Local veterans write about and share military experiences in workshop
It’s been 70 years, but memories of his military service in World War II are still vivid to Jim Walker, Grand Forks.
He has written about his experience in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1945 in a “Warrior Words” workshop which brought together vets of all ages to capture in writing and share their stories.
Grants from the North Dakota Humanities Council and the Wal-mart Foundation to the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre funded the workshops led by college professors this past winter in Grand Forks, Bismarck, Dickinson and Minot.
Veterans wrote monologues that were read in public presentations earlier this month in each city. In Grand Forks, they are read before performances of “Last of the Boys” at Fire Hall Theatre.
“I thought it was a great idea when I heard about it,” said Walker, 93, who attended the workshop to advance his work on family history.
At home in Parkwood Place, he has a large, leather-bound book that chronicles early history of his ancestors.
“I realized I might be an ancestor pretty damn quick,” he said with a smile.
Writing about his service brought up memories of the day Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and the military assignments that took him to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where he snapped “a lot of pictures,” he said.
The photos stir his memories and serve as fodder for the writing that now occupies much of his time, he said.
“I wanted to get it (written) down for my children and grandchildren,” said Walker, who is among a rapidly shrinking number of World War II veterans.
“There’s not so many of us anymore.”
And not many veterans may be prone to write, he said. “People don’t like to think about war.”
And “not very many people enjoy writing,” he said, although he’s not one of them. “I kind of like to write. It’s creative.”
For others, it could be cathartic — a way to release painful memories.
The Warrior Words project reflects a national movement to address the needs of returning military service members, said Kenneth Glass, associate director of the North Dakota Humanities Council.
“It’s one of their new initiatives to help veterans integrate back into society, using literature and writing to express themselves,” he said.
Earlier this month, the NEH announced the “Standing Together” initiative which “recognizes the importance of the humanities in helping Americans to understand the experiences of service members as they return to civilian life.”
The state humanities council “was impressed” with the Warrior Words project proposal in part because it involved veterans, Glass said. “That’s always a group we want to help, because of their sacrifice.”
Although the project wasn’t aimed at vets with post-traumatic stress disorder, “that was a theme that kept popping up,” said Kathy Coudle-King, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre. “In each site, there was at least one piece” that dealt with the disorder.
Talking with other vets and writing down one’s stories may help ease the psychological burden of long-held memories, she said.
“I’ve always felt that storytelling is very healing,”
She likens it to a snake bite, she said. “You’re letting it out, pinching out the poison. The more you get it out, the less it hurts you.”
“First, you have it in your head, then you put it on paper, and finally you say it out loud. It can be very, very helpful,” she said. “I feel once you verbalize it, it has less power over you.”
Yet, many veterans are not eager to write about wartime experiences, she said.
“We had difficulty recruiting to these workshops. The highest number was seven people in each group.”
Cal Lundberg, 85, of Dickinson, N.D., was “a little reluctant” to get involved, he said. “I can tell about the funny things, but that’s about where it stops.”
“For many years, I shoved (memories) under the rug,” said Lundberg, a combat veteran of the Korean Conflict who served in the U.S. Army Infantry from 1951 to 1953.
He’s never written about his experience, he said. “Too many bad memories.”
Lundberg, the oldest in the Warrior Words group in Dickinson, was the only Korea vet; others had served in Vietnam and the Gulf War, he said. They were all “a little cautious at first,” but soon found common ground.
“One vet can talk to another vet about it. I’ve never been able to talk to an ordinary civilian.”
“There’s a bond” between vets, he said. “I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s there …
I don’t care what war you were in, bullets still take the same toll.”
Lundberg spent “many months in combat,” including a battle at Heartbreak Ridge that “was hotly fought over,” he recalled. A “full contingent” was sent in; nearly half the soldiers in his company did not survive.
In 1953, when Lundberg returned to Dickinson, the invisible wounds of war were slow to heal.
“For the first 10 years, I had a lot of nightmares,” he said. “I scared the livin’ be-jeezuz out of my wife a couple of times; she had to wake me up.”
He suspects that he did have PTSD when he returned from Korea, he said, but “at that time they didn’t talk about such things, They talked about the stress of war but they didn’t have a label for it.”
In the initial Warrior Words workshop session, “I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
In the workshop, Lundberg wrote two pieces that he read to “a very large audience,” along with other vets, at an event this month in Dickinson.
The audience “gave everybody a big hand,” he said. “They were very receptive.”
For Vietnam veteran Myron Senechal, 70, of Bismarck, memories of U.S. Army service in the late ’60s endure.
“I’ve thought about it forever,” he said. “There’s not a day goes by that something doesn’t remind you of the time you had over there. It was a way of life in a young mind at that time.”
“I feel it’s an accomplishment just telling the story.”
As a young man who grew up on a farm in Rolette County in north-central North Dakota, he entered the service after graduating from North Dakota State University.
“You’re not ready to go to war ever. You’re never trained well to see the destruction or sights” of war, he said, “to see the bombs dropping and feel the ground shake.”
“You went to war as a boy, and came back with all these experiences that weren’t too good.”
Claire Eide, 69, Williston, who served in the military in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, said, “I have trouble with civilians who wonder how the war changed me. I ask them, ‘did you go to college; did it change you?
“It’s like writing any other story,” he said. “It’s history. I enjoy it.”
He grew up “sitting around a table of old-timers telling stories,” he said. “I took over the old-timer position at the table. Now I’m the one telling the stories.”
His experience in Vietnam is part of the history he wanted to write down, he said. “I wanted to be able to pass that down to my kids.”
Dr. Sherry O’Donnell, the UND English professor who led the Warrior Words workshop in Grand Forks, said, “It’s so important (for vets) to find each other and talk to each other ... As a teacher, I provide a place (for them) to explore and push themselves.”
“They have a lot to say, a lot to tell us. We need to learn, and we need to listen.”
Memories of his military service in Korea “would always get to me,” Lundberg said. “For many years I couldn’t talk about it to my own family.”
The war “is not easy to think about,” he said. “I wrote in general — no actual specifics (because) I’d rather not.”
But writing “made me realize how fortunate I am to be here 63 years later.”
Even though he had suppressed his experience for years, he said, the Warrior Words workshop also “made me realize that I could write about it. I could relate to it and accept it.”
The workshop may also have ignited a continuing interest in writing about his life, he said.
“My kids have bugged me about it for years. Maybe I’ll write a little bit more.”
If you go:
- What: “Last of the Boys,” Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre play commemorating the 50th anniversary of the official entrance of the U.S. into Vietnam.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and May 1 to 3 .
- Where: Fire Hall Theatre, 412 2nd Ave. N., Grand Forks.
- Cost: $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, students and military with I.D.
- Info: (701) 777-4090.
Jim Walker, 93, of Grand Forks, received the ‘Key to the City’ from Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown at the “Last of the Boys” performance at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fire Hall Theatre.
Walker, a World War II vet, was among about two dozen vets statewide who took part in the Warrior Words writing workshop around the state this winter, a project funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council and Walmart Foundation.
The workshops presented an opportunity for veterans to write about and share their military experience. The sessions were led by college professors in Grand Forks, Dickinson, Bismarck and Minot where vets presented their dramatic monologues earlier this month.
Brown noted that “we have fewer and fewer of these World War II veterans” with each passing year.
As a country, “we are where we are because of them and their sacrifice,” he said. “We should show that we appreciate it and that we don’t take that for granted.
“We’re standing on their shoulders.”
Brown praised the purpose of the Warrior Words project.
“There’s a wealth of experience and information we’re going to lose if we don’t tap into it,” he said.
Walker is one of the oldest veterans who participated in the workshop, said Kathy Coudle-King, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, who coordinated the workshops.
“We thought it would be pretty special to single him out in this way.”
The “Key to the City” is not a large key like people might expect, Coudle-King said. “It’s a lapel pin.”
During his service in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1945, Walker was a lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Los Angeles, the flagship of the nation’s South Pacific fleet. His military assignments took him to China and Hong Kong.
“Last of the Boys,” a play by Steven Dietz, is a story about two Vietnam veterans and the ghosts that haunt them.
Walker narrated his war-time memories in a 10-minute slide-show during the show’s intermission Sunday.