Saving Private Memories
Calvin English students spend semester preserving history of local World War II veterans
by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

Calvin student Elisa Ridolphi was expecting the typical college writing assignments in her freshman English class. Predictably, the Calvin College catalog description for English 101 reads, "A study of written rhetoric in English, including a review of grammar, extensive practice in writing expository essays, a research component, and a required lab."

"I figured we would be doing things like writing about trees and describing our feelings about trees—that kind of thing," she said.

That's why Ridolphi was so surprised when one of the required books for the course was The Second World War: A Short History.

"After meeting with Mr. [Samuel] Greydanus and hearing his stories of bravery in World War II, I have become inspired to live a life that will serve as a positive contribution for the generations to come." — Jill Scholten, English 101 paper

The required reading fit into the overall plan for the course very well, however, as Ridolphi, of Chicago, Ill., and 19 other classmates were each assigned a semester-long project of recording the oral history of a World War II veteran.

The idea for the project occurred when Calvin English professor Jennifer Holberg read an article in the Grand Rapids Press this past summer about the Veterans History Project.

"Concerned that history may die along with 1,500 American war veterans every day, archivists are launching an urgent effort to get their stories on video and audio tapes," the Press said. Submissions of both video tapes and written materials are being collected by the United States Library of Congress, where they will be kept on permanent record.

"I was immediately intrigued with the idea," said Holberg, who has been teaching English at Calvin since and was named "Professor of the Year" by the Class of 2002. "I'm always looking for anything we can do to make students feel like their writing counts more."

More Online
Veterans History Project
The Library of Congress American Folklife Center is coordinating the Veterans History Project. Find out how to participate and listen to veterans' stories.

English Department
Faculty; courses; articles; resources for teaching and research

When Holberg began building a syllabus for the class over the summer, her biggest concern was whether or not enough veterans would respond. She began by talking to retired Calvin professors and putting an announcement in Grand Rapids-area church bulletins. The response was overwhelming.

"I ended up with more veterans than I had students," said Holberg. Because of the great response, she enlisted the help of colleague Chip Pollard. "I felt bad about not being able to do all of their stories," she said.

Together the duo assigned 39 students to capture the memories of 30 veterans first on videotape and eventually in a written biography.

Motivating Students
Pollard was drawn to the idea because he thought writing "real" stories would benefit his students.

"I am first and foremost a teacher," he said. "I saw this as a motivating tool for my students to be better writers. Students come into my class thinking that their writing is a secret thing between the professor and themselves. One of the advantages of this kind of assignment is that the stakes are raised a little higher. Their writing is not a secret message to me; a lot of people are going to read it."

Ben Ottenhoff, of Palos Heights, Ill., admitted to being a bit apprehensive about the project.

"I have never done anything like this," he said. "Preparing for the interviews and thinking about what to ask was all new to me. Knowing it was going to the Library of Congress for future use was interesting. It made me think about getting it right."

Moving Stories

Anastasia Barnett interviews Gerrit Van Vels - click to enlarge image
Anastasia Barnett interviews Gerrit Van Vels, a Word War II veteran.

It was the stories that really got to Anastasia Barnett of St. Louis, Mo. "You can't get the true feeling of a human heart in a book about the strategic ways in which World War II was won," she said.

Barnett interviewed Gerrit VanVels, of Grandville, Mich., for her project. VanVels, 81, was a private in the 82nd Airborne Division, which landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944—D-Day.

"The memories are much more vivid to me than some things that happened a month ago," VanVels said of his experience. "I distinctly remember sitting in the plane at 7:30 in the morning on D-Day. It was still dark out."

Later, VanVels jumped from that plane and landed between the Allied aircraft line and the infantry that was coming ashore by boat.

"The whole aura of men being placed in situations where you couldn't feel that you would survive is an overwhelming feeling," he said. "I didn't know exactly what I was getting into, but I knew it [D-Day] was a big thing. I was scared, but I was trained to jump so I figured I better get on with it."

He described the situation upon landing: "There were black puffs around you where anti-aircraft was exploding. Tracer bullets were flying over your head, and you could hear planes being shot down. That's an eerie, terrible sound."

"He [Mr. Van Vels] was hit by a shell and kept going through the pain because he knew his job to carry the ammunition for the machine gun team was important to the mission. His own physical pain was not his number one priority." — Anastasia Barnett, English 101 paper

Half of VanVels' company did not return. VanVels himself was shot on July 4, 1944.

"I was shot in the throat; my arm was shattered, and shells exploded near me and hit me in the back," he said. "I couldn't move. I didn't know if I was going to bleed to death or the Germans would find me or what was going to happen. I remember a soldier giving me a shot of morphine, and the next thing I knew I was in a field hospital."

VanVels eventually made his way back to Grandville, Mich., where he raised a family and became longtime owner of Grandville Floral.

Stories like VanVels' are the ones that the government hopes to preserve through the Veterans History Project.

"I never experienced the mentality of a whole country at war," said Barnett. I've never had friends drafted, but this experience happened to a real person. It's pretty awesome."

That has been the reaction of most of the students, according to Holberg. "When you hear the narrative of one person who was there, it gives a much richer perspective. We might know how many people died, but to hear that our veterans stood there freezing in a trench for however many days—now it's not just statistics."

Making an Impact
Arie VanWingerden, 82, is hoping that his story will serve to inform a younger generation.

"I think that some of these young kids don't know what the war was all about," he said. "They don't know what their parents or grandparents went through. This makes it more true to life."

The memories easily come to life for VanWingerden, who flew in B-24s as a flight engineer.

VanWingerden was involved in several missions taking out bridges over the River Kwai. He still owns a notebook in which every one of his missions, including date and time, is recorded.

Each of the veterans interviewed has his or her own amazing stories. Most of them came back to live quite ordinary lives and hadn't shared a lot of their experiences until they participated in this project.

Syne Bierma - click to enlarge image
Syne Bierma '48 reflects on his days in the Air Force.

"I've recalled a lot of things that I haven't recalled, haven't thought about in a long, long time," said Syne Bierma, a 1948 Calvin alumnus who taught English at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Mich., for 27 years.

Bierma signed on for the project because he thought he had at least one interesting event to talk about, he said.

"I thought people might like to know what it's like to be on a boat hit by a kamikaze plane," he said.

Bierma, who was in the U.S. Air Force at the time, was aboard a landing ship for aircraft when the boat was struck by a manned Japanese plane on Dec. 15, 1944. The boat went down, and Bierma was floating in the South Pacific for some time before he was rescued. Nine men died in the attack—all sailors.

Neicia Meyer and Jayne Schemper - click to enlarge image
Neicia Meyer (top) and Jayne Schemper record an interview with Syne Bierma.

Like Bierma's, each veteran's story had some amazing qualities, Holberg said.

"We had a typist who typed all of the surrender papers for the Germans. We had bomber pilots in England who were involved in the bombing of Germany. We had two O.S.S. officers involved in the intelligence side of the war. We had soldiers involved in the occupation of Japan," she said. "And all of their stories are interesting."

"But, really, it's easy to justify the telling of anyone's story," Holberg added. "Isn't that what our faith teaches us—ordinary people are extraordinary? Every story is worth telling. Every person is valuable. That's just one more important lesson in all of this."

— Lynn Rosendale is Calvin's publications coordinator.