In the living room of Troy, Texas resident, Frank Thompson, junior history and political science major Olivia Gustin and senior history major Naomi Johnson recorded the stories of a World War II veteran.
Unlike the tales of noble soldiers who went for days without food or water while pulling comrades to safety, Thompson told his story of what each brave soldier did every day.
Gustin and Johnson are part of history/political science chair Dr. David Chrisman’s History Inquiry class. Members interviewed vets for the Veterans History Project sponsored by the Library of Congress.
“It’s really nice because these are the stories that aren’t being told,” Gustin said. “This is the mass of the military. This is what got us through World War II are guys like him who did their job … ”
Thompson was drafted from Texas A&M’s Corps into the Army’s 172nd Infantry Company H and served from February 1943 to September 1945. He fought in the Southern Pacific on the front lines and then returned to Texas to continue farming.
Thompson said, “I was glad to give it (his story). I guess if I never give it, nobody will ever know about it.”
The interview started for students in the classroom but it quickly grew into pure interest of first-hand experience.
Johnson said, “I think what was interesting was a small-town boy from Texas being thrown into a worldwide phenomenon and seeing how he dealt with it.”
One of the issues was coping with his brother’s death while he was still fighting in the southern Pacific.
The reality of war hit Thompson in a few ways that surprised his interviewers.
Johnson said, “There were times where it was very intense. We would ask him questions, anything to do with the combat that he was in. He would put his head down, and we would have to give him about 30 seconds to compose himself because the memories … were still so intense.”
The outlook on the war also surprised Gustin and Johnson.
“I think the thing that struck me the most, and where I actually expected the opposite, was in how he spoke about the war,” Gustin said. “I think history likes to paint World War II as some sort of patriotic rousing of the country, and that they were all behind it, and that they were all wanting to engage. But (Thompson) said if there hadn’t been a draft, they wouldn’t have gone.”
His outlook created a similarity between Thompson and the people he fought.
Johnson said, “He didn’t see them as an animalistic enemy. He saw them as boys who were on the front line fighting, just like him.”
Thompson said the people he fought had a job to do, as he did.
“They were just like us,” he said. “They were just like we were. They were just doing their job and doing what they were forced to do. So that’s what they did, and that’s what we did.”
Thompson’s wife, Shirley, sat through the interviews.
“I loved that his wife was right there, bringing up stories that he’d forgotten to tell, prodding him or encouraging him,” Johnson said. “It was really helpful, and it was really entertaining at some points. It was almost heartbreaking at some points because when he would quiet down with some really traumatic memories she said, ‘It has to be told.’”
The artifacts Thompson has kept also surprised the students.
Johnson said, “There was this Japanese flag, and it looked like it was made of silk. He said that he thought all the Japanese soldiers carried (a flag). It had writing all over it in Japanese on the white part.”
Among the other things Thompson brought back were American and Japanese dog tags, various pins, graphic photos and a Japanese coin bent from where a bullet had pierced it.
Something Johnson noticed was Thompson’s canteen. It had a hole in it from shrapnel.
She said, it was “something that was intricately connected to his daily life and then also showing the ravage of war and how close he was to death every day.”
Both students felt a responsibility to keep Thompson’s memory alive and record it well.
“I don’t want him to be a statistic. Frank wasn’t normal because nothing you experience in war is normal,” Gustin said. “I hope that it came across as significant. I hope I did an adequate job with that.”
All of the students had to research, interview and record a veteran once or twice for a comprehensive story of what he did and transcribe their interviews to send to the Library of Congress. The students will continue their project by writing a paper of more than 20 pages for the class.
Johnson said, “I’m excited to have this stuff on record. To have his story on record because (stories) are being lost every single day.”