Student at Rowan interviews veterans

Student at Rowan interviews veterans

The new Ken Burns documentary series, "The War," which premiered Sunday on PBS television, might spark a national effort to document the experiences of World War II veterans.

If it does, Rowan University sophomore Tommy Winkelspecht, 19, of Riverside will be well ahead of that curve -- so much so that his one-on-one interviews with 30 veterans are now part of the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress.

For his Eagle Scout project for Troop 17 in Delran during the summer of 2005, Winkelspecht spent dozens of hours interviewing veterans who served the nation, during war and peace times, from World War II to the present.

Winkelspecht viewed the project as a way to connect and preserve the history of those who served their country. He lined up his interviewees through family contacts and veterans organizations. He made video and audio tapes of his interviews, transcribed them and submitted the information to the Library of Congress.

The Veterans History Project, which Burns is promoting through his seven-part documentary series "The War," is housed in the library's American Folklife Center.

"They're all very different experiences," Winkelspecht, a writing-arts major, was quoted as saying in a Rowan press release.

"I interviewed an air-traffic controller, a dental assistant, nurses. They all have different stories. In my interviews, I heard "I was just doing my job' and "I was really scared' very often."

The subjects of Winkelspecht's interviews ranged from West Point-born Army Lt. Col. Hugh F. Foster III, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, to Joseph A. Sedor Sr., a Bronze Star-winning Army veteran of the Korean War, to Roy H. Hatcher, Winkelspecht's great uncle. Hatcher was an Army corporal who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

It was Hatcher's World War II experiences that prompted Winkelspecht to focus on the Veterans History Project for his Eagle Scout project.

"When I was growing up, he would tell me stories in little bits and pieces," said Winkelspecht, who was involved with a World War II re-enactment group while a Riverside High School student. "I was always interested in history and I was fascinated by World War II."

The veterans' stories provided Winkelspecht with a different perspective on war, he said.

"When you're young and you watch John Wayne movies, you think war is like that," he said. "But then you find out it's completely different -- and a lot harder than that.

"My uncle had just turned 18 when he got his notice. His training was cut short because the Germans cut through the American lines at the Battle of the Bulge. He was a replacement with the Army 86th Blackhawk Division. He was in combat for 42 straight days."

Winkelspecht and Hatcher recently talked about their involvement with the Veterans History Project with "NBC Nightly News."

The goal of the project is to preserve the experiences of the nation's veterans, particularly those of World War II. Statistics show that veterans of that war are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day, many without ever having shared their stories of combat and service.

In addition to submitting interviews and profiles to the Library of Congress, Winkelspecht also compiled a book of the transcribed interviews, which he shared with each veteran he interviewed and with local schools and libraries to ensure that the veterans' service would be documented in their hometowns and nationally.

whose career goal is to write music reviews for New Yorker magazine, downplays his own work on the Veterans History Project. The praise, he says, should go to the veterans who took the time to share their stories.

"For me, it was really not a big deal," he said. "The praise goes to the veterans. They were ordinary people who found themselves able to do extraordinary things."

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Date Published: Thursday, September 27, 2007 - 06:00