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cover artThat Happened: The WW II Collection | Volume One  is an ongoing series of audio short stories from the archives of the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative, in partnership with the Veterans Breakfast Club.  These stories have been adapted from oral history interviews with WW II veterans from Pittsburgh and throughout Western Pennsylvania.

Fran Rifugiato: Luck Man

Francis Rifugiato | ArmyDuration:  04:03 | 9.28 MB

Francis Rifugiato joined the Army ROTC’s enlisted reserve corps while a music student at Duquesne University because he assumed the war would be over by the time he graduated.  He was ordered to report to active duty in 1943.  “I went from learning how to play clarinet in a Mozart concerto to learning how to kill someone with a bayonet.”

Francis served in an Army band until the need for combat infantrymen broke up the band and sent him into the 12th Armored Division.  He boarded a troop ship in September 1944 and landed in France in November.   Being a member of a headquarters company, Fran wasn’t involved in offensive operations, but he saw a lot of combat nonetheless.  “I’m very lucky,” he says.   Not so lucky was Fran’s best friend Charlie, who was a musician like Fran.  Charlie’s death still haunts Fran, these many years later.

On May 9, 2012 we held our project’s second session of interviews with local veterans at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.  We set up our mobile recording studio in the stately Board Room—a formidable space of old world dark paneling, lofty ceilings, and leather-bound furniture.   Along with the warm spring breeze, the busy sounds of Pittsburgh’s Oakland section occasionally wafted through the room’s magnificent stained glass windows, six stories above the University of Pittsburgh campus sprawling below us.

Like most veterans, Fran Rifugiato showed up early for his recording session.   An original WW II canvass satchel held his mementos—some boxed medals, faded photographs, and a few tattered documents.  As Fran carefully unpacked his bag to show us what he’d brought, he began to down-play the significance of his keepsakes and his story.  “I really don’t know what to tell you fellas,” he said, as if apologizing.  “My story isn’t very interesting.  I wasn’t a hero.  Many other guys did a lot more than I did.  So many guys never came home.  I just happened to survive.”

Fran would repeat this sentiment throughout our interview.  Sometimes through tears, sometimes laughter.  After so many years, the most heartfelt feelings can still lie just beneath the surface of memory.  But that’s why Fran sat down with us to tell his story; despite his earlier concern about having nothing to say, he eventually realized the power of his own story.

Mid-way through our interview, past the obligatory catalog of names, dates, and places, Fran suddenly stopped and said, “I want to tell you what it was really like,” not referring to the facts, but to his thoughtful interpretation of the war.

When telling their stories, some veterans seem to focus more on the meaning of events–the impact of experience upon the heart, mind, body, and soul.  Veterans turned educators, like Fran Rifugiato, seem to share their stories in this way–as object lessons in humanity.

Kathleen Short: The Wedding

Kathleen Short_Portrait2Duration:  02:59 | 6.83 MB

A native of Devon, England, Kathleen Short couldn’t wait to join the British forces during WWII. As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Kathleen was originally assigned to work on a Barrage Balloon with a group of women, but, to her delight, she and the other girls under the age of 21 were taken off the assignment. “We were so happy,” she remembers, “That was the happiest day of the few months I’d been in the service.” Kathleen’s new position was with radio operations, where she relayed messages and scheduled plane take-offs and landings. Though she found transferring mayday messages stressful, overall she enjoyed working in the operations division.

While on leave, Kathleen met Maurice Short at a dance. An American soldier, Maurice proved his persistence by acquiring Kathleen’s address from her sister and expressing his devotion via post. In a borrowed dress and shoes, in her home, surrounded by her family, Kathleen became Kathleen Short on July 28th, 1945, just months after the war ended. After a brief seaside honeymoon, the newlyweds returned to their respective camps. A few months later, Kathleen left the service and found a job in Exeter, later moving to Northern England where Maurice was attending school. With plans to meet in America, Maurice headed home to New York, and a now pregnant Kathleen made her preparations for the trip, paid for by the Red Cross. She arrived in New York on Easter Sunday, April 26th, 1946, where she and Maurice began their new life together in an apartment in Brooklyn.

“Speaking here, I had to stop a couple times, cause you didn’t want to talk about it and remember the bad things,” Kathleen whispers. The bad things are hard to escape, even 70 years later: the pilotless planes sent by the Germans, nicknamed “Doodlebugs” by the WAAFs, the poverty that forced families to camp out in train cars on the London underground, the memories of bombings and hostages. But Kathleen assures us that it was all worth it: “I just wanted to do my part to win the war, that was as simple as that. And I’m proud I did it, I’d do it again.”

Our first 2013 recording session at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum took place in early June.  We’re fond of the grand Gettysburg Room because of its dark wooden paneling and spaciousness.  We try to record there whenever we can, as does the History Channel, the BBC, PBS, and several local media outlets.

British born, but long-time Pittsburgh resident, Kathleen Short was kind enough to meet us at Soldiers & Sailors on June 4th.  “My goodness,” she exclaimed, “I wasn’t sure that anyone was interested in my stories about the war.  Are you sure that you want to hear what I have to say?” she asked us.  Indeed we are, we assured her.  Indeed we are.  And besides, we had something very special to show Kathleen–a vintage, WW II era Union Jack, courtesy of curator Mike Krause.

Kathleen was thrilled, as we thought she might be.  “This goes well with the medals I wore today,” patting two silver King George medallions pinned to her smock.  “They gave me these after the war and I’m quite fond of them really, perhaps more than anything else.”

Alex Sopka: My Dad

Alex Sopka Duration:  02:28 | 5.65 MB

Alex Sopka grew up on the rough streets of Pittsburgh’s Northside, the son of Russian immigrants.  His father’s path towards American citizenship was to fight in WW I, where gas destroyed his lungs.

Like many young men, the news of Pearl Harbor inspired Al to action but the government drafted him first–for good measure.  After an unhappy stint with an Army artillery unit, Al anxiously volunteered for infamous airborne duty as fighting against the Germans heated up in late 1944-1945.

The idea of jumping out of planes to fight the enemy seems glamorous, but only in Hollywood movies.  Once on the ground, if a paratrooper survives the fall, he then becomes a regular infantryman dangerously engaging the enemy nearby.  “Don’t shoot ‘em until you’re up close,” they were instructed.

Of course, the scared, young lads of Al Sopka’s unit carried out their orders as best they could.  It was tough going; kill or be killed.  Well into his 90s, Al Sopka still dreams about the horror.

On October 6, 2012, we had a wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with Alex Sopka in the grand Gettysburg Room of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We were delighted that Mr. Sopka brought with him several photographs that day.   It’s always a delightful privilege that we may look back through the years at the images of young sailors and soldiers–forever so youthful and carefree in those now faded and fragile old photographs. Veterans’ scrapbooks, like their stories and memories, are often so frail from age and use that we have to gingerly plumb through them with the utmost care.  Still, they are for us and future generations amazing portals into the past.  Time machines.

Alex was our first oral history interview on a sun filled Saturday morning.  A hint of fall was in the air and the eventual changing of the seasons had begun.   It was a gentle reminder that, as it is with so many of the elderly participants we’ve come to know through our project, the golden days of summer eventually draw to an end.

Joe Capone: That Happened

Joseph Capone | ArmyDuration:  02:28 | 5.66 MB

Joseph Capone entered the US Army in January 1943 and served until December 1945.  He fought in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany as an infantryman in Company E, 415th Infantry Regiment, 104th Infantry Division, also known as the Timberwolf Division.

We met Joseph Capone on a warm, spring day in 2012.   His was our second interview that day in the stately Board Room of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  The trees and flowers were blooming outside, birds were singing peacefully, and a pleasant sun was shining through a gently passing rain shower.

Early May feels like renewal, a rebirth after the long winter.  But that was sixty-six years removed from the dark and violent times Joseph Capone experienced as a young man, fighting his way across a blackened, death-filled Europe.

For more than an hour that day, Mr. Capone’s stories exposed the sharp contrast between 1945 and 2012, between life and death, humanity and evil.  And like many other WW II veterans’ stories, they reminded us that peace–like spring time–is a precious gift of hope and renewal.

Julia Parsons: Top Secret

Julia Parsons Duration:  03:59 | 9.12 MB

Julia Parsons volunteered for the Navy WAVES—“Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service”—in 1942 after graduating from Carnegie Tech.  She studied cryptology at Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College, and then she was ordered to Washington, D.C. for top secret duty.

She joined section SHARK, whose job it was to de-code German U-boat message traffic sent via the ENIGMA machine.  Deciphering the messages involved working with “Bombe,” one of the first computers.  For most of the war, Julia knew the locations of German U-boats in the North Atlantic and, because of the personal nature of many of these messages, had intimate knowledge of enemy crews’ lives.

After the war Julia lost her job as a cryptologist, which was one of the best and most exciting she ever had, although “I never spoke about what I did for many years.  Not even my husband knew what I did.”  Julia finally broke her silence about her top-secret work in 1997.

On October 6, 2012, we had a wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with Julia Parsons in the grand Gettysburg Room of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We were delighted that Ms. Parsons brought with her several photographs that day.   It’s always a delightful privilege that we may look back through the years at the images of young sailors and soldiers–forever so youthful and carefree in those now faded and fragile old photographs.

Veterans’ scrapbooks, like their stories and memories, are often so frail from age and use that we have to gingerly plumb through them with the utmost care.  Still, they are for us and future generations amazing portals into the past.  Time machines.

Julia’s was our second oral history interview on a sun filled afternoon.  Yet, a hint of fall was in the air and the eventual changing of the seasons had begun.   It was a gentle reminder that, as it is with so many of the elderly veterans we’ve come to know through our project, the golden days of summer eventually draw to an end.

Ralph Carrington: War Volunteer

Ralph Carrington Duration:  03:24 | 7.8 MB

Ralph Carrington served with the Army Air Corps during WW II.  But he almost didn’t get in.  When he volunteered for service in 1942, it was discovered that he was colorblind.  But a year later, as the war escalated, Ralph was drafted into the Army and trained as an ordinance man.

Dissatisfied with waiting stateside, Ralph volunteered for overseas duty with a P-61 outfit–the 549th Night Fighter Squadron.  In the Army Air Corps at last, he and his squadron shipped westward to the Pacific islands to support the air war over Japan.  With Japanese holdouts still on the loose, the 549th was stationed on Iwo Jima.

It was a barren, sulphurous place, recalls Ralph, without a blade of green to cover the black volcanic sands.  It was dangerous, too, despite a Marine Corps General’s assurance that the island had been secured.  The 22,000 Japanese defending the island had been neutralized.  So they thought . . .

On a bitterly cold day in early February 2013, we were finishing up a long day of recording veterans’ stories at Providence Point retirement community in Pittsburgh’s South Hills suburb.  It was a special day for us, joining efforts for the first time with the Army’s 354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment to interview over a dozen WW II and Korean War era vets.  To accommodate so many interviews in one day, we tightly scheduled our appointments back to back, leaving little time to rest in between sessions. However, at a rare lull in activity, I noticed an elderly gentleman standing alone at the doorway of the ballroom that we used as a makeshift recording studio.  He looked on inquisitively at our cameras, lights, and sound equipment. I nodded in his direction as his attention turned my way.  He nodded back with a gentle smile.

“Are you a veteran, sir?” I asked with the intention of then explaining what the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative was doing there that day.  “I am,” he said.  “I was on Iwo Jima, with a P-61 squadron.”  He then paused, anticipating my reaction.  Images of WW II aircraft raced through my mind . . . P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightnings . . . .  I hadn’t heard of a P-61.  “Black Widows,” Ralph Carrington said, “night fighters, equipped with radar.”  I was genuinely intrigued and curious.  “No kidding?  Would you like to sit down and do an interview with us and explain what a P-61 is?  We’d love to hear your stories about Iwo Jima,” I added.  But Ralph looked down at his shoes, which were slowly starting to shuffle past me.  “No.  I don’t think I’d like to do that.  I don’t talk about those days much.  But thank you anyway,” he said softly and with obvious sincerity.  And with that, Mr. Carrington walked through the ball room and was out of sight.

Later that afternoon as we were ready to pack up our gear, the 354th’s First Sergeant eagerly approached me and asked if we had time to do one last interview that day.  He explained that earlier he had been talking with an elderly WW II veteran and his wife in the hallway, and he finally convinced the gentleman–with loving coercion by his wife–to do an oral history interview with us.  Sure we could.  “Great!” said the First Sergeant, excited to close the deal.  “I’ll tell Mr. Carrington to come on in.”

Victor Miesel: In All Those Years

MIESEL (9)Duration:  02:41 | 6.15 MB

Victor Miesel spent the war years in the South Pacific serving with the Army Air Corps. His support role kept planes flying and helped move forward the massive Allied build up towards Japan. Although he served in the rear of the front lines, his squadron repeatedly came under attack and suffered tremendous casualties. Yet, despite the dangers, Victor and his outfit carried out their duties with speed and efficiency–they had to. “We assembled thirty trucks one day,” he says proudly. “The boys up front needed them and we delivered.”

Like so many other GIs after the war, Victor put his experiences behind him and started a new life with his family. Only decades later–at age 80–did he realize that no one had ever asked him about his service. Then, after so many years he began to share his story. Now, at 94, Victor Miesel is still telling his story so that future generations will understand the sacrifices veterans made during WW II.

Despite being the first day of spring 2014, it snowed the day we preserved the stories of five veterans from Tionesta, Pennsylvania: Victor Miesel, Lew Weingard, Rick Witherell, Lewis Cooke, and Bernie Polar.

We were enthusiastically invited to Tionesta by Mr. Miesel, an energetic 94 year old veteran of the Army Air Corps.  We set up our mobile studio at Mt. Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The quiet country location made for a perfect recording location.

We could not have asked for a more interesting day of amazing stories, the likes of which we’ve not heard before–ranging from the southern islands of the Pacific, post war Japan, the Kuwaiti desert, jungles of Vietnam, and the mountains of Korea.

“You’ve had a long day,” Victor consoled us.  Sixteen hours from door to door.  Sure, it was a long day, but we’re known to go the extra mile for a great story . . . or in this case, five of them!

Barbara Duffy: Treat Them Well

Barbara Duffy | ArmyDuration:  03:46 | 8.63 MB

Barbara Duffy served as a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.  She had hardly ever ventured more than 50 miles from her home in Beverly, Mass., but in 1943, she shipped around the world to the Pacific to tend to the wounded . . . both Americans and Japanese.  One searing memory is holding the hand of a badly wounded POW as doctors prepared to amputate his leg.  The POW returned the kindness later when Barbara was recovering from a life-threatening fever.  He approached her, held her hand, and gave her a rare treat, better than gold: a bowl of ice cream.

We met Barbara Duffy for the first time when she visited us in the Gettysburg Room at Soldiers & Sailors Hall & Museum.  We were set up for our first recording session of September, and it was a bright, crisp day with only a hint of fall in the air–the kind of day that puts an extra pep in one’s step.  Perhaps that’s why we were so excited to interview our first WW II Army nurse.   What also made the day special were the period uniforms that Mike Kraus loaned us for our interview session.  Mike is the curator at Soldiers & Sailors, and perhaps no one knows more about the thousands of artifacts on hand at the museum.  It’s always very special to watch our veterans’ eyes light up when they see a piece of military uniform or gear for the first time in many decades.  That’s what happened when Barbara laid eyes on the nurses’ uniforms we had on set.

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This audio recording is produced Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh.  Audio engineering and digital/CD design by Kevin Farkas.

The Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative is an educational media organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Its mission is to preserve and share the voices, images, and experiences of Pittsburgh area veterans of all branches of service and eras, including peace and war-time service.

Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh moves beyond the traditional oral history archive, because a story not told is a story not heard.  Veterans’ stories are shared using creative and interpretive techniques across different media, including audiographic, videographic, photographic, and literary genres.  Each medium allows for new and creative ways to tell veterans’ stories and to make them more accessible to diverse audiences.

The Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative was founded by Kevin Farkas in 2010.  Since 2012 it has worked in partnership with the nonprofit Veterans Breakfast Club (VeteransBreakfastClub.com).  Together the team has conducted more than 250 interviews and produced over 50 hours of audio and video stories available online.

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Proceeds help support the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh oral history program.

© 2014  That Happened: The WW II Collection (Volume One). Kevin Farkas/Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative.  All Rights Reserved.