Earthworms’ Castings

with Jean Ponzi

Two Veterans’ Stories Preserving a Precious Legacy

The Missouri Veterans’ History Project evolved from a national Clinton-era effort to honor and record the experience of all U.S. military veterans.

Congressional grants awarded to the states in 2000, through legislative sponsorship from AARP, bought digital video equipment and jump-started use of an interview process from the American Folklife Center. When the federal funds were spent, Representative Jill Schupp (D-Creve Coeur) formed a non-profit partnership between the University of Missouri and Missouri Historical Society to engage volunteers to continue conserving the stories of Missourians’ military service.

DVD recordings are archived in the Library of Congress and the Missouri Historical Society with a copy presented to each veteran and his or her family. In October of this year, Don Aird, a WWII POW, contributed a milestone 500th story.

This spring, on a milestone date for me, I heard my uncle Travis Blackmore, who was then 87, add his personal saga into our nation’s historical treasury.

World War II was raging when Trav left his home in Mexico, Missouri to join the U.S. Navy. Serving as a radioman in the Pacific Theater, he saw Marines raise the American flag on Iwo Jima. He was aboard the U.S.S. Lindsey, a minelayer destroyer, on April 12, 1945, when kamikaze pilots swarmed his ship. Trav was working less than 30 feet from where the bow blew to kingdom come, killing 57 sailors and wounding him and 56 more.

Trav recalled being “airlifted” from his stricken ship in little more than a canvas sling, feeling fear more than pain as he dangled helpless in mid-air. He proudly reported having received his Purple Heart from Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, although, still being in hospital, he was not fully aware of that honor, that day.

Travis told his story to the camera on April 13, 2013. It was 68 years and one day after his brush with death on the Lindsey. He wore his Purple Heart and a souvenir cap from a 20th annual Lindsey crew reunion he attended in 1995. Afterwards he quietly told me, “I left out the part about pulling bodies out of the water…”

After Travis finished his story, we listened to another elderly gentleman, Lee Roy Temming, recount his service in the U.S. Army. Lee Roy fought on Omaha Beach, and then in the Battle of the Bulge. He would have continued into the next wave but medical authorities said he was suffering battle fatigue.

Travis had a reserved way of speaking. He answered the interviewer’s question, stopped and waited for the next one, for nearly an hour. Lee Roy was a natural raconteur. His story was liberally garnished with frauleins and mademoiselles. He had not repeated himself when the DVD’s 90 minutes had filled.

I sat spellbound through both narrations, seeing movies in my mind – with a vivid edge I can still recall. Trav’s was a documentary, and Lee Roy’s was a feature film.

They modestly shared bravery and recounted unspeakable destruction, never flinching from horrors lived when Trav was only 19 and Lee Roy a grown-up 22. Both men spoke from wheelchairs. They were living in a nursing home. At the end of his interview Lee Roy said, “Hey, thanks for caring what we did!”

About a month later, my family replayed Travis’ interview at his funeral. It was sweet and painful to once more hear his voice, telling his story of service, a quietly stated epic of valor, knowing he is held in history now.

The Missouri Veterans’ History Project welcomes the story of any veteran, whether of combat or peacetime service. Information and appointments can be accessed through www.mvhp.net or by calling 573-522-4220.

Thanks to Alternative Hospice, a Healthy Planet client, for coordinating these veteran interviews.

Jean Ponzi presents environmental stories, Mondays 7-8 p.m. on KDHX-FM “Earthworms” and Sundays 1-2 p.m. on “Growing Green St. Louis” on the Big 550-KTRS-AM.