Preserve ‘living’ history before it’s too late

By Tom Joyce

November 9, 2013

When Veterans Day is coming up, as it is this Monday, I usually seek opportunities to interview local residents who have served in the military — and this year is no exception.

While assembling some material for a preview article of activities scheduled in Mount Airy on the holiday, I was pleased to learn that Thurmond Midkiff will be the grand marshal for the annual Veterans Day parade here.

This is a most-appropriate choice, as Mr. Midkiff, now 89, had a distinguished career as a member of the “Rattlesnake” Squad of the 34th Infantry Division, which saw action in many hot spots during World War II.

In addition to being excited about announcing his presence in Monday’s parade, I have made arrangements to interview Mr. Midkiff for an in-depth feature story later this month.

Being a longtime Civil War buff as well as a student of other conflicts such as Vietnam and World War I, I am especially interested in the greatest fight our country has ever known: World War II.

Of course, there is no one left from the Civil War to interview, but that is not the case with World War II, although the ranks of its veterans are dwindling — who are said to be dying at the rate of slightly more than 600 per day. As an avid reader of obituaries, it is amazing how many men who die in their 80s or 90s served in what can rightfully be called America’s last patriotic war.

The history books and biographies of wartime figures I’ve read, including that of Audie Murphy, are colorful and informative, but there is nothing like sitting down with an actual veteran to hear his personal story. Often, I gain insights that one can’t glean from reading a book or watching a documentary on television.

Not that I’m a great interviewer or anything, but it’s been my experience that these fellows invariably will impart some historical tidbit or other fact about the war which I hadn’t been exposed to elsewhere.

Last November, I was privileged to interview Worth Haynes for a Veterans Day feature story. I say “privileged” because Mr. Haynes was a member of the “Polar Bear” infantry unit that distinguished itself during the bloody Italian Campaign of World War II.

My time with Mr. Haynes also proved to be an extremely fortunate encounter due to the fact I was able to record his story about four months before he died at age 89.

I’ve also had the good fortune over the years to write articles about other notable veterans in Surry County, including Jack Leach, one of my favorite people, who is among the last-surviving servicemen from the Pearl Harbor attack.

Then there was the late Norman Webb, who took part in the D-Day campaign, and W.F. “Bud” Liebenow, who led a mission to rescue John F. Kennedy after the latter’s PT boat incident in 1943.

There have been others I’ve had the pleasure to meet and write about over my past four decades as a newspaperman in Mount Airy. The sad part is, there are many others I will never have the chance to interview because they are no longer around.

In the case of Thurmond Midkiff, who I greatly look forward to speaking with later this month, his daughter, Susan Craver, has advised that he is suffering from some of the usual infirmities of age. “His health isn’t good, his hearing is even worse and he just took a bad fall,” she wrote me in an email.

Which brings me to the whole point of today’s column about the need to preserve the memories of our remaining storehouses of “living history” — while they are still here.

If I could be president of the U.S. for a day — but no more than that, because who would want that stinking job? — I’d issue a decree to address this issue.

This would involve forming special camera crews in each region of the country to go out and record the stories of all World War II veterans. They would sit down with each for an hour or two, to document where they served, which branch of the military they were with, their memories of the war, etc.

I can’t really take credit for coming up with this idea. Jack Leach once told me that he often speaks to church, school and other groups about his Pearl Harbor experiences, and personnel at some of the schools have recorded his talks.

That way, generations of people — especially students — will be able to hear a first-hand account of someone who was part of an important chapter in our history.

My plan would simply expand what has occurred with Mr. Leach to all World War II vets. Of course, this wouldn’t be cheap, but as president I would simply divert money from the subsidies paid to big oil companies or to defense contractors who are bleeding this country dry to fund my historic-preservation project.

In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to take advantage of any opportunity to sit down with veterans, of all wars, and talk to them about their experiences. It would be even better to use a recording device to make sure these stories survive for posterity.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to thank these brave individuals for their service.

Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or