Veterans History Project records interviews from 700 state war veterans. Hartford Courant, 5-25-14

June 10, 2014

7:14 a.m. EDTMay 25, 2014

Their memories are clear, undimmed after seven decades.

John Fletcher can see dead German soldiers stacked in a truck and multicolored parachutes dropping on Bastogne, Belgium, in the desperate winter of 1944-45.

A scene from August 1942 plays in Ted Cummings' mind, the unexpected sound of music on a blood-spattered ridge.

Rico Pace remembers that the sand was dyed red on Omaha Beach as soldiers struggled inland on June 6, 1944.

Many Connecticut veterans of World War II, now in their late 80s and 90s, have only recently revealed such vivid pictures. Some have written about their roles in history's deadliest war, but only for family and friends. Others have spoken to students and civic groups and agreed to videotaped interviews available to anyone with Internet access.

Stories that haven't been told vanish with those who hold them. About 555 World War II veterans die each day, according to the National World War II Museum. Of the approximately 16 million who served, just over 1 million are still alive, about 13,000 of them in Connecticut.

The Veterans History Project at Central Connecticut State University has recorded interviews with about 700 state war veterans. Soldiers, sailors and Marines who were unwilling or unready to speak publicly have reconsidered as they near the end of their lives, project Director Eileen Hurst said.

"A lot of them were scarred, but they didn't talk," Hurst said. "They came home, they wanted to go forward with life and forget. The problem is, you don't forget."

Looking for interview subjects several years ago, Hurst called Cummings, a U.S. Marine veteran from Manchester. Cummings declined, but Hurst called again recently, and this time Cummings embraced the chance to tell his story.

"If you're not careful," he said, "war becomes almost casual and sanitized. ... It's all forgotten or it's barely touched on, and the awfulness and size of that conflict was something that should not become a passing thought of casual interest.

"So the stories should be told. War — there's no glory in it. There's just horror and stuff that leaves bad memories, yet there are some good ones, too, because somehow, men and women retain their humanness in all of the chaos."

The Veterans History Project did a three-part interview with Cummings: "When he opened up, he opened up," Hurst said.

The Piano Player

Then 18 and serving with the 1st Marine Division, Cummings describes a moment in August 1942 on a grassy ridge bisecting the tiny island of Tulagi in the Solomons, a first objective in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

"We came out of the half light of the jungle into the brilliance of the South Pacific morning and it was like being in a balcony seat in a large theater," said Cummings, 90, a retired insurance company owner.

"To the right, we could see everything — the invasion fleet anchored, wakes of the small boats ferrying supplies into the troops that had landed the previous day, and the air was heavy with smoke from burning buildings and oil stores and there was a bite from the cordite in your nostrils.

"You could hear the cough of the mortars and the long roll of them firing and the crack of rifles. In a cut in the ridge ahead of us, we could see the mouths of caves and the winking of enemy machine guns, and suddenly a Marine began to rappel down the face of the cut with a satchel charge fastened to the end of a long pole, and he stuck it into the end of that cave that he was targeting and it blew.

"Suddenly, two dive bombers came in very, very low and the pilot and the gunner waved to us and they dropped their 250-pounders on the cut and you could feel the concussion from the exploding bombs and the heat.

"Off about a mile and a half, Marines were landing on two specks, former volcanic cones, Gavutu and Tanambogo, and a Navy destroyer was firing its guns ahead of those Marines. You could hear the "whump, whump," and to the right, immediately to the right, was a smashed, large white house that we found out later was the resident high commissioner's house. There were large pools of dried blood on the ridge, on the grass. There had been a hell of a fight there the night before.