Grand Valley records oral histories of Red Arrow veterans, partners with Library of Congress

--by Mary Isca Pirkola

Steve Janicki was only 16 years old when he signed his name on a sheet of paper and joined his slightly older buddies in the National Guard on Friday, October 12, 1940. The Depression-era young men were lured by the indoor swimming pool at the Armory, the promise of food and clothing, and a paying job that could help support their families. By the following Monday they were mobilized and officials were too busy to notice that Janicki was underage. Before long he was marching down Monroe Avenue in Grand Rapids, with about 80 other young men, to Union Station where they boarded a train and began a very long journey, unaware of the pending threat of the Japanese and the coming attack on Pearl Harbor that would immerse our country in World War II. They ultimately served in the gruesome New Guinea Campaign as part of the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division. Known as the Red Arrow Division, it saw 654 days of continuous combat, more than any other U.S. Division during the war. When Janicki finally returned home nearly five years later, he was denied a beer at a local bar because he was still underage.

Janicki's personal recollections, along with those of other West Michigan Red Arrow veterans, are being preserved thanks to the collaborative efforts of many individuals at Grand Valley. Oral histories taken by students in a special projects history class will become part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Each history has been professionally recorded on video. Segments from these oral histories are also being used to produce a documentary film. These efforts are not only preserving history, but are also:

  • bringing attention to the relatively unknown Red Arrow Division, which began as militia companies in Grand Rapids and dates back to the Civil War;
  • providing new resources to historians examining the New Guinea Campaign;
  • establishing Grand Valley's Department of History as a partner archive with the Library of Congress.

With the youngest World War II vets now in their 80s, there is an overwhelming sense of urgency to capture their oral histories before the opportunity to hear from the participants themselves is lost. National efforts include the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, which began in 2000.

Frank Boring, an adjunct professor in Grand Valley's School of Communications, had previously worked with the Red Arrow Division while recording oral and video histories for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. He brought a group of these veterans to Grand Valley for a panel discussion during the Great Lakes History Conference in 2003. Former Grand Rapids City Historian Gordon Olson, also an adjunct professor at Grand Valley, was the moderator.

"What you had in the audience was a bunch of guys leaning forward in their chairs, wanting to tell their stories, too," Olson said. "The minute we opened the floor to questions and comments, they began to pour their hearts out."

This unit saw incredibly vicious fighting and yet their stories got lost, partly because they were not in the main arena. Right after Pearl Harbor was attacked most of the attention went to Europe. The Buna corridor has never received much attention in history books and the Red Arrow remains unknown, even to most people in West Michigan.

The 126th Infantry Regiment has been in active military since 1855 and began as militia companies in Grand Rapids. It served in the Civil War and then during World War I was organized and assigned to the 32nd Red Arrow Division. During World War II, the 126th was part of the 32nd Division that saw action in New Guinea and the Philippines. Of the 3,791 soldiers sent to New Guinea, only 385 returned without casualties. These young men were thrust into situations that they were totally unprepared for; they went up against the most experienced Japanese military units, persevered and defeated the enemy. Yet they have never been formerly recognized.

“No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it. I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare.”
– Commanding General Robert L. Eichelberger

It became obvious to a growing number of people that the Red Arrow veterans' stories needed to be documented. Many months of considerations and collaborations, involving Jim Smither, chair of the Department of History, and Alex Nesterenko, director of the School of Communications, resulted in the formation of a special topics class. History 380 combined learning about World War II history and documentary filmmaking. A team-teaching approach joined Olson's credibility as an experienced historian with Boring's experience in documentary filmmaking.

"We didn't know if we would get enough students in the class to do this project, if there would be enough interest," said Boring. "In fact, they went way beyond our greatest expectations. I think the fact that the students knew they would be going out to interview vets, led them to delve deeply into the material. They wanted to do a good job."

The class content included an overview of World War II and the participation of the Red Arrow, and taught the students how to prepare for and conduct an oral history interview. It also included a field trip to the main branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library to learn how to find archival materials.

Anita Van Til from Holland wondered if there were any Red Arrow materials in the Holland Museum archives. What she and the archivist found was some 16mm film that was simply labeled "126th." Without the appropriate projector to view it, no one was sure what it contained. With assistance from Grand Valley, the film was transferred to videotape and revealed a wealth of historic treasures, including footage from Camp Grayling. Now the video was available to use in the documentary and for future reference at the Holland Museum.

“We didn't bathe; we didn't shave for four months. At least our beards helped to keep mosquitoes away.”
– Bob Hartman

 

Kelli Brockschmidt first learned about the Red Arrow while doing an internship with Boring on the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. As a history major, she was interested in learning more. Through her own independent research as a McNair scholar, she wrote and presented a paper at the Great Lakes History Conference last year. By the time she enrolled in History 380, she had a wealth of knowledge to contribute to the class project.

"So much history is based on the knowledge and viewpoints of officers, while the oral histories of common soldiers bring new insights," she said.

She also fact-checked the recollections of the vets interviewed by the class. She learned that the official number of soldiers suffering from tropical diseases only counted those who were hospitalized. Repeatedly, the vets' stories revealed that virtually everyone suffered from malaria and other tropical diseases. But because their troops were so limited in number and they were so far from any means of transportation, the soldiers were required to keep fighting unless their temperature surpassed 104 degrees. Only then were they hospitalized.

Once the interviews were videotaped, the students needed to get them ready for the second half of class, preparing them for use in the documentary. Each student was required to produce an outline of the entire contents of their interview, which often ran 90-120 minutes. Each student then came to class with what they felt were key points to be included in the documentary and tried to defend their choices to be included in the final timeline.

We had to travel 100 miles through the jungle and over mountains, so most of us threw away every bit of equipment we didn't absolutely need. – Jack Hill

"It became very heated at times," Boring said. "It was just delightful to see them so involved in the merits of their work. This is exactly what they would need to do in the professional world."

Olson said he, Boring and the students decided not to tell the story of the New Guinea campaign because, "it was too big to cover in an hour."

"The Red Arrow story is still too big. We can't even tell the 126th story, which includes Holland, Muskegon, Grand Haven,Grand Rapids and more," he said. "We ended up really focusing on a few companies from West Michigan, and individual stories from men who were plucked from their little piece of familiar territory -- for many of them it was their first train ride outside of the area -- and thrust into one of the most challenging missions of World War II.

"We're not trying to teach people about the war in the Pacific, other than to help them understand what a very, very tough war it was, and that these guys had to become very good soldiers, very fast, without a lot of preparation. So we ended up telling very personal stories."

Veteran Ed Szudzik talked about going out on a patrol and one guy got lost and they came back without him. A couple of nights later, when he was out on sentry duty, he heard a noise out on the perimeter. He said he was within a second of pulling the trigger when a familiar voice shouted his name.

"It was very tough for the students watching that video, seeing the vet break up emotionally as he admits he almost shot his friend, but it really helps the students realize what they went through," said Olson. "It could have been the student at this age. That moment didn't decide anything about World War II, but it does tell an awful lot about what war is like. That's the kind of video we're making."

When the course ended the students had developed a storyboard for making the documentary. But, the physical editing remained. Chris Michael stepped up to the plate. About to graduate with a double major in history and film and video production, Michael was looking for a senior thesis project. He brought another student editor who was about to graduate, Ahmed Al-Tawil.

Each vet's taped interview was nearly two hours, yet only small segments of each could be included in the documentary. There is a great wealth of additional information that will be made available to future researchers. Grand Valley's Department of History is now a partner archive with the Library of Congress. All the materials gathered here will remain here, but they will be identified and placed in a database that will be indexed at the LOC.

"Doing the interviews brought back so much that we'd either forgotten about, or never told," said Veteran Bob Hartman. "Even my children and grandchildren were surprised to hear about my experiences."

"What was especially moving to me was to see is the incredible amount of respect the students showed the veterans," Boring said. "Afterwards, the basic statement made in various ways by every student, was that this was the most moving experience they ever had in a history class because for the first time, they were studying living history."

Page last modified March 17, 2014