes take off in their designated order; rendezvous is two hours later at an altitude of 17,000 feet. As the 95th bomb group heads toward Europe, it merges with the 100th and 390th bomb groups to form the 13th combat wing.

As the planes approach Germany, Bertram is alerted that German fighters are in the area. Miles ahead he can see the blackened sky, the aftermath of hundreds of exploding 88mm shells.

Jack Bertram has two models of B-17 planes in his living room. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Jack Bertram has two models of B-17 planes in his living room. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

They continue on toward their target, staying at the bombing altitude of 27,000 feet. As bombardier Harry Hull releases the bombs and starts to close the bomb bay doors, the plane is hit underneath by an anti-artillery aircraft shell. The blast rocks the plane and causes it to start losing altitude immediately.

Hull relays to Bertram that the waist gunner, Ray Carpenter, is wounded severely in the right shoulder. Hull and the rest of the crew stabilize him, while Bertram assesses the damage to the plane, which is shredded with shrapnel. It has lost one engine completely and lost power on three of its other engines as well as half its oxygen. The only thing Bertram can do is take the plane to a lower altitude, below 10,000 feet, where oxygen isn’t necessary. At the lower altitude it picks up some power on the other three engines (the plane has lost all its turbo engines). Bertram is faced with a decision: Should he try to land in Switzerland, neutral territory, as they had been briefed they could do if they could not get back? Or should he fly back to East Anglia on a crippled plane, alone, without any fighter escorts?

Bertram decides to fly back to home base, with navigator Bob Manning charting a course away from big cities and airfields.

“We got hit really hard,” Bertram says. “We were fortunate we only had one man wounded. We were fortunate we didn’t go down in flames. We were fortunate to survive.”

Bertram’s first plane ride was at age 16 in a barnstormer at an airfield in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. That was the only experience he would have riding in a plane until his training with the U.S. Army Air Corps cadets. After Bertram was drafted in early 1942 and sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training, his oldest brother, Russell, an air cadet who was a stateside pilot during World War II, wrote to him and told him he should take the air cadet exam.

Jack Bertram received the Air Medal for the combat he saw in World War II. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Jack Bertram received the Air Medal for the combat he saw in World War II. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

“You know some people you read they dreamed they always wanted to be a pilot,” Bertram says. “That was not true with me, nor was it true of most of them. Just out of the blue here. So it was very, very thrilling, pretty exciting.”

Bertram’s crew flew 36 missions total—two on D-Day. At the time, 35 was the required number of missions for a crew before they were sent home.

“Everyone had great respect for each other; we laughed and cried together, I guess,” Bertram says. “I think one of the commendable respects to the crew was that they never missed a mission ever, and I don’t think there’s too many crews that can say that because somebody gets ill or people get burned out, mentally upset and all types of things.”

Bertram and his crew were sent back to America on the Queen Mary. Winston Churchill, his staff and his wife, Clementine, also boarded the ship that carried a couple thousand men. The ship, which dropped off Churchill in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had escort planes and submarines on the journey back, unlike when Bertram’s crew went over to Europe unaccompanied.

As the ship approached America, the first thing Bertram saw was the Statue of Liberty. “Choke you up,” he says with a little catch in his voice as he taps his right hand over his heart. “It was an awesome feeling. Good to be home.”

James ‘Monk’ Bingler

James “Monk” Bingler served in the 394th infantry regiment of 99th infantry division in World War II. Although fighting on the frontlines and being captured by the Germans left him with nightmares, he has been able to channel his experiences into positivity through his mission to help others. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
James “Monk” Bingler served in the 394th infantry regiment of 99th infantry division in World War II. Although fighting on the frontlines and being captured by the Germans left him with nightmares, he has been able to channel his experiences into positivity through his mission to help others. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

Born: July 8, 1924, in Charlottesville

Served: In the 394th infantry regiment of the 99th infantry division in World War II

Profession: Rural mail carrier for Albemarle County. He has worked at the University of Virginia for close to 80 years, first selling water at events at age 11 and now serving as an usher/ambassador.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of James “Monk” Bingler’s smile, then you know. The expression “lights up his face” doesn’t do it justice—his smile radiates warmth and compassion with just a hint of impishness. It’s through his smile that you can imagine exactly how he got his nickname, Monkey, later shortened to Monk, as a child.

It was Bring Your Little Brother to School day, and Bingler’s older brother W.R. Bingler Jr. (also known by a nickname, Peanut) brought him along to his elementary school. Well, the teacher said something the younger Bingler didn’t like and he bit her. To escape punishment, he climbed the school’s flagpole and jumped into a nearby tree. Monk stayed in that tree until his father came to retrieve him.

Bingler’s intuition to climb as high as he could to escape impending doom would serve him again years later, when he was a soldier in the 394th infantry regiment of the 99th infantry division. His company, C company, landed on Omaha Beach after D-Day, but the water, Bingler says, was still blood red. His company traveled through northern France and through Belgium, fighting in the hedgerows, and eventually was stationed in the Ardennes Forest. Because the Allied forces weren’t expecting the Germans to advance there, they stationed few men there. The allies were no match for Germany’s Panzer division as they rolled through with their tanks; this was the start of the Battle of the Bulge. The company requested more ammunition, more soldiers. They had quickly run through the 500 rounds of ammunition for their two machine guns, one of which Bingler manned.

Monk Bingler’s dog tags from World War II. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Monk Bingler’s dog tags from World War II. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

Bingler’s company of men was quickly whittled down, and he and a few of his fellow soldiers sought refuge by climbing some nearby pine trees. They tied themselves to the trees, only to discover some German soldiers were camped directly beneath them. They waited until the Germans moved on before they climbed down. But when they reached the ground, they had unknowingly crossed behind enemy lines.

For the next few weeks Bingler was forced to serve on a road gang of about 300 other prisoners of war (to be officially designated a prisoner of war, you had to have been captured for 30 days). Once the roads were finished, the German soldiers lined up the POWs and started shooting them. Bingler and his fellow soldiers started running for the wood line. Bingler could feel bullets whiz by, skimming his body. He still has marks from those bullets today.

Miraculously, Bingler made it to the woods unharmed. As the men who had escaped made their way back to friendly territory, they slept in cemeteries on raised stones and relied on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.

It was not the Germans’ bullets that eventually wounded Bingler—he had dodged all of those—it was a mortar, he believes American, that landed beside him outside of Bastogne. Bingler’s first memory after the explosion was opening his eyes to see “angels in all white,” and he said out loud, “Thank you, God, for taking me to heaven.” A nurse responded, “Bing, you ain’t dead, you’re in a hospital in northern France.”

Bingler had suffered a concussion, lost a lot of blood, had both hands bandaged and was told he wasn’t expected to walk again. To add to his suffering, a JAG officer came to the hospital to arrest Bingler for going AWOL. The Army had been searching for him for six weeks, not knowing he had been taken to the hospital. The matter was straightened out and he was honorably discharged.

James "Monk" Bingler was awarded the Purple Heart, right, which is on display next to his Battle of the Bulge medal. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
James “Monk” Bingler was awarded the Purple Heart, right, which is on display next to his Battle of the Bulge medal. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

Bingler was sent to Camp Swannanoa in North Carolina and Fort Pickett to recover. After returning to Charlottesville, he started a job as a rural mail carrier in Albemarle County—he asked for a driving route because of his wartime injuries.

Bingler would often receive eggs and produce from some of the farmers he served, only to leave that produce (along with the mail) in mailboxes of families he knew needed it. When Bingler’s son, Jim, became a mail carrier as well, taking over part of his father’s route, all Jim heard were stories of how his father had helped people.

“For a short little guy he’s cast an awfully big shadow,” Jim Bingler says.

Bingler and his wife, Fredell, were two of the founding members of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, which they ran out of their home before a permanent building was established. Fredell brought her training as an X-ray technician, while Bingler’s wartime experience helped him keep calm during emergencies.

“He didn’t let the war rule him,” Jim Bingler says about his father. “Instead he took the sadness and all the trauma of the war and turned it into good.”

One of the most significant ways Bingler gives back is through his chaplain work for the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans. He counsels other veterans as well as those being deployed.

“I’ve seen how God works and I’ve seen how prayer works,” Bingler says. “You take those people coming back, and you’ve got to talk to them. ‘You’ve given your life, now you’re back here. Let’s look at the good things. Let’s smile, not frown.’ I’ve been blessed by God more than once.”

Dr. Jim Kavanaugh

Dr. Jim Kavanaugh served as a B-17 radio operator in World War. He says he only shared his stories with his family over the years if they asked. “But it seemed so encapsulated and increasingly distant to me that I couldn’t imagine that it would be of genuine interest to anybody, except maybe [at] these veteran gatherings, and even then you talk more freely to someone who’s done it because you don’t have to explain it.” Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Dr. Jim Kavanaugh served as a B-17 radio operator in World War. He says he only shared his stories with his family over the years if they asked. “But it seemed so encapsulated and increasingly distant to me that I couldn’t imagine that it would be of genuine interest to anybody, except maybe [at] these veteran gatherings, and even then you talk more freely to someone who’s done it because you don’t have to explain it.” Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

Born: June 19, 1925, in Roanoke

Served: As a B-17 radio operator in World War II with the 525th squadron of the 379th bombardment group

Profession: Child psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine

It was morning at Kimbolton, the Royal Air Force base in the Midlands where Jim Kavanaugh, 18 when he was drafted into World War II, and the rest of the 379th bombardment group squadrons were based.

That day’s mission called for maximum effort, when all extra planes were dispatched.

Kavanaugh was just waking for the day in the barracks when he heard a loud noise and saw clouds of dust suddenly fill the air. As the dust cleared, he noticed the tail of a plane, marked with his group’s letter K and a black triangle, inside the barracks. The plane, full of gas and bombs, had crashed into the building after a problem during takeoff, and the barracks burned down.

Kavanaugh has been a book collector since the age of 8. While stationed overseas he would often use his pass to visit London, where he discovered what would become his mecca, Foyles bookstore. He would often buy books and send them home. An anchor for the future, he says.

But on the morning of the plane crash, all of the books he had with him in the barracks were lost, including one he had brought from home to read: War and Peace.

Growing up in Roanoke, Kavanaugh had been interested in planes (his father, James, had trained as a pilot in World War I, although he never went overseas) and he would occasionally go to the local airport to see them. He watched as people would jump out of planes and parachute to the ground and then sell strips of their parachute to viewers.

He was drafted at 18 and sent to Fort Lee. Based on his testing, the Army told him he would likely qualify for pilot training, so he transferred to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for basic training. Kavanaugh has worn glasses since he was 5, and because of his poor depth perception he didn’t qualify to train as a pilot. He had known some people who worked in commercial radio, so he agreed to train as a radio operator.

Dr. Jim Kavanaugh and his nine fellow B-17 crewmen flew with the 525th squadron of the 390th bomb group. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Dr. Jim Kavanaugh and his nine fellow B-17 crewmen flew with the 525th squadron of the 390th bomb group. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

After radio training in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he went to Yuma, Arizona, for aerial gunnery training. He remembers flying in a little piper cub in Yuma that the pilot flew more wildly than necessary—to see if the new draftees could handle it.

Kavanaugh and his crew, who came from all over the U.S., flew 20 missions total; the war ended before they could fly the requisite 35. They didn’t fly a 13th mission—no one did, he says—instead flying a mission they called 12A, or something similar.

Another superstition Kavanaugh adhered to was not bringing a pair of regular boots along with the soft, rubber-soled, fleece-lined boots they wore during missions. He thought tying those shoes to his parachute harness would mean he might need them one day.

“Our navigator always said, ‘We’re in this together and we’re all going to go home together.’ He’d say that all the time,” Kavanaugh says.

Kavanaugh, as the radio operator, had a desk in the plane upon which to work on the day’s code. Under heavy fire, Kavanaugh would also send packages of chaff, small strips of aluminum, out of the plane at intervals to jam the radar of enemy planes. That granted them an extra minute when the Germans couldn’t aim well.

“That gave me something to do on the bomb run where otherwise I would have been sitting there saying my prayers,” he says.

After the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Kavanaugh’s crew was told they would be sent home and retrained on B-29s to fight in the Pacific Theater. But by the time they were headed back to the U.S. on the Queen Mary, the war in the Pacific had also ended. The ship docked in New York City.

Dr. Jim Kavanaugh as a young man. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith
Dr. Jim Kavanaugh as a young man. Photo: Amy Jackson and Jackson Smith

“To show how tough we were, the first thing they gave us coming down the gangplank was a little carton of milk,” he says. “We had not had real milk for so long— we had powdered milk and dried eggs and so forth. Except when we flew a mission they had real eggs. Sort of like a last meal; you couldn’t help making that association.”

Kavanaugh attended college at the University of Virginia using the GI Bill, but he eventually ran out of money because he kept switching majors: philosophy, music, history, he thought they were all interesting. He went back to Roanoke and started working at the Veterans Administration hospital there.

“It was my first contact with the mentally disturbed and I found it fascinating,” he says. “There was a real load after the war. These people tended to be my age, physically healthy—or they seemed to be—yet this was a strict lockup kind of in-and-out place. I go home in the evening and I’ve played chess with this guy, maybe he’s beaten me, but he’s staying there and they’re locking the door. Why is this?”

One of Kavanaugh’s friends, a plastic surgeon, told him there was a place where he could ask all of his health-related questions—medical school. It had never occurred to him that you could decide one day to be a doctor because you were interested in it; he had always viewed it as more of a calling. As a medical school student at the University of Virginia, he was a bit unorthodox in that he was older, but also because he knew exactly what he wanted to study: psychiatry. After he discovered child psychiatry was a subspecialty, he focused on that because, as he says, “childhood was a happy time, it’s not supposed to be unpleasant.” He completed a child psychiatric fellowship in Boston before settling back in Charlottesville with his family. He taught on the faculty at UVA’s School of Medicine and also practiced child psychiatry.

Kavanaugh’s proof of how great his marriage was (his wife of 59 years, Anne, died in 2009) was that when they moved into their farmhouse in Crozet, the first thing they did after updating the electrical system was add a library for all of Kavanaugh’s books—before they even updated the kitchen.

Today, Kavanaugh estimates his collection includes more than 30,000 books. Some he has saved to read in retirement, when he knew he would have more time. But one book he doesn’t own a copy of is War and Peace.

“I’ve never finished it,” he says. “It’s just hanging there.”

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