Memories of war captured on video
NATICK — Frank Rines Jr. sat in a studio at the Morse Institute Library. Lights glared and the camera rolled. Questions flowed, and soon Rines, better known by his buddies as Bud, was in a time machine, transported across oceans and decades.
Wearing a sweater and jacket, Rines, 92, a chief radio officer in the US Merchant Marine during World War II, looked quite comfortable, considering the task.
He was being asked, as one of the recent contributors to the Natick Veterans Oral History Project, to recall the details of his service over some 22 voyages, including about 15 “lucky crossings’’ of the Atlantic Ocean when it was infested with German U-boats.
“It was never easy making the crossings, even late in the war,” he said in his interview. “You never had the feeling that you were safe.”
By telling their stories, Rines and other participants in the project add intimacy to chapters of military history that span from World War II to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides providing a valuable resource for historians, the project can help participants heal from nightmarish experiences, which some have kept bottled inside for decades.
Jim Hastings, 65, of Bellingham, who served in Vietnam in 1967-68 with the First Marine Division and was wounded during the Tet Offensive, didn’t talk about his war experiences for a long time but decided it was time to speak out.
‘‘The men I served with, guys who didn’t survive, I wanted to keep their memory alive, letting people know what these guys did for each other,’’ said Hastings, who was interviewed for the project in February 2009 after a friend suggested it. ‘‘The real heroes. I was wounded. Guys kept coming and coming to get me.’’
Started in 1998 when the late Eugene Dugdale, who was Natick’s last known Pearl Harbor survivor, told the library he was worried that World War II veterans were dying without having their stories heard, the project preserves the oral histories provided by men and women with ties to the armed forces from World War II onward. Not all participants are from Natick and not all are veterans. The project also includes dispatches from the home front.
The project, a collaboration between the library, the Natick Veterans Council, and Natick Pegasus, the town’s local-access cable television station, is funded mostly by the state. Recently the House of Representatives approved restoring funding of $30,000 for next fiscal year, after the level dipped to $22,500 the last two years.
‘‘This is a great program,’’ said state Representative David P. Linsky, a Natick Democrat and the main force behind the funding amendment. ‘‘It records absolutely priceless recollections of veterans’ stories.’’
Linsky’s late father, a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Corps, told his sons stories about battles in the Pacific. Linsky later found himself wishing the compelling chapters of family and US history had been recorded.
‘‘By memorializing their experiences in this project we are preserving that piece of history,’’ said state Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who cosponsored the amendment.
The funding must clear the Senate, which began debate on its budget this week. State Senators Karen Spilka and Richard Ross, whose districts include Natick precincts, both say they are supportive of the project. Spilka filed an amendment last Friday matching the House figure.
More than 220 people have been interviewed, and about half of the interviews are available in video and downloadable audio formats on the project’s website, www.natickvets.org. Maureen L. Sullivan, who serves as the project’s coordinator and conducts the interviews, while videographer Dan McDermott tapes the sessions and prepares the material for the website, said the $30,000 would be used to interview more veterans, add more interviews to the website, and conduct more outreach programs.
Rines lost a lot of old pictures in a flood that drenched his home in Quincy, but his mental images remain crisp. One of his ships had its rudder shot off by a submarine but limped to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can still see hungry children eating in the streets of Calcutta, bodies floating in the water upon his arrival in Normandy, and — in a Globe interview at his home — recalls a dog sliding across the deck of a ship after a blast had torn a hole in the bow that ‘‘you could drive two trucks through.’’
He cradled a medal given to him two years ago by the mayor of a French town near the Normandy beaches who hands out the tokens of appreciation to visiting US veterans. ‘‘We thought [the French] hated us,’’ Rines said. ‘‘They love us.’’
Harry Seaholm, 89, of Natick, a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, worked as an aviation machinist’s mate; his specialty was engine work.
‘‘My service time isn’t very exciting,’’ he told the Globe.
But he figured his contributions ought to be remembered, and he was interviewed for the project in June 1998. ‘‘Fifty years from now, somebody could say ‘I remember Harry from way back’ and they could check out what I did,’’ he said.
Natick resident Viviana Cordoba, who was a sergeant in the Army Reserve and is now coordinator of the Women Veterans’ Network in the state Department of Veterans’ Services, served 13 months in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.
‘‘I want anyone to be able to look at these interviews years in the future and take something away from them,’’ said Cordoba, 29, who was interviewed for the oral history project in March.
‘‘Every veteran has a different story to tell, and you can learn amazing things from them,’’ she said. “”Regardless of when or where they served, there’s something so incredible to say about someone who signs away their life to their country. It’s a sacrifice that not many understand, and I appreciate the project for capturing that.’’
Connie Nippert Walsh of Natick served in the Navy Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War and was stationed at a hospital in Virginia, rising to the rank of lieutenant. ‘‘It was not a time where our peers celebrated our service,’’ Walsh told the Globe. ‘‘You were almost ashamed to have served in the military.
‘‘I just thought what I had done had been important and not valued.’’
Walsh’s story was recorded for the project in December 1998, and her presentation includes a picture of her being pleasantly surprised at the hospital by the famous clown Emmett Kelly, a bright spot in what she recalls as a very sad day.
‘‘The most important thing that the project did was it began a formal closure to what really was still pretty raw, because I hadn’t had much of a chance to process it,’’ Walsh said. ‘‘It was very healing.”
Bill Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.