Witness to War: important reading this Memorial Day

Every Memorial Day weekend we remember the soldiers who fought for the United States. For those of us who have never experienced war, however, it’s hard to understand their experiences.

The Witness to War program is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the wartime memories of veterans and helping to give civilians a better idea of what they went through. As their website says, “These are the stories of scared 18 and 19 year olds thrust into circumstances of such intensity and violence, that they became the defining moments of their lives.”

Some are video interviews, like Hap Chandler’s thoughts on his involvement in the Dresden bombing, and Jim Paine’s harrowing memory of being the only survivor when his Jeep ran over a German mine. There are also written memoirs and wartime diaries. Some are short anecdotes while others are more extensive. Tucker Smallwood gives us 23 pages of his gripping Vietnam memoir.

All of the stories Witness to War collects will be donated to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and other non-profit organizations willing to spread their message.

There’s plenty of reading here and a lot of food for thought. So sometime this Memorial Day, take a break from the cookouts and TV and check this out.

[Photo of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Last WWI combat veteran dies: where can you see his legacy?

Claude Choules, the last known combat veteran of WWI, has died aged 110. Born in England in 1901, he was too young to enlist in the army when the war broke out in 1914, so he waited until he was 15 and enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he saw service throughout the war.

Unlike most veterans, he liked the service and stayed on. While working as a visiting instructor for the Australian Navy, he fell in love with the country and moved there. When war broke out again he fought for his new country in its navy. He retired after 40 years in service but never stopped being active. At the tender age of 80 he took up writing and penned his memoirs. Over time he became a pacifist and controversially refused to participate in ANZAC Day parades. There’s much more to his story, so check out the link and his memoirs, assuming the book isn’t sold out by now.

Choules fought on the sea, so with no battlefields to visit, where can you see the legacy of WWI’s last combat veteran? A good start would be the museums of the two navies in which he served. The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, UK, currently has an exhibition called Sea Your History: 20th Century Royal Navy that shows what life was like aboard naval vessels during the two world wars and beyond. This gives a good insight into what a teenaged Claude Choules had to endure. The Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre at Garden Island Naval Base near Sydney also has displays about life in the navy. I wouldn’t be surprised if both museums make special exhibitions to mark the passing of this remarkable man.

But you don’t have to go to the UK or Australia to see Choules’ legacy. He lived through the most momentous event of the early 20th century. The war changed Europe and the world. The millions of deaths seriously weakened Europe’s hold on their colonies and emboldened independence movements in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The old aristocracy found itself hit hard financially and began to lose their grip on society. Large numbers of women got to work in factories and other “man’s jobs” for the first time, and began to question why they couldn’t vote.

While the First World War wasn’t the sole factor in the end of colonialism or the rise of women’s rights, it was a major one. If you want to see Claude Choules’ legacy, just look around you.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Great American Road Trip: Travel books for the road. 2 of 4: Honeymoon with my Brother

When I was picking out books to read on my road trip to Montana from Ohio and back, I wanted a mix of types so that each book would be distinct from each other. The titles also grabbed me. The premise of the second one I read is unusual. That also led me to check it out from one of the branches of the Columbus Public Library.

#2. Honeymoon With My Brother: a memoir — Franz Wisner.

Excerpt: Latin America during our winter, its summer, was the obvious next segment. But that was too far in advance. What if one of us fell in love with a tour guide from Thailand? What if we wanted to make some money teaching English in Indonesia?

What if Kurt and I want to strangle each other?

Franz Wisner, the author of this gem, was dumped by the love of his life right before his wedding day. It’s a long story. Wisner gives you the gist of the fiasco that broke his heart, along with his job shifts as a high-powered political lobbyist and fundraiser that led to his decision to pull up stakes and make major changes.

In the process of the storytelling, you find out specific details about how Wisner and his brother Kurt turned into world travelers. His brother, recently divorced, agreed to take an extended trip with Wisner in order to regain his own footing. This trip turned into two years.

One reason I liked this read is because Wisner doesn’t hide. Part of travel is the personality you bring to it. Wisner seems like a likable guy who falls in love with aspects of the 53 countries he and his brother visited. In the process of their journey, he is willing to let go of his notions about himself and others.

This book truly points out how travel not only connects you with the world, it connects you to yourself. The details about the countries they spent extended amounts of time are carefully observed. It’s one that made me want to hit the road immediately, even though I was already on the road in Montana and South Dakota when I was reading it.

Wisner’s story also elucidates just how terrific travel is for people who are in need of time to transition from one time of life to another, and shows just how easy it can be to get up and go once the wheels are in motion.

Yes, you can sell your house for example. It is possible to get rid of your car. It’s also possible to transition back to the U.S., or wherever you call home, when you need to. Having friends in various places helps and so does chucking guide books. Somewhere in the middle of their trip, they chucked guide books and traveled to places based on instinct and recommendations.

Because this book has a story line that continues throughout, this is one to read if you have time to read every day or so. It’s engaging, though, so I found it hard to put down.

According to the book’s jacket, Wisner is continuing with his writing and traveling.

For book 1 of 4, click here